A private sector perspective on PPP: 5 tips to make it work

What do organizations need to know when entering public-private partnerships? Photo by: startupstockphotos

Two years after entering its first public-private partnership, Unilever credits the initiative for opening up “deep channels” and networks, Avinish Jain, social mission manager for the consumer goods company, told Devex.

In 2014, Unilever entered into a PPP with the U.K’s Department for International DevelopmentPlan International, WaterAid and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor to improve water, sanitation and hygiene outcomes in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The project, designed to promote the sustained use of household toilets and the practice of hand-washing with soap in rural communities across the two countries, meant Unilever’s role was to provide the soap and behavior change activities for the hand-washing component.

The company has been using it’s soap brand, Lifebuoy, alongside a behavior change model across a number of developing countries since 2010. The model involves working in schools using a range of techniques including positive reinforcement and playing games and songs to encourage children to wash their hands after five occasions during their day: after going to the toilet, before breakfast, lunch and dinner and while having a bath.

While the company was making progress on its goal of reaching one billion people by 2020, the team recognized it wouldn’t achieve it alone. Enter the public-private partnership, increasingly seen as a key part of the development toolkit.

Devex spoke to Jain, who said the main incentives for pursuing the PPP were to create scale and sustainability. Working with Plan and WaterAid allowed access to government networks that Unilever as a private organization had been unable to penetrate, Jain said, and also enabled “meaningful changes in local structures and policy” to help facilitate their work.

The PPP is ongoing and the experience has been positive thus far, according to Jain. Devex caught up with him on five tips for organizations starting out on the PPP road.

1. Be patient and dedicate manpower to the job.

Navigating the tender process, finding partners, preparing the proposal, applying, and then following up, are time consuming tasks.

“Be patient and devote a lot of manpower to the process because you have to find the right partners, it won’t work without them,” Jain said.  

Unilever created dedicated in-country teams for the PPP in order to meet the demands and also ensure the organization learned as much as possible from the process. The team included five full-time staff and many others on a more as needed basis.  

“This was a very unique project for us and we wanted to learn as much as we can,” Jain said. “We believe that these PPPs will have a major role to play in future developmental funding projects and we want to be forerunners in this area.”

Patience is also needed once the project is up and running, Jain noted, since decision-making becomes time consuming: “Where normally you’d be nimble and take decisions quickly and implement, when you’re part of a consortium you have to get consensus from everyone.”

2. Make sure your goals are aligned.

All the partners in the PPP had an overall common goal of improving WASH behaviors, according to Jain. Despite their different ways of working, each partner wanted to work together for the benefit of the the program.

“This mattered above everything else,” he said.

In practice this meant agreeing parameters, language, outcomes, contingency plans, and how to measure outcomes. Jain recommends organizations start this process early in order to allow time for “proper collaborative decision-making process.”

However, during these discussions, Jain said it soon became apparent that each organization also had secondary goals. For example, Plan has its own child policy that they sought alignment on.

“It’s very important that you all know each other’s secondary goals and that all partners get what they care about,” he said.

3. Communication is key.

Frequent and transparent communication is the key to a successful partnership, according to Jain. It can help iron out confusion and also deal with problems as they inevitably arise.

“In the ideal situation you will have good communications channels with your funder so you can adapt your approach as the project progresses and you discover some unexpected realities, and there will be some,” he added.

The PPP team kept in close touch largely through in-country coordination units who ran the projects on the ground. These units then met with representatives from each partner organization at monthly meetings and calls where they gave updates and discussed challenges or issues which needed input from more senior staff at each partner organization. Jain said the PPP partners also held quarterly calls for higher level strategic discussions.

While the PPP did encounter some problems throughout the process, for example political unrest in Bangladesh threatened to delay implementation, Jain said his team was transparent about potential delays throughout.

“With a project of this magnitude and scale, minor hiccups are a given. We were very open about any shortfalls or delay in reporting or execution, so that we manage expectation of funders and partners,” he said. “But we always worked collectively to bring ourselves on track.”

4. Understand your partners’ comparative advantages and leverage them.

“Different organizations and institutions have niche areas of experience and expertise,” Jain said, and capitalizing on that is key to tackling multifaceted global health issues and require different partners and their inputs to provide a holistic approach.

Jain said Unilever brought consumer understanding coupled with strong marketing skills and the ability to find innovative solutions to the partnership. The NGOs involved, meanwhile, brought a “thorough understanding of the on-the-ground reality and norms” and their ability to work with governments through their far reaching networks, he said.

5. Be open to learning and adaptive.

The monitoring and evaluation aspect of the project was particularly eye opening, Jain said.

Staff also had to adjust to working with a results financing approach, whereby payment is released based on certain outcomes being achieved by the project. For a private sector company like Unilever, these financing mechanisms and reporting and monitoring methodologies were all new.

Jain advises groups to be prepared for a degree of learning on the job and to be willing to adapt.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.

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