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A TPI lecture at the Royal Society of Medecine’s event “Global Health Partnerships: Buzzword or Breakthrough?”

When thinking about coordinated health efforts, it is important to note how the global development context has changed in the last few years. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, represent a fundamental shift in approach to development when compared to the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), and this shift has three salient aspects.

For a start, the 17 goals are incredibly comprehensive, covering essentially everything. They also demonstrate the absolute interconnectedness of different development issues. In the context of health partnerships, we can see how Goal 3, “ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages”, is intimately linked with goals 1, 2, and 6 – no poverty, zero hunger, clean water and sanitation – and also connects to all the environmental goals. This interconnectedness tells us we need far more systemic approaches to achieving development: we have to transform complex systems by looking holistically at multiple goals at once if we want to achieve lasting change.

The second major shift embedded in the global goals is around understanding the role of business and the connection between prosperity of business and prosperity of society. This means we need to look at an “all of society” approach, engaging business as a true partner in development. And this is where the third shift comes in: we need to see a real increase in effective collaboration across sectors as well as across issues if we want to achieve these targets and effect lasting change in society.

Why do we partner? Because through partnering we can achieve things that we can’t achieve alone, more effectively, more efficiently, and more sustainably. Partnerships are about creating maximum value for all from the resources available, and different sectors bring different resources. In the context of health partnerships, for example, NGOs might have technical expertise, access to communities, and bring legitimacy and social capital. The public sector brings all the resources and experience of the public health sector, the public systems and regulatory framework. Business brings market-based approaches and technological innovation, new services and approaches. Finally, donors provide knowledge, political connections and funding. These sectors can achieve far more together than alone.

When looking at these partnerships and what they can achieve, it is helpful to use a conceptual framework: a partnership spectrum that ranges from delivery to transformation, as illustrated in the graphic below.

These global partnerships can create added value in several crucial ways:

  • They can tackle complexity, transforming systems by bringing multiple partners together.
  • They can multiply impact through weight of action (in the case of health partnerships, this can be advocacy, or around eradication of disease).
  • They can support innovative approaches through combining expertise from multiple different areas; they can achieve greater efficiency through sharing resources and economies of scale. Finally
  • They are ideally placed to contribute to capacity building, exchange of learning, and setting norms and standards.

These partnerships can happen whenever there is enough of an alignment of interest between partners, as long as the partnerships are designed to ensure net value for each. This will be about each partner not only leveraging resources but also achieving their own specific strategic mission through the partnership, in addition to the overall goals of the partnership itself.

What TPI would like is to see a society that is intrinsically looking to collaborate to achieve more. We have limited resources on the planet and need to use them in ways where we align interests together and work effectively together to improve the societies we live in, and let business prosper at the same time as societies prosper, rather than at their expense. These partnerships can happen at all levels, from the systems level down to the community level, and even within organisations.

So, is partnership a buzzword or a breakthrough? For now, it may still be a bit of both, but it certainly has the potential to be the latter. There is a lot of rhetoric around partnership, but people have not yet necessarily quite realised what it takes to make it happen. This means that we need to see a lot more work from organisations, individuals, and multi-lateral organisations in order to create this sort of collaborative society and achieve the kind of breakthrough we would like to see.

Watch the lecture online


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Julia Gilbert Senior Programme Manager and Knowledge Lead

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