Every year we hear more exiting examples of partnerships. The trend is that multistakeholder partnerships (MSPs) for the SDGs are still on the rise, in particular amongst private sector players. This is a welcome development. Ten years ago there still was a lot of skepticism about MSPs. At Wageningen University and Research we saw some interesting successes, but it took much convincing and selling to get people on board. Today MSPs are almost mainstream – that is progress.
The issue is not whether MSPs are a good thing or a bad thing, but the issue is how to make them effective. Perhaps we don’t need more MSPs, but better ones. The mere launching of a partnership is the easy part. Too often partnerships stagnate after they are launched, when the spotlights are out and the going can get tough. It is embarrassing to see the number of empty websites after let’s say one year. So there are serious questions we need to ask regarding capacities that should be in place to engage in MSPs, regarding the resourcing of MSPs, but also regarding the intentions behind MSPs. Are MSPs really effective to reach SDG goals? This question is asked to me all the time. The research results on MSPs are still inconclusive, but in short it is a mixed bag. Why? For three main reasons – with some pointers for solutions.
1. Rethink your theory of change. We often don’t think through how an MSP will deliver results that are relevant for the SDGs. The default theory of change seems to be: partnerships create and redistribute benefits, hence they contribute to inclusive development at scale. But much of the science suggests otherwise; that this relationship is absent or problematic at best. Benefits hardly trickle down to the people that it should concern: poor farmers.
Solution 1: We need to do better preparations to find the right leverage points that MSPs can use. We should not just be looking for more growth and scale, but also look at avoiding inequalities and dealing with political economy aspects of the food system. This starts with a solid food system analysis. I often hear about the success of an MSP in raising farmer income. But there is not a guarantee that this farmer family gets a more balanced diet – in fact, there are good reasons to question the assumed correlation between higher income leading to better nutritional status. The leverage point for real impact is perhaps not ‘income’ but ‘good nutrition’ or ‘healthy growth’.
‚Do we find the right leverage points through MSP’s? Is it really income we want to increase for poor farmers, or is it access to healthy nutrition?‘
Solution 2: We also need to include more uncommon stakeholders in MSPs, such as civil society, youth, and people from totally different sectors than food & agriculture. I observe that there is a hesitance of parts of civil society to engage with business – and frankly often for good reasons. We know how this divide plays out at the CFS. Many potential partners are sitting on the fence, waiting for others to make the first move. Such a staring contest can’t go on – the urgency is bigger than ever. The message for civil society is: “step over your shadows, and collaborate”. Of course there are plenty of businesses that should take that advice as well.
2. Invest in partnering know-how. Too often we see MSPs fail because of insufficient investment in creating shared goals, creating a shared language, and creating truly agreed working processes in the partnership.
Solution 1: There are trainings that can remedy this skill gap (for example by the Partnership Brokering Association, The Partnering Initiative, and Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation).
Solution 2: Some organizations partner better because they have put the right partnering strategies, frameworks and incentives into place. Think of internal partnering units, realigning business processes or refocusing hiring practices. These can help to arrive at a more conducive partnering culture.
‚We need to find a more conducive partnering culture, by creating a shared language, working process and truly shared goals.‘
3. Despite all the talk about ‘transformation’ in international SDG conferences… the change agendas of MSPs are often not so ambitious in practice. The time when companies could do a CSR-funded partnership at the side and not look critically at their own core business, is over. Maybe that was the way to go ten years ago, but with the move to a purpose-driven economy we now need partnering propositions that help transform companies in their core – not just in their public affairs department. The urgency for action has grown and we are running out of time. So, companies should think about: what type of change are you peddling?
Solution 1: Companies must redefine what their purpose is. Does business exist to generate shareholder value? Or to generate stakeholder value? Or even to generate hope for a better future for all?
Solution 2: Accept that MSPs are not free of risk or pain. Research shows that MSPs that were really impactful always made sacrifices, or even experienced an initial loss of power. Most stories I hear from effective system leaders is that change hurts. Yet… you persevere. It’s not always a win-win from the beginning. Like in the Gandhi quote: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.” So, in conclusion: there is lots of work to be done, but fortunately also much work to be proud of as the Private Sector Mechanism is showing. Let’s jump over our shadows to meet the urgent challenges of making food systems healthy, sustainable and equitable.
‚Change agendas of MSPs need to be more ambitious, and purpose-driven to make sure real change is made, in time.‘
Herman Brouwer, Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands. Herman is an expert on MSPs in food, agriculture, and nature, based at WUR’s Centre for Development Innovation where he combines research, advise, and skill development. Together with Jim Woodhill he wrote The MSP Guide, a book on how to design and facilitate multi-stakeholder partnerships, which is available in English, French and Spanish.
This article was previously published at International Agri-Food Network (November 20, 2019).