‘Development is tough and getting it right, whether social, economic, housing or green, is not easy. Partnership is a way to improve the process and the result.’ Andrew Boraine, CEO, Western Cape Economic Development Partnership

Why partnerships?

Economic development is complex and it is seldom that one organisation or part of society has all the resources or ideas necessary to solve persistent problems that require going beyond ‘business as usual’.  Solving such problems requires us to understand who has a role to play in working towards solutions. Partnership in economic development is not just about mobilising resources to address the problems; it is about juxtaposing different ideas and going beyond the normal consultation process in order to co-create and co-implement a solution. Partnership in this area builds high levels of accountability and moves away from paternalistic models that want to keep government out and privatise the process. It goes beyond the binary thinking mode of either one or the other, whether that be public or private, public or civil society, private or civil society.

Partnership is about co-design and co-ownership of solutions. It steers a path between any one organisation’s preconceived notions of the problem and its solutions. In complex situations, such as in a developmental state, partnerships should be thought of as a prerequisite for success.

What kinds of partnerships?

  1. There are multiple types of partnership that are often needed in the same economic developmental process. The following four are useful: Cross-government partnerships. Usually the government is involved in societal development, and so it needs to partner with itself. Government departments must develop transversal partnerships, which will encourage better coordination and alignment of line departments and silos. Vertical intergovernmental alignment is also required, involving agreements to collaborate across national, provincial and municipal bodies.
  2. Cross-discipline partnerships. Universities and professional disciplines can also benefit from partnerships.
  3. Cross-sector partnerships take a whole-of-society approach. They involve partnerships between the public sector, the private sector and the independent sector (citizens and public interest organisations). These are therefore partnerships between organisations that have different cultures and values: for example, a government department may have a culture of power and a focus on the redistribution of resources, while a private firm may have a culture of making a profit for the shareholders. In such cases one needs to build relationships and partnerships by creating shared values.
  4. Cross-border partnerships have a spatial element. They can span different neighbourhoods or municipal areas; the core issue with such partnerships is how to cross real and virtual boundaries.

How to establish a partnership?

Here are five tips for establishing effective partnerships.

A partnership is only as strong as its partners and it mustn’t take over the mandate of the partners. Its role is to help the partners to deliver on their own mandates but in a collaborative way. Something is wrong if the partnership starts substituting a partner, so it is key to

  • Focus on building the capacity of the partners, and to avoid the temptation to bypass any one partner who may be under-performing
  • Have a clear division of labour
  • Address overlapping and competing mandates upfront
  • Separate functions and explicitly address who has the mandate to do what.

    Partners will have different and often competing interests, and it is vital to identify all shared values. A shared value could even be just to say ‘we agree to work together even if we differ.’ Ask the question, ‘what do we have in common despite our surface differences?’

    Combine vision and action upfront. Vision without action is sterile and action without vision is blind.

  • Build a partnership that can plan and strategise the visionary side and implement the plan.
  • Build trust in action, as trust is seldom built by talking. Don’t set up a forum or a talk shop. Rather, set up a partnership for action that has a strategic component with a vision and a common agenda. There is nothing wrong with a dialogue partnership, but it must lead to implementation.

    The partnership design process involves the same principles used when designing a product or a system. Specifically:

  • Ask yourself whether the partnership is user-centric.
  • You need to try out the partnership, so don’t design it for every conceivable eventuality. Rather, fail quickly and often. Try things!
  • Partnerships change over time, and change quickly from the initial concept, so keep them light, not complex. Avoid an over-written partnership constitution, so that you can adjust as partners – and priorities – come and go.