Wednesday 19 June 2013

Partnership Series (I) - Moving Beyond the Rhetoric


by Ken Caplan, Director, BPD

BPD (Building Partnerships for Development in Water and Sanitation) is naturally
delighted that the theme of Stockholm
World Water Week this year is Water Cooperation: Building Partnerships. Our name is a bit of a giveaway that this is a topic that is very close to our hearts! Over the years, a euro or even a dollar for every time the term ‘partnership’ has been mentioned in Stockholm and other global forums (not to mention more recently in digital media) would have gone a long way in providing significant investments for the sector. The need to work together has been recognised for some time.

BPD partnership training

The challenge of how to work together though has largely gone unaddressed. This involves the hard work of rolling up sleeves and negotiating on who will do what and when and with what resources. BPD’s own analysis, having worked with dozens and dozens of partnerships at all levels (local, national and international) over the last 15 years, suggests that the more difficult partnerships are those made between ’familiar partners’, where assumptions are not verified. Obviously contentious or distrustful partners are busy keeping an eye on each other, which can ironically often lead to a more honest exchange about what is working and what is not.

Partnerships can even fall apart – and often do - for any number of reasons. Common causes are branding problems or lack of recognition of a partner’s contribution. Mechanisms for and timing of communications (both internally between partner organisations that keep everyone ‘on board’ and externally with wider stakeholders) are often not sufficiently thought through. This is where individual partner risks become most threatening to the partnership unless there is some airing of assumptions as early on as possible. This means focusing on how the partnership will make decisions, how it will incorporate an understanding of different stakeholder’s risks, how it will deal with a partner’s non-performance, etc. Otherwise external events, changes in personnel who bring new ways of thinking (or just want to make their mark), shifts in resource allocations, or other jolts can all destabilise a partnership quite quickly.

While the term is used to death, some (rightly) question whether forging partnerships is the right approach in all circumstances. Sceptics suggest that partnerships can create perverse incentives or even be used as a stalling tactic, or to co-opt opponents, or allow certain partners to abdicate their responsibilities because ’the partnership is taking care of that’.

In the run-up to World Water Week, BPD will use this blog space to put forward some findings from our work over the years in an effort to shift the discourse in Stockholm away from the platitudes of ’needing to work together’ more towards questions of when is it appropriate or not, and if appropriate, how should (potential) partners go about it. Over the years, BPD has seen the good, the bad and the ugly with regard to partnership practice. We’re keen to put our learning out there for debate.

Watch this space… Next time: Defining our terms

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