By Laura Gossman

Over the last couple of months I have had the privilege of interviewing a handful of leaders from Africa that have partnered with Americans in varying degrees.  These leaders help run organizations that are doing incredible work to find sustainable solutions in alleviating poverty in their local context. The aim of this series was to shed light on any areas for improvement and consideration for both Africans and Americans alike.

Through the course of these interviews, it became clear that it would be helpful to provide the interviewees the option of anonymous feedback.  There were several themes that emerged from these anonymous comments, as well as some of my own observations throughout these conversations. All of them seem to reinforce some of the research that has already been done on this issue of partnerships of this kind.

Ndola, Zambia pastor partners with Forgotten Voices' USA, Zimbabwe and Zambia staff.

Ndola, Zambia pastor partners with Forgotten Voices’ USA, Zimbabwe and Zambia staff.

In his research on cross-cultural partnerships, Nathan Penner, PhD candidate from Fuller Theological Seminary states, “successful partnerships have the ability to make a lasting impact on all involved including the partners and the communities they serve. Partnerships that invest in relationships, operate with equality, demonstrate commitment through hard work and perseverance, and have demonstrable achievements can have a lasting impact in addressing poverty and are also an end in [itself]. These partnerships overcome historical injustices in Christian mission and development work and witness to the power of the Kingdom.” Each African I interviewed described varying aspects of success in this way, but each of them also expressed areas of concern and need for growth.

One of the African interviewees reflected that the rate at which people from the west operates is usually steps ahead of their African partner, but that relationships may not matter as much on the American side. Africans, on the other hand, are very relational even sometimes to their own destruction.  This African leader thinks a balance is possible, but it will never come easily.

This observation coincides with Penner’s research being done in a South African context. “However, when North Americans focused on achievements at the cost of relationships, or their partners emphasize relationships and equality at the cost of moving forward on projects and shared achievements, partnerships and relationships can break down reinforcing historical injustices and cultural divisions.”

Sometimes the goal of efficient projects left African leaders doubtful they could successfully complete various projects, because on occasion their American partner was convinced that because they were in Africa, one could obtain quality products or services for less because of the mentality that “all things must be cheaper in Africa.” While things are not as expensive as in the U.S., similar business rules apply in Africa where one should expect to pay a little more for higher quality.

Another African partner, while enormously grateful for the positive relationship with the American counterparts, shared that there have been a lot of assumptions Americans make based on information they gather on their own. Unfortunately, they also have experienced superiority and inferiority complexes in which the West assumes it holds the most knowledge to train and teach, whereas the African leaders assume a role of receiving this knowledge through materials, resources, etc. “When [these areas] are not observed due to exposure on both sides, then the partnership will experience a lot of conflict and resistance, which could make or break the situation,” said one interviewee. This person is convinced that partnerships work best with very mature people who exercise an incredible amount of patience, which is something that still remains very rare.

Care for AIDS staff jumping for joy.

Care for AIDS staff jumping for joy.

Brian Albright, PhD, also studied partnerships throughout Africa and shared additional insights at the beginning of this series, said, “true partnership is when our fates are inseparable.” While it was encouraging to see that many organizations were shaped by two or more fates and friendships from different cultures coming together, those receiving the services of these organizations and other stakeholders don’t always view the partnership as equal. As one African leader shared, the reality is that some donors trust “their own” more and want the reassurance of the American’s involvement. In a similar vein, Africans themselves oftentimes don’t see local organizations as credible or as trustworthy unless there is an international partner involved and believes that it can’t stand as its own entity.

Multiple African leaders reflected that while Americans’ emphasis of various types of expertise and education each person brings is important, failing to understand one another’s strengths and perceptions can be detrimental to building the mission of the organization and its holistic growth. As Albright observed through his own experience and countless interviews, “partnership magnifies difficulty, but multiplies opportunity.”

Throughout this series, I also observed something about organizational structures that could possibly speak volumes about what kind of partnership is taking place. I readily admit I may not be fully aware of most of the organizational history, professional reasons, or legal constraints, etc.  However, it did appear on several occasions, that many of the African co-founders were given ample credit as co-founders, but this did not always translate into equal representation in other leadership structures such as roles on the board, or titles given outside of co-founder.  Some of this was due to operational reasons, but it does raise the question, what does this communicate to the outsider?

Some undertones of hierarchy were observed even through some of the language the African leaders, and on some occasions the co-founders, used such as it being a “privilege” to “help Americans” build capacity for the organization or attend various leadership growth opportunities and meetings. While I admit it is easy to jump to conclusions based on nuances like this, it did leave me with an impression that there may be remnants of paternalism that linger from historical mistakes that occurred long before the dreams for these organizations even existed. While many partnerships have drastically improved over the decades, Albright concluded, “Successful partnerships must think beyond individuals or organizations coming together, considering the influence of external, historical, contextual factors.”



I found it interesting that some of my interviewees, after reading the first draft of their interview in which I used their own direct words, would want their constructive criticism re-worded to the point where the areas of needed growth were downplayed and sometimes even turned into a positive. While I don’t doubt the positive experiences of these leaders, it struck me that there was a sense of fear of not wanting to rock the boat too much when it came to honest feedback. That is why I decided it was imperative that their thoughts and concerns be heard, in an unedited fashion so that we, as American partners, might lean into the messy, but God-honoring fate for all of us to be co-bearers of His image in the Kingdom of God.

Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and a recent new mother to son Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman. She received her M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies from Fuller in 2006.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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