By Stuart Reid, TPI Associate
Platforms for partnership are a vital approach to more systematically drive the creation of cross-sector partnerships for development. They provide a systematic mechanism to convene government, business, NGOs, donors and other development actors around a particular issue or geography. They encourage innovative and creative collaborations, and directly support their development.
The evidence is available…
The Partnering Initiative’s study of platforms has brought together evidence from over forty published sources and nine original case studies of ongoing platforms. For the first time we have at our fingertips an overview of the factors that decide whether these multi-stakeholder initiatives flourish or wither. We can point with some confidence to the issues that need to be addressed at each stage of a platform’s development. We can share examples of both good and bad practice from real-life platforms around the world.
We know, for example, how important it is for new platforms to have secure funds supporting the creation of a strong core of staff who will give the platform focus, continuity and visibility. We know that it is vital to engage the support of high-profile leaders from government, the business community and civil society to give the platform credibility and to mobilise resources. We know that successful platforms are based on transparent and consistent dialogue between a wide range of representatives from different sectors, permitting knowledge exchange and generating reciprocal understanding and trust.
But there are complex issues to manage….
However, we also know – especially from the experience of those creating and managing platforms internationally – that many of these aspects of good practice bring with them costs and challenges which can endanger the viability of the enterprise. Indeed, as with other forms of complex partnership, there is a paradox at the heart of platforms: doing the right thing will inevitably also create obstacles to success. In other words, even where platform stakeholders understand good practice and are doing their best to implement it, there will be internal tensions that have to be resolved. It’s essential for anyone involved in the creation of a platform to recognise this fact – and build it into their planning.
The simplest example of this problem appears in the tension between inclusivity and administrative efficiency. There is widespread agreement that in-country platform initiatives need members representing a full range of relevant sectors and institutions, from central government to local enterprises. Consequently, many of the platforms that we studied had large numbers of formal participants, often totalling forty or more organisations. Such inclusivity contributes to effective consultation, credibility and alignment of goals. At the same time, it generates the challenges of managing communication, funding the high transaction costs of co-ordinating the network, and reconciling the diversity of opinions and approaches offered by the stakeholders. It also makes it more difficult to create a new and shared culture of partnership, which is needed to bind the stakeholders together over the long haul of developing, maturing and sustaining the platform.
Similar tensions are evident in other aspects of the practice observed in current platforms. For example, the need for high-profile champions in the early stages of development can compete with the need to establish a core secretariat for the platform as it moves into its implementation phase. At this point there is a greater need for institutionalisation of good practice and the creation of a central administrative structure. The secretariat needs to be adequately resourced and trusted to deliver the facilities required for successful new partnership projects. Over-reliance on high-profile individuals or on higher-level leadership intervention can constitute an obstacle to progress or, at worst, might undermine the role of the core management.
Which need to be planned for…
These inherent tensions in the platform-building process cannot be entirely eliminated: creating and sustaining a large-scale multi-stakeholder initiative will always be a challenging task, requiring substantial reserves of time, patience, expertise and resource. An awareness of this complexity will make stakeholders and managers better prepared to manage the developmental life-cycle of the platform. This is of particular importance to funders, to the initiators of the platform and to global networks that might be supporting the new initiative. These bodies will be most concerned with demonstrating value-for-money and with measuring the costs and benefits of their investment. Preparation for the likely challenges to platform success needs to be an integral part of early-stage planning and, in particular, of the allocation of resources to the support and facilitation of the platform.
Fortunately, the emerging evidence from platforms (underpinned by the longer-established evidence on partnerships in general) helps us both to identify the likely problems and to select possible strategies to resolve them. Take, for example, the inclusivity versus efficiency challenge. At the outset of platform development the key funders and stakeholders need to audit the local environment carefully, identifying the critical institutions and individuals to involve: total inclusivity should be replaced by effective representativeness. Secondly, a clear statement of the platform’s mission and vision should be developed so that members understand what they are committing to and the initiative doesn’t become mired in competing perspectives. Finally, strong mechanisms need to be put in place for managing communication and decision-making: cross-sector interaction should be open and honest but it should also take place within a robust framework where views can be shared and decisions taken.
Multi-stakeholder platforms for catalysing new partnerships are a major element in the next generation of sustainable development and business engagement. They are not an easy option but recognising their inherent challenges – and possible strategies for resolution – will give every new platform a better chance of surviving and flourishing.