A head for partnerships

On behalf of USAID, Assistant Administrator Paige Alexander, left, signs capstone agreement with Mikhail Pakhomov of CISCO, far right. USAID’s Russia Mission Director, Charles North, is in the center. Photo by: Stefan Mizha, US Embassy, Moscow.

It feels like we’re in the middle of partnerships season. There was USAID’s partnerships conference last week. The Global Corporate Citizenship Conference, hosted earlier this month by the U.S. Chamber’s Business Civic Leadership Center. Next week’s Business for Social Responsibility conference in San Francisco.

Our feature story yesterday was on public-private partnerships. And we’ll be writing about it much more in the days ahead.

A confluence of factors – from tightening aid budgets to the growth of middle income countries and a rising cohort of business-minded young people eager to engage in social enterprise – is creating a groundswell of interest in leveraging private sector partnerships for development impact.

So, what does this all mean for your career in international development?

A lot. You may think your work has nothing to do with partnerships, but partnerships are becoming part of the DNA of development cooperation and will soon impact all of us. Whatever sector you work in and whatever technical expertise you may have, soon a knowledge of partnerships will need to be in your toolkit.

It used to be that a development professional needed only certain core skills, among them project management, technical expertise, a knowledge of budgeting and rules around contracts and grants, languages, and cultural understanding. Today, add to that list three new skill sets:

1) understanding business models.

2) knowing how to structure partnerships.

3) appreciating how technology fits into development solutions.

Understanding business models is central to designing sustainable development solutions that engage the private sector. For example, it’s not enough to know that mining companies dig for minerals. A development professional needs to understand how their business really works, including how they manage supply chains, transport their product, recruit and train staff, and hedge volatile commodity prices. Only then is it possible to find areas where their business interests may overlap with development objectives – areas which can then be leveraged for development ends. The same goes for understanding the business model for local pharmacies in Africa, private schools in Latin America, and smallholder farmers in Asia.

Once you understand business models in-depth, it becomes possible to design partnerships with private sector entities that are sustainable and have development impact. But structuring partnerships is a skill set in itself, and one that will soon become a requirement for many positions in international development. Yesterday, partnerships may have been the purview of a specific department or unit with donor agencies and NGOs. Tomorrow, every department will be expected to play a role.

Finally, the new emphasis on working with the private sector is largely about finding ways to scale up development solutions. Almost all such large-scale programs or businesses will have a technology component. Being technophobic won’t cut it anymore. It’s not that you have to be on the leading edge of the latest technology, but you do need to be aware of how technologies are being used to improve education, health care and economic growth.

At Devex, we’ll be doing more to cover partnerships from every angle, including how they are changing the way development professionals approach their career. Meanwhile, check out our jobs board for a variety of jobs focused on partnership building.

About the author

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.