Electrical engineering students at the Khuruthang Vocational Training Institute in Bhutan, where the government, with the help of Asian Development Bank funding, established six training institutes across the country. What makes knowledge partnerships for development work? Photo by: ADB / CC BY-NC-ND

Development work is like a jigsaw puzzle — different pieces have to come together in the right way for the whole picture to show itself.

How then can we make sure that stakeholders can come together to make development better? One answer is through knowledge-based collaborative partnerships. While partnerships are essential to accomplishing the global development agenda, proponents argue a knowledge-based one is key to pushing this agenda forward.

Vinod Thomas, director general of the Asian Development Bank’s independent evaluation department, explained that information and knowledge should be the cornerstones of development programs.

“Lending coupled with knowledge is a very different ball game compared to lending by itself” as the former can significantly amplify the impact of development financing, the former World Bank chief evaluator told Devex in a previous interview.

Knowledge partnerships — or the coming together of stakeholders to share knowledge, experience, resources and connections for a common goal — is not new in international development. Multilateral institutions like ADB, the World Bank and the United Nations have been trying to mainstream this approach in their programs and have released guidelines on facilitating effective knowledge partnerships.

Cultivating such partnerships isn’t easy, however. Jim McGann, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s think tanks and civil societies program, explained during a think tank summit Devex attended at the ADB headquarters in Manila, Philippines, that “knowledge-based partnerships don’t just happen.”

So what makes knowledge partnerships for development work?

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Strong leadership

McGann, also a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained that strong leadership is key.

“It requires first and foremost a leadership that is committed to knowledge partnerships and it effectively articulates the value and importance of collaboration,” he said.

In the advent of the data revolution, it is very easy to get lost in the knowledge maze. But most stakeholders do not actually have a problem acquiring the data they need, and are more concerned about how they can apply their findings in practical terms — all while battling political and economic considerations that may impede implementation.

Leaders with clear goals for the partnership and straightforward procedures on how to drive it forward, the university professor explained, can help further the process by being able to motivate stakeholders and keep them on track.

Commitment from stakeholders

Development work involves multiple stakeholders, which all need to be in sync and work together for a project to be implemented successfully.

McGann explained that commitment to a common objective requires stakeholders to be on the same page of the same book “for the partnership to succeed.” It sounds like a cliché, but it nonetheless is important and should not be overlooked.

If not all stakeholders are fully committed and completely understand the objectives of a hydropower project, for instance, residents in the area may end up being worse off if resettlement and compensation programs — an industry standard — are not in place or the private contractor only pushes for profit-seeking activities.

Put rewards and incentives

Economist Gregory Mankiw said that as a basic economic principle, “people respond to incentives.” They will do more if they know they can gain something from it.

It is no different in knowledge partnerships, McGann explained.

“Based on the discussions I had in the international development community, there has to be significant resources and rewards for those involved and to actually be involved in those knowledge-based partnerships,” the FPRI senior fellow explained.

There has to be some form of recognition “if you're going to invest time and effort into developing knowledge partnerships,” McGann further shared. This could include “recognition in performance reviews” and financial incentives, among others.

This is an important factor to consider as partnerships, whether public or private, are driven by various interests that don’t necessarily align with each other. Clarifying what the right incentives are from the very beginning is essential to avoid complications and misunderstandings later on.

‘Change in culture and attitude’

Lastly, the UPenn professor said “there has to be a change in culture and attitude where knowledge and partnerships are valued and supported” that mostly requires “significant changes in institutions” that enable and cultivate these kinds of partnerships.

This is something multilateral institutions like the Manila-based development bank have identified as a point for improvement. Hoping for ADB to be a knowledge institution in the next few years and a knowledge partnership hub, President Takehiko Nakao told Devex in a previous interview that on top of institutional reforms that have been implemented over the past couple of years, a change in mindset is needed.

“I tell my staff that we shouldn't be complacent … we should reform ourselves,” he explained, referring to his call to make ADB more responsive to the needs of the Asia-Pacific region.

McGann echoed this, saying that change should happen in all levels, “from transactions or projects to one that focuses on longer-term relationships.” Stakeholders should understand the importance not just of building partnerships but also of sustaining them, he concluded.

What else could make knowledge partnerships for development work? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.