Achieving the joint goals of sustainability, that is meeting human needs while nurturing and restoring the planet’s life support systems (NRC, 1999), requires a continuous process of scientific innovation, new knowledge and learning, and collaborative approaches to implementing technologies and policies. To address these challenges, different stakeholder groups are increasingly seeking to ally themselves through partnership, in order to implement projects, deliver services, establish secure funding mechanisms, and achieve on the ground results. Advocates of this collaborative approach point to the failure of governmental regulations, international commitments, or business as usual. However, skeptics often question the effectiveness of partnerships at achieving sustainable development goals and, in the absence of demonstrated results, wonder where partnerships are adding value. Although the number of such partnerships is increasing worldwide, their potential contributions to sustainability have not been well analyzed. And for the thousands of partnerships in operation, there is relatively little evidence-based knowledge available to aid them.
In June 2008 the U.S. National Academies’ Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability (the Roundtable) convened a symposium that attempted to advance the dialogue on partnerships for sustainability in order to catalyze existing knowledge and inform future efforts. Ideas that came out of discussions at the symposium will help leaders in government, the private sector, foundations and NGOs, and universities, both in the United States and internationally, as they develop and participate in new partnerships for sustainability. Recognizing the trend toward partnering, and the anecdotal evidence that it can aid in a transition to sustain-
ability, this symposium offered a rich and diverse group of stakeholders, including government officials, international development and financial organizations, representatives of the scientific and academic communities, and private industry, a space to critically analyze experience to date. In addition, the symposium and its commissioned case studies were intended to help would-be practitioners navigate the when, where, why, and how of partnering. A steering committee of Roundtable members was appointed and organized the symposium program to achieve these objectives.
Steering committee members’ participation in early 2007 in both the United Nations’ (UN) Preparatory Committee meeting for the UN Commission on Sustainable development1 (CSD)-15 and in the CSD-15 meetings confirmed the utility of convening additional discussions on the effectiveness of partnerships for sustainability. It was during this period that the steering committee also began to tighten its working definition of “partnership,” recognizing that the term can mean different things to different entities. Previously, the committee had relied on a general definition put forward by Xavier de Souza Briggs (2003):
Partnerships are a means of producing together, with others when we cannot produce something important—or cannot produce it nearly as well—on our own. Partnership then may be thought of as productive teamwork scaled up to the level of organizations, communities and even nations or groups of nations.
For the CSD audience, partnerships are explicitly defined, and are alternately referred to as “Type II” partnerships, following the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) meeting of 2002. The WSSD Implementation Plan2 reads, in part:
We recognize that the implementation of the outcomes of the Summit… should involve all relevant actors through partnerships, especially between Governments of the North and South, on the one hand, and between Governments and major groups, on the other, to achieve the widely shared goals of sustainable development…. [S]uch partnerships are key to pursuing sustainable development in a globalizing world.
The UN developed a set of “guiding principles” for these partnerships which themselves are recognized as outcomes of the WSSD. Briefly, the guidance is that formally recognized partnerships:
The UN Commission on Sustainable Development has given extensive attention to the issue of partnerships for sustainable development. Reference: http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/partnerships/csd11_partnerships_decision.htm.
Are voluntary in nature
Do not replace international commitments made by governments
Attempt to link global sustainable development goals with local capacity building
Incorporate the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of sustainable development
Involve partners from various sectors: governments, local groups, non-governmental institutions, private sector partners, and international institutions
Are transparent and make partners accountable
Have clear funding strategies and mechanisms
Seek broad, international impacts due to local/regional results3
Partnerships formed in preparation for—and in the wake of—WSSD were registered formally with the CSD, and constitute a core of more than 400 partnerships. However, as is discussed in Chapter VII, this group of partnerships is a sampling of the tens of thousands of similar-style voluntary arrangements that are in use at scales from local to global. Thus, the steering committee elected to use a more nuanced working definition of partnership, so as to include examples of the countless partnerships not formally registered with the CSD.
A partnership was defined as actors from different sectors (thereby excluding cooperation within a sector; e.g., business to business) voluntarily coming together to jointly produce what no single actor could effectively produce on its own. This idea of so-called co-production was an important element in considering how partnerships formed, operated, and measured outcomes. Moreover, the steering committee distinguished partnerships from more traditional donor–grantee or contractual relationships, noting that several of these had been recast as “old wine in new bottles” as the partnership mechanism gained favor. While these relationships still hold value and in some cases may be a preferred approach, the committee’s intent was to examine what it considered to be a new and more experimental approach, where partners blur or eliminate those traditional lines, and relationships are characterized by more give and take and cross-sector dialogue, and less inequality or power imbalance (though these are still major challenges). The steering committee also realized that its definition of partnerships applied to arrangements in which even the partners might prefer an alternate term (e.g., alliance) or no term at all. However, this seemed more an issue of semantics and did not take away from the fact that efforts that fit the committee’s working definition were likely to contain lessons more broadly applicable to the field.
