Changing the conversation about partnerships

Public-private partnerships in development will require many more conversations and gatherings like this one, which focused on infrastructure. What is key now is determining how to make those meetings as useful as possible. Photo by: International Transport Forum / CC BY-NC-ND

Partnerships in development are here to stay — that much seems clear. But whether they live up to the hype and reach their full potential remains to be seen.

It’s time to move past language barriers, trust issues and the other typical challenges listed when it comes to partnerships. What is needed now, and is emerging, is a more sophisticated discussion about the “how” of doing partnerships. It begs a more open dialogue about failures and mistakes in order to be able to grow and establish greater accountability.

During the past month, Devex, in partnership with Abt Associates, has turned its focus to public-private partnerships in development through the #ReimaginePPP series. In doing so, we have sought to push the conversation forward, something we will continue to do through Devex Impact.

Attitudes are changing, and we’ve done the research to show it. Earlier this month, we published the results of a Devex Impact survey, which showed that 91 percent of development professionals view business as a positive force for development. We don’t have a comparable study from five or 10 years ago, but I think it’s safe to say the results would have been different.

As part of our partnership with Abt, we also conducted a smaller survey of sustainability executives, which showed that while there may not be complete agreement on everything, there is a consensus about the necessity of working together.

How that is done may vary. Sustainability executives, more so than development professionals, believe there should be more of a direct business overlap with private sector development activities. As more companies adopt shared value practices and weave social and environmental goals into their core business, we may see more partnerships that are about mutual gain and less that are about image and philanthropy.

We are also seeing a new way of engaging and developing partnerships — one that uses collective action as a framework. Instead of donors going to partners with a specific ask, there is a desire to explore a more democratic process where all actors come together to find the solution to a particular challenge. We heard from Ricardo Michel, director of the Center for Transformational Partnerships at the U.S. Global Development Lab, that the U.S. Agency for International Development is exploring how to do more of that type of engagement.

The challenges of the past remain, especially around competition and procurement laws. They may not be the most exciting of topics, but we will continue to explore how they influence partnerships and how partnerships professionals can work within the constraints.

This week we were reminded of the potential for impact of big global partnerships like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which met its ambitious $7.5 billion fundraising target by bringing together more partners than ever. But in our series we also highlighted the importance of local partnerships and heard from Ziad Hamoui, the co-founder and re-elected president of the Borderless Alliance, about a PPP working to reduce trade barriers in West Africa — a project born of local needs.  

Despite the positive momentum, there is still plenty to be done.

Private sector actors are increasingly calling on bilaterals and multilaterals to establish partnership secretariats with relationship managers who can help business navigate complex bureaucracies and maximize collaboration.

Hiring partnership professionals, an emerging career path we recently wrote about, may help bridge some of the existing gaps. They can serve as translators, reducing the challenges around miscommunication and goal misalignment by calling on skills like advocacy and negotiation.

Accountability is an area that may lead to some tension. Development programs seem to be increasingly emphasizing the importance of monitoring and evaluation, but some in the business sector believe it can come with too large a price tag. Sarah Thorn, Wal-Mart’s senior director of federal government relations, told us that while the company looks at project outcomes, the type of evaluation required by many traditional foreign aid donors can be “ridiculously expensive and difficult.”

The challenge ahead will be finding the right balance of evaluation and cost.

Finally, there is a need for partnership platforms, especially as part of the post-2015 implementation process. Those platforms could serve as places where various actors can figure out shared interests and match necessary skills or resources. The platforms could also provide partnership brokers who can help hash out the details and ensure that missions are aligned from the start as well as continued commitment.

Last week, Davos served as one such platform, with business, civil society, government and development actors participating in conversations — both formal and informal — about how partnership and collaboration can play a role in the post-2015 agenda.

I heard from Cheryl Freeman, World Vision’s senior director for advocacy, earlier this week, who said there was a strong interest from all actors during conversations she had at Davos — but especially from business — in discussing partnership. World Vision will continue efforts to bring non-state voices into the sustainable development goals process and push for partnerships to be a key part of the implementation of the post-2015 agenda, she said.

They aren’t alone. While the process is now largely in the hands of the member states during the consultations, other actors continue to think through goals, metrics, implementation strategies and about how to fund them. Many, including the United Nations Economic and Social Council, are continuing to engage with a cross-sector of organizations as they look ahead.  

There will be key events in the months ahead, including the International Conference on Financing for Development in July, and other signals that will indicate the role partnerships will play in the future development agenda. We’ll be watching.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.