Achieving the post-2015 development agenda will require the use of partnership at an unprecedented scale. Here’re some key elements necessary to make that happen.
Last week’s report from the High Level Panel on the post-2015 development, rightly puts cross-sectoral collaboration squarely at the heart of achieving sustainable development, and reiterates the vital role business can and must play as a partner in development: “each priority area identified in the post-2015 agenda should be supported by dynamic partnerships”.
Although it’s a message that bears repeating, we’ve heard this plenty of times before. There have been a long line of reports and international processes going back 20 years with similar recommendations. Mentioned at the first Rio World Summit in 1992, and an important outcome of the Jo’burg Summit in 2002, public-private collaboration and the idea of transformational partnerships dominated much of the talk at Rio+20 last year and has been a key component of the aid effectiveness community’s agenda since their triennial meeting in Busan in 2011. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has partnership running as an essential thread throughout its Vision 2050 report on achieving global sustainability and the UN Global Compact sees partnership as key mechanism for its members to contribute to the MDGs.
Despite a growing tapestry of collaborative action, some of it very successful, the use of partnerships remains highly sporadic. Most partnerships are isolated, the quality and effectiveness of many are limited and, despite their increasing use, in terms of volume we are still only scratching at the surface compared with the scale of global challenges. The rhetoric on collaboration is light years ahead of the implementation and impact of partnerships.
So, what is holding back the scaling up and mainstreaming of partnerships?
One challenge is that despite a widespread acceptance at international level, there is often reticence and suspicion in country. This is exacerbated by an overuse of the word ‘partnership’ itself with sometimes subtle and sometimes fundamental differences in understanding and meaning. The term ‘public-private partnership’, for example, is used to describe a plethora of different arrangements from a simple business-NGO collaboration to a core-business, profit-making ‘regulated’ partnership delivering public services or infrastructure, such as the PFIs in the UK. This latter type not only requires a completely different approach contractually and procedurally, but is considered by many as a form of privatisation and can encounter significant ideological resistance. Moving to a common language and definitions around collaboration and partnership would help set a stronger basis for moving forward.
The main challenge, however, is that partnering across societal sectors is much easier to espouse than it is to implement. It requires overcoming traditional mindsets, getting people to think differently and take risks; finding and convening organisations with different drivers, resources, timescales, values and cultures; agreeing common objectives that fulfil all sides’ needs; building trust and equity between the partners; and supporting the partners to operate effectively together outside of their usual comfort zones. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that organisations are rarely well set up for partnership, and individuals often lack understanding of other sectors and the skills and experience necessary to partner effectively.
In addition, while there are a growing number of ‘global’ partnerships such as ‘Every Woman, Every Child’ or ‘Sustainable Energy for All’, there is often a disconnect with the country-level, where there are few mechanisms to catalyse partnership development.
If we are to hope to deliver the post-2015 development agenda, we need to begin to implement actions that will help make partnerships happen at a scale that will dwarf our current efforts. We need a collective and coordinated effort to drive the systematic engagement of business as an effective partner in development.
For almost a decade, The Partnering Initiative has been working directly with companies, the UN, NGOs, governments and donors to support public-private collaboration through capacity building, strategic organisational development and partnership brokering. Recently, with the Swedish International Development Agency and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we’ve started developing multi-stakeholder platforms in Zambia and Colombia to support collaborative action.
From our experiences, we see four levels at which concerted action is essential:
- Individuals: We need to scale up the level of partnership literacy – the skills and understanding required for effective partnering – across all sectors. Specialist training courses, online and in person, should be made much more accessible; business schools and public policy schools should include partnering within their standard curricula to help mainstream the concepts. Funders of partnership projects should insist on a certain level of competency in partnering just as they do for financial or project management skills.
- Organisations: Organisations need to adapt the way they are set up and operate to ensure they are ‘fit to partner’: that they have the right internal systems and processes, staff capacities and culture to support, rather than inhibit, collaborative working. Donor and development agencies should mainstream engagement with the private sector within their work rather than in separate partnership units; governments need to engage business in the consultation for and implementation of their development plans; companies need to better understand the landscape of development actors in the areas in which they work and where necessary help to build capacity of those actors.
- Partnerships: Partnerships need access to specialist support to help them develop as quickly and robustly as possible. There needs to be stronger quality assurance of partnerships to ensure they are operating as efficiently as possible and new approaches to measuring the business and development benefits to allow proper cost / benefit analysis of the investments made.
- Platforms: We need to see in all countries multi-stakeholder platforms that can drive partnership action by making the case for the societal and business benefits of collaboration; bringing together business, government, NGOs and international agencies to build trust and co-generate innovative ideas; build capacity to partner and directly support the development of new partnerships.
All of this is a significant undertaking. For this to happen at scale, we need to adapt and build on existing initiatives and structures and engage a range of interested actors on the ground – business associations, governments, NGOs and development agencies – to take on the role of ‘brokering’ or intermediary organisations and set up multi-stakeholder platforms in-country. It also requires deepening an eco-system of enabling organisations: training providers and universities to build partnering capacity; professional consultants to help broker partnerships and provide support for organisational change; and research institutes to measure impact and gather evidence.
As an approach to achieving this, The Partnering Initiative is actively exploring the creation of a facility or ‘Centre of Excellence’ with a range of global partners that can collectively raise the standards of public/private collaboration, develop capacity of in-country actors and build the mechanisms necessary to unleash the power of business as a partner in development.
By building the enabling architecture and focusing on catalysing action, we can raise our level of ambition and turn 20 years’ rhetoric on the essential need to scale cross-sector collaboration for development into the reality.
A version of this blog originally appeared on Guardian Sustainable Business and is reproduced with the permission of the author.