The steering committee, in preparation for the symposium, commissioned 11 case studies of individual partnerships that it believed could provide lessons that might be more broadly applicable to the field of partnering. Each case study was authored by an external person or group (i.e., not currently affiliated with the partnership), although research was carried out often with significant cooperation from key individuals within the partnerships. This process is described in more detail below.
CASE STUDY RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
While much work has been done in recent years, and while it provides certain information and insight, there is still a pressing need for more research that draws upon the wealth of experience in multi-stakeholder4 partnerships. Numerous recent reviews of the field of sustainability partnerships5 have indicated that further work on case studies is necessary (Stott, 2005; OECD, 2006) to catalyze existing but not widely disseminated knowledge. It is against this backdrop that the current effort to examine several partnerships for sustainability has been developed. As an outgrowth of its work examining the challenge of linking knowledge with action for sustainable development (NRC, 2006), the U.S. National Academies’ Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability decided to take a closer look at how multi-stakeholder partnerships act as a vehicle to more effectively match sustainability agendas (for research, aid, governance) with user-defined needs. Recognizing that the wealth of knowledge present in existing partnerships is at best haphazardly, and often anecdotally shared with a wider audience, the steering committee chose to commission case studies of notable partnerships that would be discussed at the symposium
Some reviews of partnerships have attempted to categorize them by objective (e.g., OECD, 2006) as an analytical tool, but those typologies do not differentiate between sustainability-oriented partnerships (the focus of this report) and the more general class of partnerships. The sustainability lens is important, because it focuses on the unique challenges this subset of partnerships faces, from dealing with public goods to involving new applications of science and technology. Other attempts to categorize partnerships have relied on thematic clusters like the WEHAB (water, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity) categorization defined at the WSSD. However, conversations between partnerships in a particular field, such as
water and sanitation, tend to focus on discussing the sustainability problem without being able to discuss their own organizational problems within the partnership; each partnership might in fact be working on a discrete part of the overall solution. Conversely, some partnerships from distinct fields face similar challenges, such as how they handle intellectual property (IP). Thus, the steering committee developed a typology to organize the case studies, and hypothesized that valuable and transferable lessons might be drawn out by posing a set of “core questions” to explore the context and incentives that draw partners into an alliance, as well as a functional analysis that examines some of the implementation strategies, organizational structures, and assessment methodologies being utilized.
The typology is a useful tool in identifying a diverse group of partnerships that, when cross-analyzed, could yield more broadly applicable lessons. The typology highlights five categories or purposes for sustainability partnerships, which are as follows:
Action-oriented and designed to provide a good or service viewed as critical to sustainability and which is not being sufficiently provided at the present time. Energy, water and sanitation, and infrastructure partnerships fit well in this category. Governments often play a leading role in forming such partnerships, hoping to attract private investors and interests as partners in the effort to meet human needs. These tend to be the most visible form of partnership, and the area that arguably boasts the greatest wealth of experience, going back many decades.
Action-oriented and designed to focus conservation efforts on a particular region or issue. Often community- or NGO-led and place-based, such partnerships may have trouble attracting private sector involvement outside of efforts to conserve certain critical resources, e.g., energy. Advances in the understanding of ecosystem services will likely raise the profile of these partnerships and attract more private sector involvement.
Research-based efforts to spur innovation in a particular sector with implications for sustainability. Biotechnology, energy technologies, and nanotechnologies require a range of research and development investments that draw on the different knowledge and expertise of governments, science institutions, universities, and the private sector. Innovations in these areas almost by definition require multi-stakeholder partnerships to ensure sustainability.
Focused on disseminating science-based knowledge and information for sustainable impact. Campaign-type partnerships that promote good health practices (such as hand washing or use of insecticide-treated bed nets) represent this category. They often bring public policy groups, communities, and private sector interests (and funding) into partnership for the result of sustainable behavioral change.
Focused on facilitating the process of partnering and the building of communities of practice around issues of sustainability. Community building may not be restricted to a particular geographic location; partnerships that develop virtual communities (e.g., Partnerships Central) are increasingly common and also belong in this category.
