Wednesday, 2 July 2014

In the eye of the beholder? Public-Private Partnerships in Agriculture

Source: Fabio Venni from
What do the University of Pennsylvania, the Paris metro, Merck’s Mectizan Donation Program and the African Cocoa Initiative have in common? Answer: They have all (allegedly) been founded or operated as public-private partnerships (PPPs).

I say ‘allegedly’ since what is – or is not – defined as a PPP seems to be very much in the eye of the beholder. A paper for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, uses a relatively strict definition of PPPs as collaborations between government and business agents to carry out a specific task, while jointly assuming risks and responsibilities, and sharing resources, competences and benefits. While others (see, for example this paper from a 2007 Future Agricultures Consortium conference) include any formal or informal arrangement between public- and private-sector entities, such as knowledge-sharing networks, technology financing, or subcontracted research.

If answering ‘what is a PPP’ seems hard, then identifying what makes them work successfully for development is even harder, despite substantial experience with partnership approaches in recent years. This question is at the heart of research IDS is leading with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the International Institute for Environment and Development over the course of 2014. The aim is to identify what it takes to make PPPs in agriculture effective at delivering positive development outcomes for small-scale farmers and rural communities.

Reviewing what has already been published on the subject and talking with farmers, companies, NGOs, donors and other experts leads me to an initial ‘hypothesis’, based on five key elements:

1. A clear public good aim linked to national policy
The ‘theory of change’ that leads governments or donors into PPPs is often unhelpfully vague. Projects lack a clear definition of the specific public benefit to be achieved, for whom and how this fits within national policies and programmes. They are driven instead by a broad sense that working with the private sector brings unique opportunities and resources to bear in tackling development problems. The risk is that partners have different views about aims and objectives, and this leads to disappointment on at least one side and disagreements about necessary actions.

2. Clear and transparent roles and objectives of partners
Benefits are unlikely to emerge from PPPs if the partnerships themselves are dysfunctional. There are many analyses of what it takes to make partnerships (of any type, not just PPPs) work, but integral to all is that the roles, responsibilities and objectives of partners are clear, transparent and understood. Yet participants in PPPs frequently expressed frustration at the failure to identify clear and transparent roles. Farmers’ organisations in particular are often overlooked in this process.

3. Resources for management and process
In the words of one interviewee, ‘If we know what a PPP should look like, why are they so difficult? Because there is a lack of investment in the processes to make PPPs work.’ Partnerships carry significant costs in terms of time, money and effort to establish and maintain the initiative, and manage it well. Accountability mechanisms are also needed to engage and respond to project stakeholders who are not direct partners. PPPs that lack explicit resources for such processes are characterised by disagreements among partners and with other stakeholders, and disappointment with the results.

4. Flexibility
Flexibility and the space for continuous adaptation and learning, though largely overlooked in the literature, was highlighted by many we spoke to as crucial. Agricultural markets are unpredictable – subject to frequent external shocks (climate, market risks, price volatility), and projects can also create unintended consequences (positive or negative). While dealing with complex markets is not unique to PPPs, partnerships tend to make it more difficult to adapt. Unless flexibility is built in from the beginning, partnerships find it difficult to make changes in inputs and outputs, to mitigate and compensate if harm is caused, or to enhance positive spillovers.

5. Brokerage
Source: Marsyas, 07.04.2007

The notion of partnership ‘brokerage’ was another area that was weakly reflected in the literature but emerged strongly in our discussions. Brokerage involves a set of functions designed to develop and implement partnerships, such as introducing partners, facilitating negotiations and problem solving. They may be delivered by one individual/organisation or handled across different organisations. However, without an independent third party or parties that can build trust between the partners, PPPs will often flounder.

Having set out my hypotheses, now the interesting work begins. Alongside local researchers in Ghana, Indonesia, Rwanda and Uganda we are reviewing the experience and learning from four IFAD-led PPPs, giving us the opportunity to test these hypotheses and develop recommendations for government, donors and private sector organisations involved in brokering, developing and/or implementing agricultural PPPs.

In a follow up blog, I’ll let you know how our hypotheses stacked up against the evidence.

By Jodie Thorpe, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies


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