Partners and Co-production Summary, Panel Discussion
As noted earlier, co-production is a distinctive feature of partnerships that differentiates them from traditional contractual and donor–grantee relationships. The “co” refers to collaborative or cooperative, because a true partnership requires that partners actually carry out work together, rather than simply coordinate efforts. The term also implies that successful partnerships produce something, be it a product, process, information, or a behavioral change. This idea of co-production provides much of the promise that partnerships hold for creating sustainable outcomes that positively affect both human well-being and environmental conditions. Since partners come together to do what no single partner could (or would) do alone, there is an opportunity to create something entirely new that might aid a transition to sustainability.
William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development at Harvard University, moderated this panel and encouraged participants to consider the analogy of using a multi-stakeholder partnership to build a car. Ordinarily, this might be accomplished in one of two ways: through command and control, in which each partner is directed and compelled to provide a certain part until the whole is assembled, or there is sufficient market pull for the car such that all the necessary parts get produced and incorporated into the whole. The challenge for partnerships for sustainability is that they are voluntary and they tend to deal with public goods that have a low market value. The result is oftentimes that partnerships are able to deliver parts (i.e., partial solutions) that might not collectively address the larger problem. This analogy was later amended to one of building the early gothic cathedrals. In this case,
partners expend a great amount of time and resources to create something that has not been done before, for which there are no sound blueprints. Through sheer commitment and several failed efforts, these cathedrals were built and those that survived continue to be inspirational. However, in the interests of conserving precious time and limited resources, are there ways to produce more efficiently, to learn from these earlier efforts, and begin learning to mass produce or scale up while still delivering on goals? Much of the panel discussion focused on the greatest challenge each partnership faced in co-producing, and how it dealt with this challenge. Subsequent discussion focused on the added value of a collaborative approach and the rationale for taking this approach despite the known challenges.
For Smithfield Foods, the greatest barrier was a legal one. Its initial partner, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, wanted it to begin reporting environmental impacts from its contract farms. However, corporations like Smithfield maintain a strict separation of responsibility from their contract farms, referred to as vertical integration. Through creative thinking between Smithfield and the Cummings Foundation, they developed a workaround that used a surrogate (a Smithfield corporate farm) and an externally developed reporting mechanism, which led them to approach an NGO with experience on this topic, Ceres. For the Green Power Market Development Group (GPMDG), the barrier was not a legal one per se, but energy policy in general was—surprisingly—the limiting factor. To overcome this, the partnership decided to expand its objectives and become involved in policy advocacy, which involved partners testifying in Congress and writing letters on behalf of the GPMDG. Progress in this regard was much more difficult to trace back to the partnership’s interventions, but partners felt that they needed to take a proactive approach if they were going to succeed in developing a market for green power. The other limiting factor GPDMG discovered was that it was meeting community resistance to projects it hoped to implement. The partnership had not considered engaging external actors, e.g., communities surrounding a green power project, but the GPMDG as a forum provided critical support and a learning mechanism on how partners could open up their “internal” goals and engage the communities productively.
The Multilateral Initiative on Malaria also cited community engagement as its greatest challenge, although in this case the specific community is African malaria researchers. Funding and initiatives are increasing in the field of malaria research, but little goes to building capacity for Africans, leading to a fear that the strong interest in the topic—and in MIM—is diluting the original intent of the partnership. MIM’s solution has been to invest in young African scientists, who become the new leadership, energy, ideas, and voice of African malaria research. This has also aided the secretariat as it transitions to an African country (Tanzania) for the first time.
The Common Code for the Coffee Community used a similar proactive solution to engage developing countries and previously underrepresented stakeholders. When the International Coffee Organization abruptly issued negative statements about the partnership’s activities, it caused a crisis in which coffee-producing countries threatened to withdraw from the partnership, claiming that they felt they now had ownership in the process. The secretariat recognized that merely providing space at the “table” at meetings in Western Europe was insufficient to engage producer countries, so secretariat staff began making regular trips to the countries and creating additional space for dialogue with the producers.
For the East Coast Fever Vaccine partnership (Chapter XVI), there was both a practical and a conceptual problem. On the practical side, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) had little experience in negotiating contracts or managing intellectual property (IP). Its solution was to get an IP manager and devote more resources to handling these sorts of issues, though in this case, it was done ex post. For the agricultural research community, this demonstrated that there are ways to deal with IP, often through negotiation, and that with careful attention to IP stewardship, both public and private research institutions can collaborate. On the conceptual side, the partnership’s challenge was to become something more than a technology transfer project. Co-production is much more difficult than technology transfer because it involves joint innovation, collaboration, and discussion. ILRI in this case was able to provide the solution, as it was an ideal platform for cross-sector dialogue, functioning as a bridge between innovators and end users. This was aided by open-ended communication on multiple fronts (both formal and informal exchanges).
