Partnerships for sustainable development: the monitoring and evaluation challenge

Partnerships are widely promoted as vehicles for achieving Sustainable Development Goal targets. We therefore need to do much more to assess how the process of partnering contributes to partnership effectiveness and their potential for transformation.

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    The core rationale for working in partnership is that by combining the resources, skills and competencies of different sectors of society, development challenges can be addressed in a more focused, robust and innovative manner than individual approaches. The value created by these multi-actor relationships is increasingly viewed by business and other sectors as a way of transforming societal systems and structures.

    A vast number of private, public and civil society organisations are investing time, energy and money in building partnerships to achieve the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To justify this investment, better evaluation is essential for demonstrating what societal, organisational and individual benefits can be gained from working in this way.

    Assessing the process of partnering

    Most partnership evaluations measure effectiveness by examining the short-term tangible outputs of joint activities. Such appraisals may bypass medium-term outcomes and long-term impact, and they do little to help us understand how partner relationships influence results. They also fail to explain why partnering may be preferable to working in a project mode managed by a single organisation or in a traditional contract-based relationship.

    Evidence linking partnership effectiveness to good process management suggests that greater consideration of how partners work together in order to meet their goals is needed. As Joanne Burke notes in the book ‘Shaping Sustainable Change’, ‘The way that partners manage their interaction and invest in their relationship – how they collaborate – is inextricably linked to the overall effectiveness of the partnership and what it achieves.’

    What to assess and when?

    While the results of partnership activities can be evaluated using standard project monitoring and evaluation frameworks, templates for investigating how partners work together, and the usefulness of partnership as an approach, are less readily available. A nuanced appreciation of context and how it influences particular collaborative approaches is crucial when the subject of assessment is the process of partnership itself. A report by the Partnership Broker’s Association observes that partnership activities for the SDGs are impacted by a complex mix of external and internal contextual issues. Understanding how partners navigate these is critical for successful achievement of partnership goals, according to the report.

    Some methodologies that incorporate such considerations into partnership review and assessment include:

    • A framework developed by Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff for assessing evolving partner relationships. This approach aims to improve partnership practice and explore a partnership’s contribution to performance and outcomes.
    • The Partnership Learning Loop (PLL) tool which seeks to strengthen collaboration between partners. It explores different partnership layers and provides insights into how a partnership functions, how it adds value and how it evolves over time.
    • An approach suggested by Building Partnerships for Development that examines partnership performance and effectiveness by analysing drivers. Study of factors that promote or inhibit partnering is proposed at three interconnected levels: the external context in which a partnership is working; the organisational environment of each partner; and among individuals representing partner organisations.

    These approaches reinforce the importance of integrating monitoring and evaluation of the partnering process into the fabric of a partnership from the start. Before entering a collaborative arrangement, potential partners may find it useful to assess the individual risks and benefits of working in this way. During partnership implementation, regular ‘health checks’ can provide opportunities for partners to review how they are working together. Process challenges can then be identified and addressed in a timely fashion, and adjustments made where necessary.

    More formal evaluations are advised for assessing progress in relation to partnership goals, partner inputs and contextual constraints. Mid-term evaluations can provide pointers for realignment of objectives and activities, while final evaluations can extract lessons from the overall partnering experience.

    Who should assess and how?

    Open and continuous dialogue among partners is at the heart of the assessment methodologies proposed here for analysing the partnering process. Building Partnerships for Development further notes that ‘partnership assessment is best initiated and conducted as a “conversation” owned first and foremost by the partners themselves’. Such interaction centres on listening carefully to others, which necessarily requires time, and creation of a non-threatening space for meaningful exchange between partners.

    A ‘safe space’ for analysing how partners are working together may be facilitated by a partnership broker or a critical friend. Those who take on these roles can support partners in reviewing and revising their work together in order to maximise their collaborative potential. A partnership broker may represent a partner organisation or operate from outside the partnership. An insider’s detailed knowledge of the partnership and its relationships is useful for ‘health checks’. However, an external assessment may be more appropriate for a wider evaluation exercise, particularly when contents are shared publicly and a more ‘objective’ view of the partnership may be required. A combination of both internal and external review is also a possibility. Whatever option is chosen, it is essential that all partners are fully informed about the nature of the assessment process, when it will be undertaken and how learning from it will be used and shared.

