The most overused word in development

Ten Lessons on multi-stakeholder partnerships


“Partnerships.” It’s among the most over-used and least well-defined words in the English language.

To get anything done these days, we are all supposed to be working in partnership. The answer to every big problem, the conclusion of every panel discussion on global issues these days seems to be, you guessed it, partnerships. Apparently we have lost the capacity to do anything by ourselves. What does it all mean and what’s the use of all this partnering? And if we are going to be working in partnership, how can we ensure that partnerships are an efficient tool?

The Synergos Institute is a global nonprofit organization working to reduce poverty and advance social justice. Our work seeks to shift the underlying systems and structures that keep people poor. Given the nature and depth of the challenges we address, our work has often involved operating in collaboration with others. To realize sustainable solutions to complex development issues at scale, we have actively engaged government, business, civil society, and communities. The work we do is not characteristic of all partnerships but instead focuses on the messiest and most difficult kinds of collaboration, where stakeholders with radically different worldviews and interests come together to address a common challenge.

In these articles we share ten learnings about multi-stakeholder partnerships, gathered over the last 25 years. In doing so we will draw on four recent case examples:

Partnership for Child Nutrition (India) — a large scale initiative bringing together leading government agencies, global and Indian businesses, non-governmental organizations, and community groups to develop systemic interventions to reduce child under-nutrition in the state of Maharashtra.

African Public Health and Systems Innovation Initiative (Namibia) — a nation-wide initiative to increase the effectiveness of the Namibian Ministry of Health and Social Services with a focus on maternal health care.

The Aboriginal Leadership Initiative (Canada) — a broadly based program involving First Nations, national and provincial government agencies, and corporations to build a new approach to improve quality of life for Canadian First Nations.

The Agricultural Transformation Agency (Ethiopia) — a national effort designed to improve the quality and output of Ethiopian agriculture by transforming key agricultural value chains.

We recognize of course that each partnership is unique, and that there are no immutable rules that apply always to all contexts. That said, the lessons to follow are broad learnings that Synergos has been able to synthesize from our direct experience in convening and guiding partnerships around the globe.

Lesson 1, Go it alone..if you can

This may sound like an odd lesson coming from an organization that is all about partnerships, but if you can get the job done without partnering, do so. Partnerships are almost always more difficult and more time-consuming than working alone. It is critical to reflect first about the nature of the problem you are trying to solve. Can satisfactory results be achieved without working with others? What kind of scale is required? How can sustainability be assured Synergos’ rule of thumb is that the more complex a problem, the greater the need to work with others.

the more complex a problem, the greater the need to work with others.

Another way to say this is that the answer to complexity is… diversity. The more multi-faceted and confusing a challenge is, the greater the need to bring different types of knowledge, assets and know-how to the table to find solutions. We have found that with a certain class of particularly complex challenges, if we want solutions that stick and which can scale, we need to integrate the capacities and resources of government, business, NGOs, and communities.

In India, for example, we appreciated that the issue of child undernutrition was more than the simple prospect of putting food in children’s mouths. It has to do with agriculture, distribution systems, social structure, food prices, clean water, sanitation, behavior, corruption, culture, the caste system, the place of women and girls, etc. As much as we may have wanted to focus on only one of these issues, we felt we would not have been able to make a real dent in the issue without taking a broader approach. That is, if we had found some clever way to get nutritious food to young children, but ignored the fact that kids drank dirty water and that girls could not easily get access to the food, and so on, we would not bring about any real change.

We decided to bring together actors from a range of sectors, disciplines and places in Indian society in order to somehow approximate in our partnership the multi-faceted nature of the issue we were trying to address. In this context, it was critical to engage government (e.g. for scale), the private sector (e.g. for business skill), as well as NGOs (e.g. for community knowledge) if we were to generate new ideas to address a massive challenge.

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