In the Agua para Todos case, the primary challenge was a lack of clarity among partners and their respective roles and responsibilities. This was initially surprising because the partnership was built around organizations with distinct roles and limited overlap. Ultimately, the solution was to agree upon clear guidelines and procedures that an outside observer could follow in order to know whom an interested stakeholder might contact with specific questions. Had they been able to do it over, partners would have planned for this early on, and also given earlier consideration to financial aspects of the partnership. As the partnership began generating funds through water payments, the partners realized they had not discussed what would be done with finances generated by the partnership itself, that is, if they would be equitably divided among partners or be reinvested in growing the partnership.
Successful partnerships can sometimes encounter a new and unexpected problem: popularity. On the face of it, this may in fact seem like a positive outcome, but several panelists noted that, if left unchecked, it can dilute efforts or become a distraction. First, it is useful to develop a process to
integrate new potential partners, that is, strictly and formally defining who can participate, why, and how. Many partnerships allow their existing partners to review and approve new members. Particularly when a partnership has been successful, it will be important to understand the motivations of new prospective partners and their potential to add value to the partnership effort.
As partnerships expand, it becomes increasingly important to find ways to keep all of the various voices active in the partnership process. For Global Water Challenge, which functions as a project implementer and a learning organization, there is sometimes a tendency for the partners to divide off into implementers and observers as projects enter the delivery phase. To circumvent this, the partnership is exploring ways to somehow keep the observers active in implementation, such as helping evaluate on-the-ground projects. Certain groups within a partnership will require extra time or space to fully contribute to the effort. Panelists noted that environmental groups sometimes needed separate meetings to reach agreement among themselves, because their partners from the private sector were already oriented towards identifying solutions. However, as trust developed among these groups, such an arrangement became less and less necessary.
This does beg the question of why businesses, particularly those which bill themselves as “solution providers,” engage in partnerships in the first place. In some cases, private sector partners noted that they might have been able to individually do the work being carried out collectively within a partnership. However, there are a number of limiting factors, chiefly time and resources, which make a partnership arrangement more attractive. There are also several less tangible benefits to the collaborative process, including risk sharing, mutual learning, and increased transparency, which partners cite as benefits to engaging in a partnership. With regard to supply chains in particular, a single private enterprise is rarely able to address all of the relevant actors unilaterally. Supply chains are often fragmented and involve several relatively anonymous components (e.g., trade houses, exporters, and cooperatives), thus making a partnership approach more effective.
A panelist also emphasized that partnerships are not floating in a vacuum; that is, they are all created and exist in a particular policy space. Therefore, partnerships that have well-developed adaptive capacities to correct for omissions (e.g., policy maker participation) might be better able to survive and thrive. There are also potential partners that may have a particular interest or expertise in exploring the policy space. For example, the Green Power Market Development Group benefited from its NGO partner (the World Resources Institute) being well suited to examine renewable energy policies and identify limiting factors, as well as opportunities for intervention. Partnerships that lack policy expertise, or do not consider it a
necessity, might do well to engage an additional partner or at least establish a link to organizations that have such expertise.
Another panelist stressed that it is impossible to even consider sustainability in the broad sense without involving national governments. Even if resource-constrained, as in the case of many African countries, these national governments represent a vital linkage that can help a partnership scale up and flourish. Having governments involved as active partners (as opposed to being passive aid recipients) also helps ensure their buy-in to the goals of the partnership, something that is vitally important if the partnership is meant to be replicated or scaled up. Partnerships may not even need to engage governments directly, but they can certainly serve as facilitating agents and help specific communities (e.g., African scientists) take an active role in engaging governments.
Finally, in addition to all the outputs and outcomes that partnerships can produce, several panelists noted that the dialogue that takes place in these collaborative efforts is not only a vital ingredient to a successful partnership, but also valuable in and of itself. As one panelist put it, “Fighting produces decisions, dialogue produces change.” In other words, the fact that this dialogue takes place is what has allowed some partnerships not only to survive crises within the partnership, but to embark on something that is truly different. The dialogic process may be what helps tap into a deeper motivation within participants, helping them work beyond traditional institutional bounds. Sustainability challenges often may require different rules of engagement and a higher level of thinking (systems thinking) in order to identify solutions. Another panelist reiterated this point, and remarked that a key takeaway from the partnership experience has been that successful efforts require that partners early on devote a large amount of time to listening. Efforts that have struggled are often the ones in which the partnership rushed through this stage, listening only to certain factions, so they could move quickly into implementation, resulting in little if any change from a business-as-usual scenario.