Collaborating in times of complexity

This week, the World Economic Forum and the Friends of Ocean Action (FOA) hosted an online conference — the Virtual Ocean Dialogues — bringing together people and communities from around the world with a shared interest in ocean health.

The virtual element is clearly something many are grappling with in a time when physical distancing is on the top of everyone’s minds. Yet the dialogue part — the chance for diverse and divergent perspectives to be shared, debated, negotiated and exchanged — is business as usual for a multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral partnership, such as FOA. Our work often finds us working with partnerships such as FOA, exploring how and why they are set up, what makes them tick, how to measure and report their results, and when to change direction. We’ve learned a lot, and continue to learn a lot about multi-sectoral partnerships — here’s three insights that seem particularly important:

  1. One size does not fit all

Multi-stakeholder partnerships have become go-to solutions for complex problems: those intractable challenges for which no single response exists. Collaborative, multi-stakeholder efforts are seen as the vehicles for bringing together the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to create change. Yet they are costly, time consuming and difficult to sustain — which means it is necessary to make informed choices about when one is needed. For tackling something as complex as ‘the ocean’ a multi-stakeholder platform such as FOA is a logical choice: creating a space where actors from across geographies, levels of government, and societal sectors can work together in the pursuit of shared outcomes. For other problems, such as a community taking care of its waterways and ocean fronts, other organising forms are likely more sensible. We see events like Clean Up Australia Day, for example, rallying action and raising awareness at different levels in communities.

2. Understand the level at which change is desired

“But what can we say it’s actually achieved?”: it’s a question we hear often in relation to multi-stakeholder partnerships. We’re all for accountability, and clear ways of describing what a partnership has done, and the results it has achieved. What is clear, is that partnerships may target change at particular ‘levels’ of a system, or even multiple levels of a system. That means it’s fundamental to identify what these levels are and what change looks like at each. Looking for change in national policy from a partnership designed to effect local food distribution networks, for example, doesn’t make sense. And vice versa.

The REACH partnership is a good example of a multi-stakeholder partnership aiming to have effects across a range of levels- which means it’s appropriate, and useful, to look for changes at these levels. REACH began operating in 2008, and initially involved the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO) — the aim was to assist governments of countries experiencing a high burden of child and maternal undernutrition to scale-up of food and nutrition solutions. Locally, REACH provides support to multiple countries around the world, including in Mauritania where the work of REACH has catalysed on-the-ground change, including enhanced distribution of Vitamin A and mebendazole (a deworming agent) in the South, directly contributing to a reduced prevalence of underweight children as well as that country’s food insecurity ratio. At the same time, REACH works at sub-national, national and international levels, strengthening governance for tackling malnutrition, drafting and informing policies, gathering and translating evidence for influencing decision making, and fostering engagement with diverse sectoral leaders to promote change.

3. Make them relevant, not permanent

Partnerships, like the complex problems they are intended to address, can and should change. Yet often our barometer of success is linked to endurance — essentially, is the partnership still here? A better question might be, is the partnership still relevant? Partnerships may change in all sorts of ways, including in who is part of it, what they do as a collective, the goals and objectives a partnership holds for itself, or where it is operating. What is important is that the partnership continues to fit the contexts for which it was created — and adapts to those changing contexts as and when it needs to. Partnerships will come and go, they’ll change, they’ll dissolve and sometimes be reborn. Like others, we advocate that decisions related to these changes are informed by data about the partnership’s structure, functions and outcomes.

As the Virtual Ocean Dialogues progress this week, the nature of the conversation, and the modes of participation are necessarily adapting to the context we are living in. Adaptation in partnerships is essential and cause for reflection at regular junctures.

Certainly, now more than ever, a multiplicity and diversity of voices is necessary to consider some of the intractable problems we are facing. As we continue working with and around multi-stakeholder partnerships, we’ll add to this list and we will continue learning about what works and what doesn’t — and in what context.



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