Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Public-Private Partnerships: Hype or Hope?

Partnering with business for development is overwhelmingly a good thing.

Disciples of partnering are making fascinating progress, as The Partnering Initiative here in Oxford shows; pilgrims of partnering are forging interesting, promising relationships -- not waiting for policy orthodoxy to lead.

However, this post questions the new-found faith in public-private partnerships (PPPs).

It makes two points about the need for caution over the current enthusiasm for PPPs as the panacea for Africa's development.

1. The first is that the developmental impact of the private sector is not limited to what businesses can do in partnership with governments, civil society, and community groups.

Strategies that put 'business' and 'pro-poor development' in the same sentence should be about far more than PPPs. There are significant ways in which the developmental impact of business activity can not only be harnessed, but unleashed, without involving any partnering of the 'PPPs for development' sort.

For instance, last week's post noted the scope for responsible private enterprise to deliver poverty-reduction without partnerships as such, but with development policies geared to foster investment and broad-based, inclusive growth in societies that currently struggle to attract or achieve that.

The problem is that the current fashion for partnering, while welcome, could obscure the 'quick wins' available from, for example, helping countries reform their business regulatory environment in ways that reduce unemployment. This stuff is hard -- but not necessarily harder than PPP-ing, and potentially far more impactful in a diffuse sense across society at large.

Of course, short of partnering it makes sense to consult business (in an appropriate and principled way) in the design of policies intended to foster inclusive, sustainable growth through unleashing the private sector.

1A. This point -- PPPs are not the sole vector of increasing the private sector's development relevance -- relates to another. An emphasis on 'partnership' can be too narrow a framing for what is really about public-private cooperation more broadly: (a) 'partnering' is not limited to formal, regulated PPPs such as infrastructure ones, but encapsulates a range of relationships aimed at development impact; (b) cross-sector cooperation and dialogue, especially where systematic, can be hugely significant without involving partnering as such.

I promised a second point of caution over current prevailing PPP-related enthusiasm!

(A precursor to that is to note that the enthusiasm for PPPs and wider partnering is in fact hardly universal across either the business or development communities).

2. The PPP hype belies the experience that partnerships are hard to generate and maintain, often controversial, not necessarily efficient or effective, and not necessarily grounded in evidence of their superior developmental impact.

I say this as an overt proponent of exploring ways to engage business in the development agenda.

For the last year, I've advised on an emerging cross-sector partnership intended to promote the partnering agenda. The difficulty in getting business, government and academic actors to work together on this discussion-about-partnering is itself instructive of the challenges of partnering-in-fact. More work needs to be done on measuring the effectiveness and opportunity-cost of PPPs (widely defined), and on conceptualising their political and policy risks and implications 

In this respect, I recommend a read of this Devex Impact blog post on partnerships, especially its first few paragraphs.

Previous posts on this site have sought to reflect on these issues, for example the hype about PPPs in Africa (here).


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