Michael J. Hatton / Kent Schroeder


This article focuses on the reciprocal benefits that flow from international adult education partnerships involving adult education organizations from the global North and South. In particular, it documents how the work of Southern partners benefits adult education in the North. The authors conclude that more value and emphasis needs to be placed on the partnership contributions of Southern partners in order to avoid the paternalism that characterized much past international collaboration. Michael J. Hatton is Vice President at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Kent Schroeder is International Project Director of the Business School at Humber College.

International Adult Education Partnerships: Much More than a One Way Street



North-South partnerships have become a hallmark of international development and collaborative adult education practice. Educational institutions and NGOs located in the global North and involved in adult education are increasingly partnering with organizations in the global South. This growing popularity of partnering is rooted in its perceived benefits. On a conceptual level, partnership is a strategy that involves shared objectives, resources, responsibilities and accountabilities. For international adult education partnerships in particular, the benefit of working within an international partnership framework is that it not only increases Southern partners’ access to financial resources, but increases both Southern and Northern partners’ access to human, technical and intellectual resources as well. This pooling of resources promotes increased effectiveness of programming, enhances efficiency and generates greater creativity (Brinkerhoff 2002; Googins & Rochlin 2000; Lowndes & Skelcher 1998). The result, at least conceptually, should be reciprocal impacts that produce benefits for each of the partners, though most certainly not the same benefits in the same measure.

In practice, however, the notion of reciprocal benefits often gets lost within the tendency to focus solely on the benefits an international partnership brings to the Southern partner. What has not been well studied, or even articulated in a detailed manner, is what reciprocity in international adult education partnerships actually looks like for Northern partners. We rarely talk about how Southern partner participation benefits the Northern partner. This is a significant oversight and a disservice to our Southern colleagues as it perpetuates the notion that partnership benefits flow in one direction, with the Southern partner as the only beneficiary and the Northern partner as the sole contributor.

This article addresses this issue by outlining some of the benefits that accrue to Northern partners in international adult education partnerships. The article is based on the experience of Humber College, a Canadian educational institution that has been actively involved with international adult education partnerships for over 20 years. By focusing on the benefits of partnership to Northern organizations, the article provides readers with a stronger sense of how the work of Southern partners in international partnerships benefits adult education in the North.

Partnership Benefits for Northern Organizations

The promotion of international development partnerships, in general, is a strategy that seeks to avoid the paternalism that characterized much past practice by promoting shared responsibilities and accountabilities. Despite the change in general strategy, international adult education partnerships continue to be most often described as formed primarily, if not entirely, around the activity of building capacity for and within the Southern partner organizations. This programming most often involves strengthening such areas as curriculum design, adult education pedagogy, training support and program management.

In most cases, the Northern partner’s role is to provide training and financial resources that enable the Southern partner to strengthen its own ability to provide effective adult education. Yet given the commitment to undertake this type of relationship within a partnership framework, with its notions of shared responsibilities, accountabilities and benefits, a uni-directional transfer of skills, knowledge and benefits falls well short of the partnership model. True partnership will address the needs and engage the abilities of both partners in a reciprocal flow of benefit.

This emphasis on the North to South flow is not to say there are no benefits for the Northern partner. In fact, there are benefits, and these can be significant. But the day-to-day focus of partnership work on Southern capacity building can inadvertently deflect attention from the benefits brought to Northern partners, which tend to be less visible and immediate. As a Northern partner, it is quite easy to get caught up in the work of strengthening the Southern partner and not take time to reflect on and publicize the partnership’s impacts in the North. This can also minimize the potential for the Northern partner to make full use of the partnership, and thus forgo many of the benefits. Perhaps most importantly, the primary emphasis on Southern partner capacity building deprives Southern partners of a sense that their inputs are contributing in an important and valued fashion to the partnership. The result can be a perception that the partnership rhetoric of mutual benefit is not matching the practice.

This misperception is often enhanced by requests for proposals from funding agencies that emphasise delineation of Southern benefits, sometimes to the point where that is the only foundation for propos-als. This is further exacerbated by required reporting that in many cases also ensures detail is resolutely fixed on Southern development with no opportunity to note Northern results.

Northern partners therefore need to be more active in valuing and enumerating the benefits they receive through working in international adult education partnerships. In our experience working in a variety of partnerships with African, Asian and Caribbean organizations, these benefits directly and significantly enhance programming, institutional development and human resource development in Northern partners. They also contribute to larger societal benefits.

A. Programming and Curriculum Benefits Enhanced skills for educating multicultural students

Immigration policies in much of the North, and Canada in particular, have created extremely diverse populations, with cultural representation from much of the world. This diversity is reflected in the student composition and directly affects the learning environment in our adult education programs and classrooms. Diverse cultures bring diverse cultural norms, behaviours, values and learning styles, yet these can go unnoticed and unaddressed within the Northern adult education classroom, detracting from successful learning. Our experience clearly indicates that working in international adult education partnerships enables Northern partners to build specific skills that attend to this issue. Specifically, experience gained through engaging with Southern partners provides Northern partners with an intense cultural immersion experience that creates a better understanding of other cultures’ values, behaviours and needs. This builds cross-cultural competency and skills that can then be applied to adult education programs and classrooms in the North. For the Northern partner, the result is an ability to deliver its own adult education programming in a manner that more effectively educates and meets the needs of its culturally diverse population.

Increased depth of curriculum and diversity of delivery methods

International partnership projects that involve capacity building often involve personnel from the Northern partner delivering training to personnel from the Southern partner. This training is then incorporated into the adult education work of the Southern partner. Personnel from our institution who have been involved in such training typically note that Southern partner training audiences have higher expectations and ask more demanding questions than typical learners in the North.