    Reflection and learning

    To deepen learning from partnering, partnership brokers are encouraged to engage in reflective practice, critically questioning and analysing the way they work. Positioning the principle of reflection as central to review and assessment can stimulate partners to engage in constructive dialogue and generate knowledge for improving partnering practice and performance.

    Learning may be further promoted by conducting partnership peer reviews. This methodology has been used successfully to explore European Social Fund partnership arrangements. Another option is the use of case studies such as those undertaken by the Partnership Brokers Association. Further possibilities include flipped learning methodologies, which have been used to study the Alianza Shire in Ethiopia, and story-telling sessions that examine what works well and what does not. Learning from such reviews can also provide a basis for exploring a partnership’s potential to contribute to transformational change.

    Exploring the transformational potential of partnerships

    As the SDGs have a particular focus on transformation, consideration of how partnerships might contribute to systemic change is clearly merited. Transformational change resulting from collaboration may include the development and endorsement of positive rules and norms at the policy level, shifts in individual and organisational behaviours, and the empowerment of vulnerable and marginalised stakeholders. Research on partnerships in South Africa and Zambia, for example, found that partnering provided an important space for a wide range of stakeholders to come together and share their different needs and concerns.

    Those involved in developing partnerships with the European Social Fund believe that working in collaboration with other actors enhances the voice of disadvantaged groups in the political arena. They further note that internalisation of learning from partnering encourages improvements in organisational mandates and processes, and assists deeper shared understanding of the value and importance of other sectors and their roles in society.

    To explore how partnerships between non-profit organisations and businesses can co-create ‘significant economic, social, and environmental value for society, organisations, and individuals’, Austin and Seitanidi propose a collaborative value creation (CVC) spectrum. The CVC spectrum suggests that partners can enhance their potential for generating meaningful shared value as they evolve through four stages of collaboration. These stages are similar to a set of partnership ‘types’ proposed by the UN Global Compact LEAD Taskforce on UN Business Partnerships and the Network for Business Sustainability (Fig.1).

    Figure 1: Towards transformation – a partnership spectrum

    Source: Adapted from Austin & Seitanidi (2012), UN Global Compact LEAD Taskforce (2011) and Network for Business Sustainability (2013).

    Beyond offering a linear or evolutionary model for partnerships, more detailed scrutiny of the different categories provides a useful discussion tool for partners to examine where they feel their relationship ‘sits’ on the spectrum. Partners may also consider whether a move towards the transformation end of the continuum is taking place and whether results might be more easily achieved through alternatives, such as single sector or contractual approaches. In view of the time and effort involved in partnership building this question is not a frivolous one.

    A recent report by The World in 2050 initiative on the transformations needed to achieve the SDGs calls for ‘enhanced partnerships’ that support ‘sustainable transformation’. To develop more ambitious forms of collaboration, a stronger evidence base for partnership effectiveness is clearly necessary – one that assesses both process and results. However, because partnerships are challenging to build and maintain, and often place enormous demands on partners, adding too many complex layers to review procedures, or insisting on prescriptive and one-size-fits-all approaches may be unhelpful. Instead, flexible assessment methodologies that support partners to work better together and deepen learning from collaboration are more likely to provide the creative space needed for developing transformational partnerships.

    About the author
    Leda Stott is a specialist in multi-actor collaboration and sustainable development. She is an Associate of the Partnership Brokers Association, a member of the Innovation and Technology for Development Centre at the Technical University of Madrid (itdUPM) and currently supports the activities of the Thematic Network on Partnership for the European Social Fund Transnational Platform.

    Read the full magazine issue

    Civil society & business: pulling in the same direction? Volume 8, Issue 1. Winter 2018/2019
    28 February 2019
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