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Why and when to partner

The collaboration imperative

Collaboration across business, governments, the UN, donors and NGOs is fundamental to delivering sustainable development and tackling climate change. Only by understanding our shared interest – a prosperous economy, a thriving society and a healthy environment – and by collectively applying the scale and diversity of resources brought by all sectors – from policy and investment through to capacity development and technical innovation – can we hope to ensure widescale, transformational change.

The essential need for multi-sectoral, collective action was institutionalised into both development and business agendas by the launch of the 2030 Agenda in 2015. Since then, global threats including climate breakdown, the energy crisis, societal inequality, pandemic and ill-health from obesity have further demonstrated how interlinked, complex and urgent are the challenges the world faces, and how all-of-society approaches are needed to tackle them.

In general, partnerships can happen whenever three key elements are in place:

In other words, there needs to be a sufficient alignment of interest among the partners, that they can get behind a shared vision, and the benefits they all gain are sufficient incentive to partner. Further, given the amount of time and effort partnerships take, they should be able deliver considerably more than the sum of their parts.

Deciding when to partner

Partnerships between business, the public sector and civil society are not the answer to all sustainable development challenges, and there is clearly a risk if partnerships are simply adopted in a random way or in inappropriate circumstances. 

Some key questions to ask prior to considering a partnership approach to sustainable development might include: 

  • what has been done to address this issue already? 
  • could it be better / quicker / more economic for an existing single sector approach to be improved / strengthened? 
  • what evidence is there that a partnership approach would work better? 
  • are there examples of a partnership having worked well in similar circumstances? 
  • are there potential partners available / interested / appropriately equipped? 
  • will there be genuine ‘value-added’ (as opposed to a convenient alignment of interests)? 

In any event, it is usually important to do considerable ‘scoping’ prior to committing to a partnership and, possibly, to do some pilot collaborative work in a pre-partnership phase to see how the relationships go and whether the benefits outweigh the risks and the transaction costs. 

Some practitioners are beginning to be more cautious about when and where a partnership is likely to work well. For example, questions have been raised about whether a partnership can ever work when: 

  • one of the sectors is weak and is, in effect, being carried by the other(s)? 
  • corruption is rife and it is simply not possible to build trust between the key players? 
  • past conflicts are unresolved and therefore key players feel hostile, hurt or unsafe with each other? 
  • there is a breakdown in the rule of law? 
  • negative / destructive behaviour (whether by individuals or whole organisations) is not addressed? 

These are critical questions and our current view (open to discussion and evidence to the contrary, of course) is that partnerships will only operate successfully in any of these circumstances if the partners address the issue as a core part of their partnering activities. In other words, it is not a case of ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away; it won’t, and it is likely to undermine the partnership to such an extent that it becomes dysfunctional. 

Partnering in difficult contexts

In places emerging from conflict or struggling to mitigate the debilitating impacts of corruption or natural disasters or grinding poverty is there a place for cross-sector partnerships at all? 

This is a challenging question. For instance for UN personnel who are being required to operate increasingly as ‘partners’ in countries where the sectors with whom they are expected to partner are largely dysfunctional. In these circumstances, partnerships wherever they can be created will be an essential means of building and strengthening civil society, business and government rather than replacing them with alternative and largely unaccountable delivery systems. 

Our experience suggests that even in the most extreme circumstances where working collaboratively across the sectors is currently extremely difficult, it is still possible to lay the foundations of the idea of partnership as a practical mechanism for nurturing local or community-based economic and social development. This is because promoting the idea of cross-sector partnerships helps not only in reconciliation and dealing with past, but also provides a way for generating a much-needed vision for the future, which is strongly linked to local needs, circumstances, resources and development opportunities.

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