In order to meet these higher expectations and demands, Northern trainers must often revise and deepen their curriculum. Further, developing more diverse and interactive delivery methods is also needed to meet Southern audience training expectations and needs. The result is more effective training, curriculum and delivery methods that can then be translated into adult education practice at home.

Increased global perspective within curriculum

Internationalization is increasingly the watchword of Northern adult education. Equipping students with the knowledge and skills to function effectively in a globalized world is key to much adult education programming in the North. Working closely with Southern partners and learning about their experiences, methods, successes and challenges is one of the most effective ways to infuse a global perspective into Northern organizations. Our experience shows that this global perspective is then often incorporated directly into the curriculum. The result is an adult education experience that broadens the worldview of Northern students. This is critical in a greatly interconnected world that values and rewards those who have the knowledge and skills to engage with the world. The experience and knowledge of Southern partners that is shared with Northern partners therefore contributes to a globalized curriculum that leads to stronger graduates of adult education programs in the North.

B. Institutional Development Stronger institutional capacity to negotiate with stakeholders

Working with Southern organizations within an international partnership framework enables Northern adult education organizations to hone negotiation skills that can be further used with a broad range of stakeholders at home, from government to business to community. If success is to be achieved in an international partnership, where partners likely have vastly different needs, resources, and institutional contexts, both partners must develop an ability to negotiate and reach decisions rooted in compromise, recognition of mutual benefit, and respect for the constraints and opportunities that may be imposed by the other partner’s vastly different context. This provides an unparalleled learning experience for Northern partners. The skills developed through international partnership negotiations equip Northern partners with the ability to better negotiate with their own regular stakeholders, and to do so from a partnership perspective, rather than through a win-lose perspective.

Greater understanding of institutional strengths and gaps, leading to better staffing

The nature of international collaborative work frequently pushes Northern partners to critically assess their own performance. This, in turn, contributes to a greater understanding of their own institutional capacity, including both strengths and gaps. Collaborative planning with Southern partners, who bring different institutional and cultural perspectives, is particularly effective in prodding Northern partners to gain a keener sense of where their institutional strengths lie and where capacity gaps exist. This is further enhanced by the day-to-day administrative tasks associated with such partnerships, such as proposal development and report writing, which demand that Northern partners reflect on and critically analyze their own institutional capacity. Ultimately, this improved understanding of institutional strengths and gaps enables Northern institutions to pursue a more strategic approach to staffing in order to take advantage of institutional strengths and to fill institutional gaps.

C. Human Resource Development Professional development of staff

Southern partners provide Northern partners with a powerful professional development experience. Colleagues from the South expose Northern partner staff to different training methods and administrative practices, often within a context of limited resources and infrastructure. In our experience, this exposure to different practices prompts adult education practitioners in the North to critically analyze their own assumptions about good curriculum design and teaching techniques. This critical analysis, in turn, enables them to further enrich their skills, deepening their effectiveness as adult educators.

Personal development

It is not uncommon for personnel from the Northern partner who take part in international partnership activities in the South to be fundamentally changed by the encounter. Experiencing life in the South, even for a short time, and interacting with Southern partner personnel can significantly shift a person’s perspective on how we in the North should relate to the South. Northern partner personnel often return with a greater interest in addressing issues of illiteracy, poverty and social exclusion in both the South and the North. In a Northern political climate where taxpayers are often uneasy about funding international work, the ability of international partnerships to shift individual opinions is a significant outcome.

D. Societal Benefits


Greater tolerance and cross-cultural appreciation in the North

While not the focus of international adult education partnerships, such partnerships contribute in a small way to the promotion of greater tolerance and cross-cultural appreciation within Northern societies. Engaging with Southern partners exposes individuals from the North to new cultures, values and behaviours that would otherwise not likely be experienced. These experiences are particularly significant when Northern partner staff who take part in activities in the South experience life as a minority. This is something that most people who make up the dominant culture in North America or Europe do not experience and are not sensitive to, despite the many ethnic minority groups that make up Northern populations. By experiencing life as a minority, Northern partner personnel often gain greater empathy upon their return home for the often difficult experience minorities face in the North. This contributes to greater understanding and, ideally, harmony among ethnic groups.








Different cultural experiences bring an increased global perspective to both Northern and Southern partners Source: Michael Hatton / Kent Schroeder

Confronting the Realities of Globalization

International adult education partnerships insert Northern partners, as well as Southern partners, directly into the process of globalization. Working together exposes both partners to the complex mixture of difficulties and inequities associated with globalization, as well as the strengths and benefits globalization brings to both the North and South. Ultimately, this experience brings all of us involved in international partnerships to a better awareness of how we can contribute positively across borders within a globalized world.


The benefits derived from international adult education partnerships that flow to Northern partners are significant. Good partnership practice can indeed result in mutual benefits if we take time to recognize them. We in the North need to make a greater effort to publicize these benefits so that our Southern colleagues get a better sense of how their partnership contributions benefit adult education practice in the North. This can be done in a variety of ways, from detailing Northern partner benefits in funding reports, to providing forums for Southern partner colleagues who visit the North to share their knowledge directly with Northern partners. This will assist in building a better understanding among both Northern and Southern partners of the mutual benefits partnership brings. Ultimately, this will make the practice of partnership more accurately reflect its principles and deepen its results.


Brinkerhoff, J. (2002). Partnership for International Development: Rhetoric of Results? Boulder: Lynne Reinner.

Googins, S. and Rochlin, S. (2000) Creating the Partnership Society: Understanding the Rhetoric and Reality of Cross-Sectoral Partnerships. Business – Society Review
105(1), 127–144.

Lowndes, N. and Skelcher, C. (1998). The Dynamics of Multi-Organizational Partnerships: An Analysis of Changing Modes of Governance. Public Administration 76(2), 313–333.

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