The lines between these categories are sometimes blurred and a partnership may sit comfortably in more than one category. Nonetheless, a large partnership combining on-the-ground development projects with best-practice dissemination and community building will likely benefit from focused discussions on each of these aspects. In addition, at a macro scale, further research along the lines of this typology may reveal critical gaps, such as an abundance of water and sanitation projects in the developing world, but a paucity of efforts aimed specifically at analyzing and disseminating best practices based on these experiences.
For the purposes of the current project, commissioned case studies of 11 partnerships helped to inform the discussion at the symposium. While the committee did not develop formal guidelines for selecting the 11 cases, it did attempt to create a “suite” of cases that collectively represented a reasonable cross-cut of sustainability topics, with varying degrees of scope (local to global), size, and governance models. On a practical level, preference was given to partnerships that had sufficient experience to draw from, and could provide specific points of contact within the partnership to aid authors in their information gathering. Expert authors used a common framework and set of questions to describe and analyze each of the partnerships. The authors, who are external to the partnerships being examined, conducted interviews of key partners and combined this with available written documents (online and in print) to develop their case studies. Authors submitted early drafts so that Academies staff could conduct a cross-cutting review and analysis to present at the symposium, focused on the emerging themes (Chapter VI). Each standalone case study is expected to be of value to numerous partnerships practitioners, and the volume of case studies, combined with the cross-cut analysis and summary of discussions at the symposium, should be of interest to practitioners, supporting agencies, and the research community.
STRUCTURE OF THE SYMPOSIUM
To mine the knowledge generated in the 11 case studies and supplement it with the collective wisdom of an audience of practitioners and analysts, the steering committee organized a symposium over a day and a half where case study authors and other expert panelists discussed several cross-cutting themes. The individual cases provided background for the discussions, but
the focus of the symposium was on four overarching themes that correspond to the next four chapters: early stages of partnership formation, organization and governance, collaborative production, and outcome evaluation. Panelists, presenters, and audience members were all encouraged to draw from the literature, case studies, and personal experience and help identify salient lessons for enhancing the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder partnerships (also summarized in Chapter V). Panel discussions were opened up to all participants in the audience; after panelists gave opening remarks, the panel moderator posed questions to the panel and the broader audience. Audience members had opportunities to question panelists as well as share personal experiences and insights. The resultant discussions benefitted from the wealth of collective knowledge, along with the information provided by the background papers prepared for and distributed prior to the symposium. Some of the general lessons, as discussed in these sessions, are in the next four chapters. In order to provoke these discussions, Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, and Hank Habicht, managing partner of SAIL Venture Partners, were asked to put forward broad themes to which participants might react.
Vest opened the symposium by sharing his thoughts on the nature of sustainability challenges and his experience with working in partnership to address the challenges. He observed that sustainability challenges are so complex, and by definition global, that cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary work is necessary, and this can often be achieved through partnerships. These have tended to be most successful when substantial resources are dedicated to the effort, in part because this means that the various partners will be paying attention (intellectually) to the progress and outcomes of the partnership. Trust has been an essential component in every successful effort, and institutional arrogance in fact has been the biggest danger—different sectors might believe that they alone know how to do the job and should tell other partners how to do it—but this of course hampers any progress in building trust among partners.
Hank Habicht opened day two by recounting his career experience with multi-stakeholder partnerships. He remarked that in the early going, environmental enforcement required collaboration which naturally led to some form of partnership. Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a subtle evolution of the role of partnerships. They now seem to occupy a new space, influenced in part by the globalizing economy, in which corporations are becoming more proactively engaged as a way to grow their business, manage risk, and earn their “license to operate.” Because of this, there appears to be a need for more attention to engaging the financing community (broadly defined); partnerships should be seen as investments, as part of a risk management strategy, as a vehicle for implementation, and as an avenue for creating a climate in which businesses can succeed.
A major limiting factor has been what Habicht referred to as “institutional blind spots.” Institutions have tended to compartmentalize their work and defend their turf; in other words, they are not oriented toward working with others and sharing information or resources. On a somewhat related point, the behavior of working across sectors is still not often rewarded within a given institution. Therefore, people are less willing to potentially jeopardize their careers by devoting substantial time to inherently risky cross-sector work. Owing to these institutional blind spots, there continue to be inefficiencies and redundancies that might be avoided through better cooperation and communication across sectors, and by extension, across emerging partnerships. This is where the typology can benefit individual partnerships; understanding where one fits within the typology helps eliminate wasted time and allows the partnership to begin accessing the knowledge of similarly styled partnerships.