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Our Insights 26 Sep 2014

Rob Cameron Speaks with The Partnering Initiative’s Darian Stibbe

By Rob Cameron

This interview was originally published in the summer issue of Radar Magazine – Issue 04: Better, Connected.

At the end of 2013, SustainAbility was pleased to welcome The Partnering Initiative (TPI) to share its London office space. TPI is one of the leading organisations driving the theory and practice of collaboration between business, NGOs, governments and others.

Rob Cameron recently spent a morning in conversation with TPI’s Executive Director, Darian Stibbe, discussing the challenges and opportunities that cross-sector partnership and collaboration can bring to business, NGOs and governments.

Rob Cameron: Partnering is necessary for making progress in sustainability given the scale of the challenges we face. But it is surprisingly difficult to find great examples of partnerships that really deliver. How do you make partnerships successful?

Darian Stibbe: Firstly, there has to be an alignment of interest. We sometimes talk about ‘Davos syndrome’ in which, for example, a CEO of a company and the head of a UN agency agree to launch a partnership, but when it comes down to making it happen on the ground, there is the realisation that there is insufficient overlap of interest between the two organisations. You have to start off with a clear and necessary overlap of interest and that can be a challenge in itself.

Transparency is an essential element. All partners need to be very clear about why they are in the partnership, what is it that they want to get out of it, what are some of the internal challenges or constraints that may affect the relationship. Most issues or constraints can be worked through, but if not surfaced early, they can become damaging much later on. Transparency is also an essential component in building trust among partners.

Equity is also critical. Everyone has an essential element to bring which gives them the right to a seat at the table, and they should be respected for it.

You have to be sure of mutual benefit – everyone gets something out of the partnership, and that benefit must be reasonably balanced with what they’re contributing compared with everyone else.

More than anything it is about process: taking quite disparate organisations, building up a trusted relationship, jointly developing a vision and mission for the partnership, developing roles and responsibilities that all parties are bought into, and putting in place the right structures to help ensure success.

Finally, build in a review mechanism to adjust the partnership as you go along. For all but the simplest of partnerships, I would say it is impossible to fully design the partnership in advance; it has to be iterative and evolve, and a review process is central to that.

I think that the emergent nature of partnership and its inherent uncertainty has to be accepted even though you have tried as much as possible to establish common goals and understanding. I have seen cases
 where known or feared problems have not been addressed and outcomes not achieved because each party believed they needed the other so much that it led to an almost tacit agreement that “problems will work themselves out because we need each other so badly.”

This is a common issue. Some of it comes down to inexperience, some of it down to a lack of confidence in the commitment and relationship with the other organisation. Most people start off thinking partnering should be easy. When things start to get tricky, everyone is so desperate to make it work they often avoid the difficult conversations, and that is poor partnering. Difficult conversations are an essential part of partnering. Indeed, if you think your partnership is always easy, you’re probably missing something!

This brings up another element for success: ensuring that all those involved in the partnership have the necessary skills, the mindset and an understanding of other sectors to partner effectively. Indeed, for organisations as a whole to be “fit for partnering,” along with skilled staff they need the right systems and processes, committed leadership and, most importantly, a good strategy. There have been a lot of partnerships for the sake of partnerships. Partnering needs to be fully connected with the organisation’s strategic objectives – whether you are a company, an NGO or a UN agency.

Which raises the importance of including those in the location where the partnership is going to be enacted, where the real work is going to be done in designing the partnership. It’s great if two CEOs agree to partner – it creates energy to make a partnership happen. But the reality for the operational people in those places is that they have full-time jobs, they have busy schedules with goals, targets, and day-to-day business challenges. But they are often the people on whom a partnership’s success actually rests. I don’t think there is enough engagement at that local level.

That is exactly right. We talk about the need to give people
the space to make these partnerships happen because they
 take such a long time. There is a huge gap between the
investment of time to build the partnership and any results,
which means that traditional key performance indicators
are not helpful. What is the incentive to try a partnership
approach if it is going to impinge on someone’s ability to
meet his or her short-term targets? Organisations need to
look at individual incentives and give people the time in their day job – partnership cannot be an add-on. With time, people will be able to do their day jobs much better through partnership, but there is a lag that requires investment and support.

There is also an important issue around NGOs and their ability to collaborate and partner with each other. Businesses used to be pretty bad at working with each other but with the emergence of “pre-competitive collaboration” they are now getting much better at it. But my view is that NGOs are not
 so good at working together.

In partnership, generally you should avoid having partners that do the same thing in the
 same space – you want to have complementary resources. We did an in-depth evaluation of a partnership between a UN agency and a humanitarian NGO and there was rivalry, in terms
 of competition for resources and also reputation. In fact, both partners did have quite unique resources that they brought to the table, along with the areas where there was an overlap. A good partnering process would have identified the overlap as a potential problem area and structured the partnership to mitigate the challenge. In general, working together is something that NGOs have to get better at, despite the fight for dwindling resources. In Holland, the issue has been forced by government funding being channeled to clusters of NGOs, forcing them to collaborate.

It is true that the competition for resources and the pursuit of mission is an obstacle. I think the business community as a whole singularly fails to recognise that and expects organisations whose missions are aligned to be able to easily work together, and that is often not the case.

This is a particular challenge for companies wanting to work with the UN system. The UN is made up of an array of semi-autonomous programmes and agencies, often with some degree of overlap of mandate. At the moment, companies cannot partner with the UN as such, but rather with individual agencies, each of which have their own rules and due diligence procedures. And of course, each country agency office has its own set of priorities, and so may not be interested to partner at the country level, irrespective of an international agreement. Of course, it works the other way as well. Multi-national companies, for example, are in essence made up of multiple different businesses, each with its own set of targets and incentives, and what seems important at HQ may not be important to a Country Manager.

Let’s talk about the report that TPI has recently published that focuses on the scaling-up of development partnerships with business (Unleashing the Power of Business: A practical Roadmap to systematically engage business as a partner in development). This is designed to deal with some of the problems we have talked about. Can you tell me more about its genesis?

Over the last ten years, there has been an increasing understanding within both the development community and the business community on the interconnectedness and interdependency of business, social and environmental prosperity. This has led to a growing rhetoric, for example at Rio+20 and in the High Level Panel report on the post-2015 development agenda, on the vital need to scale up collaboration with business as an essential mechanism to achieve sustainable development.

The Roadmap came out of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Corporation – a group of donor and developing country governments, UN, World Bank and business – on which I was representing the private sector last year. The aim was to outline an approach by which countries (the government, business associations, development community) can understand the alignment of interests and develop the supporting architecture and enabling environment to systematically drive effective collaboration across the sectors. It sets out five elements: building trust across the sectors, ensuring business is part of setting country development priorities, building organisational capability to partner, creating platforms to facilitate partnerships, and measuring results.

Interestingly there is a partnership that has just been announced between Cote D’Ivoire and the nine biggest cocoa companies in the world. This is game-changing in terms of the cocoa industry, and has been a long time coming. At last the industry seems to have decided to come together and the country is supporting it. There is an awful lot riding on getting this one right and I think they should apply the model outlined in the Roadmap.

Each of the five elements can be done independently but we would like to see one or two countries commit to this in an integrated way, to genuinely see over ten years whether we
 can build the structures and capabilities to bring business into development, and change the relationship between government and business to be working together for prosperous business and prosperous societies.

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