Partnerships: “We have many partners”, “We need to invest more in partnerships”. Everyone in research and development talks about partnerships. So much so that partnerships may be considered an empty shell, another convenient catch-all phrase that lost all meaning. Yet everyone agrees that alliances – relationships – are crucial for development to take hold. And to spread at a higher and wider scale.
‘Making agricultural research for development (R4D) partnerships work at scale’ was one of the sessions that CGIAR ran at the event ‘Celebrating FARA at 15’ on 26 November 2014, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
This session picked up where another similar session left off: at the second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) in 2012, the Livestock and Fish CGIAR Research Program (CRP) convened a conversation about ‘Mobilizing AR4D partnerships to improve access to critical animal-source foods’. Some critical success factors for partnerships to work were then identified.
At the ‘Celebrating FARA at 15’ event, Livestock and Fish was joined by two other CRPs: Water Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and ‘Integrated Systems for the Humid tropics’ (Humidtropics). These three programs want to leverage more impact at scale, through stronger partnerships that last, among others because they are structured around value chains (Livestock and Fish), a landscape approach (WLE) or R4D systems (Humidtropics).
After three case presentations from the programs, participants split themselves in groups to explore ‘do’s and don’ts of successful partnerships’ elaborating on the list of critical success factors from the GCARD 2012 meeting, as well as to ponder ‘how to develop and stimulate relationships that impact agricultural systems at scale, over time’.
The participants contributed the following conclusions and recommendations:
- Partnerships are necessary to achieve outcomes and they should be brokered on firm terms around the value of partners themselves;
- Getting people to come together on a common agenda takes time because small subsets of the stakeholders start connecting first, then others, then others and eventually you can link together all the nodes – it does not happen all at once and doing a social network analysis can be quite useful in this respect, to assess where crucial linkages need to be built and are likely to evolve more quickly or profoundly;
- To achieve transformation for greater impact, we are looking for different partners, from different backgrounds. This is complex, requires time, requires good governmental support, trust building (which again takes time), so the participants questioned the time scale of projects that last for only three to five years. We need to allow time for partnerships to develop well beyond these limited time frames.
- Working from grassroots participation can give rise to cultural change (‘stay in line with the crowd’);
- What else matters for partnerships to work: a common agenda, quick and visible wins, transparency and trust, a focused agenda, clear roles and responsibilities mapped onto the partners’ strengths, developing partners’ capacities…
In essence, this leads to these recommendations to build the next generation development (research) relationships and alliances:
- Do not over-design processes that involve partners because you need to co-create the agenda;
- Research – in its own right – how functional alliances form, grow and deliver;
- When investing in long term partnerships at scale, assure relevance at different scales and try and connect these different scales better;
- Change the notion of transaction costs (for building trust and partnerships) into “investments”;
- Any given that the ‘partnership case’ has dozens of moving parts and issues that can go wrong, we need to zoom in on and address the top three to five issues that are important (and that we can influence).
This side event showed that believing in partnerships does not magically make them simpler. Flexibility is key to nurture relationships that feed development work, and eventually the mouths of the people they aim to serve.