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The scale and complexity of the challenges ahead of us require a new ambition for how we collaborate across traditional divides. At Business Fights Poverty NYC 2019, we brought together experts and practitioners from business and the international development community for a roundtable discussion about how we can partner more effectively to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The session was part of a wider Challenge supported by the UK’s Department for International Development.In this article, I summarise some of the key themes that came out during the conversation in New York.
All participants recognized the significance of this moment - in which no country is currently on track to meet the full set of the SDGs, where some estimate the financing gap to be as high as $400bn.Break-through innovation is needed to achieve (and to bring down the cost of achieving) our ambitions for healthcare, education and the other internationally-agreed priorities.
Perhaps the single most important challenge ahead is achieving scale. For all those organisations actively engaged in driving social and environmental action through their programmes and policies, moving from deep programme-level impacts towards wider, system-level change is the next frontier for collaboration. A central question for donors is how they can incentivise and support this sort of system-level collective action.
Participants in the room, from across sectors and geographies, described exciting new ways in which governments and businesses are collaborating on issues ranging from tackling the gender gap in access to the mobile internet to enhancing access to better nutrition. Across the board, there is a desire to think bigger about what can be achieved together.
In every case, each player is having to take a fresh look at what they and others can bring to the table, whether that is sharing knowledge about the problem being tackled; contributing technical skills and on-the-ground capabilities to translate policy into action; or developing new models of blended finance and sharing risk.
One exciting development, highlighted by a number in the room, is the wave of young entrepreneurs who are bringing new energy and ideas to tackle some of society’s most pressing and seemingly intractable issues. Thinking about how to support, mentor and partner with these entrepreneurs should be a priority for donors and larger businesses. Drone delivery of health supplies was given as one example.
A common theme across successful partnerships - whether between two or multiple partners - is the importance of taking a joint approach to framing and understanding the issue, the theory of change and therefore the priorities for action. This unlocks the opportunity to move from transactional to transformational partnerships, something we explored around the time of last year’s New York event.
Being clear about the outcome also opens up the opportunity for greater flexibility in how to get there - and a franker discussion about what is working well and what needs to change. Focus on outcomes provides an incentive to fail fast, adapt and adjust approaches, and the safe-space needed to discuss trade-offs and practical challenges. All those in the room expressed a genuine interest in learning from each other and exploring what works and what does not.
In getting to a shared outcome, a number of participants flagged an important lesson from their experience: the most effective partnerships are where there is a benefit for all those collaborating. As one government donor in the room said, “donors should not be shy of business interests”. Where social impact solutions are also commercially sustainable, there is greater chance of scale and long-term impact.
Being clear about the challenge we are looking to tackle also creates the right focus for identifying and bringing together the right players. One example highlighted was a partnership between the World Food Programme, a nutrition company, a logistics company, and a digital payments company - each bringing their unique insights, data, and skills in a coordinated and concerted way. Another example was given of a beverage company applying its expertise in distribution to enhance the effectiveness of national health systems.
In the context of these partnerships, businesses bring new sources of innovation - around new products and services, or new business models that bring down the costs of meeting needs. They bring skills and local market knowledge, as well as finance that can leverage the investment of donors.
In discussing what donors bring to the table, participants highlighted their depth of understanding of development issues - with knowledge and technical know-how a key value add. At the same time, people highlighted their important convening power and networks, which can be harnessed to bring together pre-competitive conversations and collaborations.
A significant part of our conversation focused on another important role for donors - putting risk capital on the table, in the form of match funding, for example, to encourage businesses to try new or different approaches with the potential for greater impact. One participant gave the example of the Dutch model of “convertible grants” whereby a business repays the grant with a premium if (and only if) the project succeeds - enabling companies to fund a “validation phase” of a new innovation, and giving the space for learning from the failures that sometimes come with trying something different. As one participant said, “It takes lots of tries to get to scale”.
All of those at our roundtable have been involved in business-donor partnerships for many years - and all had ideas for how the process of partnering could be improved and made easier.
A number of people highlighted the burdens and lack of standardisation around monitoring and evaluation. A key to effective M&E, one participant felt, is aligning impact KPIs with business-relevant feedback from customers; giving businesses a clear incentive to measure what is most effective by supporting the pathway to commercial viability. It was felt M&E should also support long-term progress, not just short-term, quick wins.
Participants felt it is important to leverage and build upon existing partnerships. The first step for any donor or business should be to ask what other partnerships are already running. A key takeaway from the session was a recognition that we need to do more to map out what is already happening - such as around the various de-risking funds that are already available.
An interesting point was made about the need to build the story around collaborative action more effectively, including across a wider audience. Storytelling can help shift hearts and minds - in support of the need to work together, and also to support the effectiveness of the change these collaborations are seeking to drive.
We are keen to hear your views, insights, and examples. Please get in touch, and register for our Challenge on Business-Donor Partnerships. We’ll let you know about opportunities to participate in our planned series of in-person and online events.
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