Going organic… Partnering around water. Part 2: From toolkits to conversations

By Ken Caplan, Director, Partnerships in Practice


Whilst there are contextual and structural issues that make partnerships difficult, we are constrained by a mentality that when it comes time to negotiate the tough stuff, we understandably revert back to basics – the easier tangibles, i.e. what can be measured most directly.  This is where partnerships get blurred with contracts – paying for specific deliverables that may or may not be joined up, and may not link in to a wider, more evolving ambition.

This wider ambition usually involves some disruptive move to reconfigure component parts in response to market and / or governance failures.  To paraphrase from numerous conversations we have been having lately, the fundamental flaw is that we continue to think that we can grow the pie by expanding the resource base, increasing the water supply, etc. instead of all the hard work needed for this reconfiguration of the status quo.  This attitude makes sense if we keep being told that partnerships are about more than the sum of the parts.  But the parts are circumscribed and usually risk averse.  Thus the contributions are almost always fundamentally smaller than the actual commitments due to all the restrictions placed on them – regarding time frames, the need for immediate outcomes and impacts, legal liabilities…

Even while we can introduce more rigour in the process of jointly defining partnership rules and trajectories, working in partnership puts us in the uncomfortable position of having to forego the need for command and control, for predictability.  We need to be better at imagining and negotiating the future.

For partnerships to be meaningful and come anywhere close to what we expect of them, we need to start with the end in mind rather than the often insufficient inputs we have at our disposal.  However, we need to revisit that end regularly, without being afraid to bring in new partners when needed, revisiting the rules when needed, renegotiating when needed.

All the technical guidance from partnership toolkits will be instrumental, but the magic formula, if there is one, certainly lies in the quality of the conversation going forward and the recognition that the structures currently in place will only get us so far in fostering the risk taking that is required to meet our partnership ambitions.  There’s no magic formula for this – we just need to keep the conversation going, making it as responsive to contextual changes as possible…



The author is grateful for insights derived from a range of conversations with both water and partnership experts for a related assignment under the Promoting Effective Partnerships Initiative of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation.

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