How can INGOs shift power in partnerships to build climate resilience?

Jessica Valerani Climate Change, Innovation, Power Shifts

Convening, brokering and co-creating must be at the heart of how INGOs such as Oxfam work in future with urban communities to build resilience to climate shocks. Jessica Valerani introduces a new paper that draws lessons from a recent collaboration between communities, governments, the UN and Oxfam in south-eastern Africa.

Foundations of a new evacuation centre in Malawi, which offers local people refuge in the event of floods (picture: Jessica Valerani/Oxfam)

Half of humanity already lives in urban centres, and that proportion will rise to two thirds by 2050. Making cities resilient to climate shocks and warming is therefore hugely important. Informal settlements in urban areas will feel the impacts of climate change most acutely and strengthening resilience in these neighbourhoods is a particularly urgent challenge.

Such climate resilience building encompasses a broad range of interventions but examples might include flood protection; greening of urban spaces; reconstructing bridges and other infrastructure; creating safe havens in disasters (see picture, above); or upgrading drainage and sewage. To deliver such projects, many stakeholders will need to work together effectively including communities, governments, researchers, civil society and agencies, including international NGOs such as Oxfam.

In this blog, we look at key lessons for such “multi-stakeholder partnerships” contained in our new learning paper, “The role of partnership in building effective urban resilience”. The paper draws on interviews with stakeholders in the Building Urban Climate Resilience in South-Eastern Africa” project, a collaboration between Oxfam, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the DIMSUR disaster risk reduction partnership, governments, and selected municipalities in Malawi, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Union of the Comoros.

The importance of power and tackling power imbalances

Our interviews reveal how power dynamics, both explicit and implicit, play a crucial role in multi-stakeholder partnerships for urban climate resilience. Power imbalances exist based on factors such as institutional authority, access to resources, knowledge, and influence.

For instance, interviewees described the most common form of decision-making in partnerships as “informal consensus”, i.e., based on what we may call a “silent consensus” where “less powerful” partners tacitly agree with “more powerful” partners.

So how can Oxfam, as an international NGO, effectively address these imbalances? In our paper, we reflect on how Oxfam can best position itself in such partnerships, and what Oxfam’s added value really is in such initiatives for urban resilience.

Convening, brokering and bridge-building

Interviewees saw a key part of Oxfam’s added value in multi-stakeholder partnerships as its ability to convene partners around agreed outcomes and goals and to provide clarity on the roles and responsibilities of each partner, although this has been described as “easier said than done” (see below).

The convening role is important as our paper shows how vital is it that all partners clearly define the common purpose that brings them together to make positive change. It was noted that a successful partnership should be based on agreed and co-designed interventions to achieve the goals set together, but that the partnership should also recognise the specific and individual motivations and goals of each partner.

Interviewees also see as useful Oxfam’s ability to operate at different levels (from local to national, regional and international) and interact with a wide range of actors from communities to CSOs, governments, the private sector, UN agencies and academia.

The role of bridge-builder or broker – was also often mentioned when referring to Oxfam’s work with national and local governments. Partnering with local government was seen to increase the effectiveness of programmes, ensuring that transformative change is owned by local actors and is sustainable.

However, the perception from local government is collaboration needs to move towards broader relationships that don’t just focus on one-off projects. As one participant said: “Partnerships with local government are often project-based and only established when working in a specific local area of the country where the change is taking place.”

A new formula for power sharing

Our analysis of partnerships raises fundamental questions about the power held by each partner. Although there is recognition of Oxfam’s positive role in supporting partners to take over the lead in project implementation, there are also questions over each stakeholder’s precise roles, responsibilities, and accountability, something which is rarely discussed and which will need to be spelled out more clearly.

Undoubtedly partnerships in the future will be a testing ground for new models of governance and new formulas of power sharing; that means looking at how partners interact, share information and learnings and make evidence-based decisions. Specific measures to shift power to traditionally less influential partners may be needed, such as regulations to ensure more resources are channelled to those with less opportunities.

In general, our paper points to a future where partners are no longer seen as service providers but instead work in an equitable framework of mutual learning: as our interviewees put it, “sharing the steering wheel”. In fact in the medium term, partners should be able to make requests directly to governments as they build capacity and independence. Oxfam in this context will be a facilitator and not the owner of the project, which should be owned by the community and the government.

Resilience is a feminist issue

Resilience is a feminist issue: urban spaces – especially on the periphery where the most vulnerable live – are not conducive to women’s safety and security. This can be seen in the lack of urban transportation, unmaintained and poorly lit roads, and bridges that become easily inaccessible.

A key priority must therefore be to let women’s organizations speak for themselves in resilience partnerships, to challenge patriarchal cultures or contexts. In this kind of partnership, we envisage Oxfam playing an enabling role by ensuring a steady flow of financial support and resources to women-led projects and partners and amplifying the work and voices of local women’s organisations.

Five ways to build more equitable partnerships

We recommend focusing on five broad areas that will support shifting power in partnerships to build urban resilience.

  1. Inclusivity and Representation. Ensuring diverse representation across stakeholder groups is essential to address power imbalances. This includes actively involving marginalised communities, women, youth, and indigenous groups in decision-making processes, ensuring their voices are heard and their needs are understood.
  2. Gender justice. In its role of “convener”, Oxfam should also play a key role in facilitating the establishment of gender-transformative partnerships.
  3. Capacity Building. Strengthening the capacity of all stakeholders, particularly marginalised groups, is crucial for meaningful participation. Providing training, resources, and technical support can empower communities and enable them to contribute effectively to urban climate resilience projects.
  4. Transparency and Accountability. Establishing transparent and accountable mechanisms for evidence-based decision-making, resource allocation, and project implementation helps in mitigating power imbalances. Regular communication, feedback loops, learning activities and external evaluation can enhance trust and ensure equitable outcomes.
  5. Co-creation and Knowledge Sharing. Foster collaborative approaches that facilitate co-creation of solutions and knowledge sharing. This entails acknowledging and valuing different forms of knowledge, including scientific, indigenous, and experiential knowledge, to inform decision-making processes.

Above all, tackling power dynamics will ensure that decision-making processes are fair, resources are allocated equitably, and the voices of marginalised communities are adequately represented at local, national and international level. Only by embracing inclusive and collaborative approaches can we unleash the true potential of multi-stakeholder partnerships and build resilient cities that can withstand the challenges of our changing climate.


Jessica Valerani

Jessica Valerani is Communication and External Programmes Officer, Oxfam Italy

Find out more in the Learning Paper: “The role of partnership in building effective urban resilience”, by Silvia Testi, Benedetta Gualandi and Lorenzo Paoli