Interview With the Expert: Redefining What’s Possible and Impact of Multi-Sector Partnerships

Part Two of Our Conversation with Professor Joy Fitzgibbon — Interview with Micaela Tam and Christy Davis

We’re back with Part 2 of our conversation with Professor Joy Fitzgibbon, a fellow and Assistant Professor of Trinity College in University of Toronto and the Associate Director of the prestigious Macmillan Trinity One Program. In Part 1 of our conversation, we discussed her work as a scholar and the importance of eliminating the distance between academia and other sectors to create a shared interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary space in which all stakeholders can learn and grow from one another.

Today’s feature focuses on redefining what’s possible amongst various sectors and on the role of impact in multi-sector partnerships.

Sometimes it’s hard for those within other sectors — governments, corporates, communities — and even those within NGOs to comprehend that ambitious social enterprise projects aren’t impossible and will mutually benefit all. How can we cultivate a sense of shared values?

You know, Partners in Health (PIH) really redefined what was possible around issues of Global Health. They did stuff everyone thought was impossible. They ran projects nobody would touch and ruthlessly exploited their resources at Harvard. Without apology. Paul Farmer (Co-Founder and Chief Strategist of PIH) said it’s sometimes easier to just do something and then have people later say, “Oh look, this type of project is possible and we know how to do it” instead of starting with people saying, “It’s impossible, you can’t do it.” Of course, in pushing forward with projects, PIH still had to convince people in other sectors to collaborate with them. They had to convince the private sector, which is profit driven — they had get smart about business ethics arguments and they had to take apart the idea of shared values. Because we talk all about morality and whatnot, but in the end run, companies may not be comfortable with losing profit. I know PIH had a conversation with Eli Lilly about profit issues and creatively helped them try to problem solve and creating new baskets of funds. In essence, they had to redefine what other sectors see and understand is possible. It’s very much about not seeing limits, seeing the possibilities. It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we stop seeing walls as barriers. Start seeing walls as existing resources. As one of my friends reminds me, it’s astonishing how much you can get done when you’re not concerned with who’s taking credit.

And if we look at it from the other way around, sometimes social enterprises are also reluctant to participate in multi-sector partnerships. What Asia P3 Hub can do is help facilitate a connection between all stakeholders and make a conversation that’s reflective… internally reflective too. Knowledge is not a scarce resource and through engagement, it builds. We don’t live in a resource-scarce world. And NGOs look at their budgets and are somehow deceived into a language of limits. We can get that money and redistribute it to those who need it the most. It’s about getting out of that scarcity mind-set.

You also mentioned that your work is through formal and informal partnerships. How does this manifest itself differently in a formal and informal space? What’s the value in formal or informal partnerships?

That’s so interesting, you know the question that you’re asking is hitting on the material in sociology which explains how everything is a social or informal network. And my supervisor used to laugh and say, “Ok thank you guys in sociology, but that’s not terribly helpful for me analytically.” So that’s to one extreme. And the other extreme is that a network is only a formally declared structure and that partnerships aren’t real, they’re an ephemeral kind of thing. Embedded in this question is also the idea that within relationships — whether they be declared, legal, ad-hoc, organised, etc. — there may be hierarchy. There’s this notion that networks/partnerships are completely horizontal and this idea that they are (though some actually are) is probably a bit of a misrepresentation of networks. Because if we look at the work of business scholars and sociologists who’ve done studies on networks, we’ve found that within these unusual structures, hierarchies emerge. Some might be based on competency, some maybe on institutional power (the capacity to bring people together or set an agenda), but they function very differently in informal structures than in a formal organisational structure.

The tricky thing is that with informal structures, is it can be hard to measure efficacy. I want to know the impact that such structures are having. So if everybody is working in their own little spaces but come together in their own ad-hoc way once in a while, there could be a value to that that no one can measure, and I wouldn’t want to denigrate that at all. Within that informal structure though, you could have a way in which partners over time formalise their relationships, even if there aren’t legally people signing on: there’s a cohort of people that emerge at the centre. And then they start to reflect, say, “Hey, are we having an impact? With whom? Who’s excluded?” And it could still continue as an informal process, but it could also evolve into a more formal structure. I think we need a way to somehow track impact, the effectiveness of networks. In tracking impact, we can get to the really interesting questions: How do we learn from failures? If we failed, did we fail successfully? Did we learn, in an unexpected way, in one of the PIH cases, how to improve access to TB care?

So whether network structures are informal or formal, we need mechanisms to enable such critical evaluation. Not only such evaluation on projects, but also on missions or goals. Is your mission the correct one to start with? Are we orienting this boat in the right direction? In Networks of Knowledge: Collaborative Innovation in International Learning (the book I co-wrote), what you’ll notice is that we had a diversity of network structures: all those examples were formal structures. They weren’t really informal, but the education network at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) was the closest thing to what you described as organic. That education network had a hard time measuring impact. But the flip side was that those really top-down formal networks, for example the Tri-Council Directorate from the government of Canada, such networks ended up deciding to disband. This network was so impenetrable with funders and with requirements, people felt that their knowledge, their scientific capacity and freedom were being compromised and there weren’t strong relationships. So whether you’re looking at formal or informal networks, pay attention to that horizontality so that people have the freedom to be nimble, but there should be some sort of order where you can assess.

The impact of a social enterprise project obviously includes social justice: it underpins everything that we do. But we have to be careful about how we talk to our partners. For example, the minute we start talking about human rights in certain places, we’re out. From your experience, how do you find those back doors to make the greatest impact and achieve objectives of social justice when you’ve got governments or entities who really aren’t interested in that aspect?

My mind goes in two directions. One is in the area of empowerment at the community level and the other is in the area of policy reform in government when the government is essentially a hostile witness. Let’s start with policy reform in the government. The government may not only be indifferent, but also actively opposed to your agenda. My NGO colleagues who are working with governments that are less than charitable towards their citizens, work to divide the government into several categories and to develop personal relationships with the bureaucrats as much as possible so that they know what exactly they’re dealing with. I find that there’s a difference between people who are actively opposed and people who are fatalistic (my government will never buy into, even if I agree). So how does one build capacity in those fatalistic government representatives, so that these bureaucrats can see a way to make an initiative work for the government’s overall objectives? This is also about redefining what is possible.

One of the strategies I’ve seen is the mixing of both moral and material arguments. Actually Jim Kim (Co-Founder of PIH and current President of the World Bank) has said this, “Never ever just make the moral argument.” You can lead off with it, but make the material argument and say it is in the best interest of the government or whatever hostile entity to start this initiative. You have to be really smart in terms of the incentive structures that are in play in these relationships and these policy choices. That requires a tremendous amount of work in part of the network or organisational leadership. Really do the homework to develop relationships and to get information and to make good judgement calls. Other than the focusing on the justice side of things, show that the governments would be better off and that the solution actually works. Frame it around the government’s self interest while still saying, “By the way, it’s the right thing to do.” I’ve seen this tactic work a number of times. We’ve seen this with PIH and WHO and the national government of Peru. It’s a kind of relentless persistence. We sometimes as political scientists think it’s overly simple, but as Janice Stein (Founder and former Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto) has always said, “The evidence almost never speaks for itself, you have to translate it in terms of interest.”

The second direction my mind goes into is empowerment of the community. If you have an engaged and empowered community, they begin to become agents in their own defence and that can be also part of the calculus to changing the government itself. Humanitarianism is not neutral, you are a political agent.


Want to read more? Click here to read part one of our conversation with Professor Fitzgibbon and here to read a bonus excerpt. Tune in to our next newsletter for the last part of our conversation with Professor Fitzgibbon!


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