MOU: Memorandum of Unequals

If #shiftthepower is to be more than the catchphrase du jour among progressive development professionals, we must reconsider how MOUs are developed and ratified among development partners. All too often, the MOU development process reflects the historical inequalities between the global north and the global south, i.e., white, western, development funder/practitioners and their brown-skinned beneficiaries. To avoid repeating or reinforcing exploitative power dynamics, NGOs must alter how they develop and formalize partnerships. Rather than unilaterally writing partnership parameters and expectations, then sending them to a prospective partner, we must embrace the MOU development process as a way to communicate and perhaps even prove our post-colonial bona fides.

It is imperative that the MOU creation process be thoughtful, deliberate, and mindful of history. Saying the MOU was “discussed” and “revised” before signing might obscure the coercion inherent in an agreement between unequal parties, particularly between those with and without wealth. The trope of the smiling and nodding project beneficiary, a person whose economic circumstances render them unable to say “no,” can be as much a reality among potential partners as it is between an NGO and a potential beneficiary.

If equality and equity are among the stated values of a development organization, the MOU development process must be reconstructed in light of historic colonial abuses. We mustn’t send pre-printed boilerplate agreements to potential partners who are in no position to negotiate. Rather, we must develop an emergent process that allows all parties to participate in the MOU writing process.

At Shanta, we embrace the opportunity to learn from success AND failure. As we work toward expansion into Zambia, we are pioneering an emergent MOU development process that amplifies the voice of the potential partner organization. Beginning with just the section headings one might find on a typical development partnership MOU, we are cowriting the MOU with our prospective partner, PAF (People’s Action Forum). Using software like Google Docs, all parties can write and edit simultaneously, removing one obstacle to an equitable process. The agreement will be coauthored rather than the funding party preparing a document for the recipient to “review.” We believe this will result in a more equitable process and product, further deconstructing the vestiges of colonialism so evident in widely accepted development processes.