Partnership is a key idea in current debates about global health and development assistance, yet little is known about what partnership means to those who are responsible for operationalising it or how it is experienced in practice. This is particularly the case in the context of African health systems. This paper explores how health professionals working in global health hubs and the health systems of South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia understand and experience partnership. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with 101 professionals based in each country, Washington DC and Geneva between October 2012 and June 2013, the paper makes four key arguments. First, partnership has a legitimating function in global health policy processes for international development institutions, government agencies and civil society organisations alike. Second, the practice of partnership generates idiosyncratic and complicated relationships that health professionals have to manage and navigate, often informally. Third, partnership is shaped by historical legacies, critical events, and independent consultants. Fourth, despite being an accepted part of global health policy, there is little shared understanding of what good partnership is meant to include or resemble in practice. Knowing more about the specific socio-cultural and political dynamics of partnership in different health system contexts is critical to equip health professionals with the skills to build the informal relations that are essential to effective partnership engagement.
Keywords: Africa; Global health and development assistance; Health policy; Health professionals; Health systems; Partnerships.
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