Avoiding four common pitfalls for water-sector partnerships.

The collaboration message was clear at COP27, the UN climate conference held in November 2022, in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Lesley Pories, Global Water Partnership – March 15, 2022

Imagine this: you organize a large potluck dinner. You take great pains to get people to sign up for a dish – in some cases times telling your colleague which dish to bring, because they do it so well – and you ensure that all dishes are complementary and all diets are accommodated. The feast is going to be massive, and no one will need to eat for days afterwards.

Then your guests arrive. Instead of bringing a prepared dish, they come laden with grocery bags and want to cook in your kitchen. For the first guest this is ok, albeit surprising. But after the fifth guest arrives with the same intention, there is barely room to move in your kitchen, and the chaos deepens as people seek cooking pots and utensils. Frustrated cooks grumble at each other and compete for the last clean mixing bowl. What was supposed to be a cozy gathering turns into an endless night while people wait for the chance to use the oven. Instead of the guests dining together, the dishes trickle out and no one feels satisfied.

Was this the potluck you anticipated when you planned the event? Definitely not. And no one wanted that outcome.

Partnering in a development context – specifically in the water sector – can be a lot like this fictional potluck gone wrong. Everyone doing what they do best in the same space, but unless they plan to a level that might be considered excessive, the outcome will still be delivered piecemeal and leave you hungry.

The countdown is on, and expectations are high: one week to go until the water community converges on New York City for the first UN event dedicated to water in 46 years. The event organizers hope that the conference, promoted as a “watershed moment” for the water sector, will lead to “game changer” solutions. Passionate about outcomes, not just hosting another talk shop, organizers emphasize mobilizing the political and financial action so desperately needed to achieve the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 6: ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.

Something drastic is needed – it is a point of alarm within the community that current progress towards SDG6 is lagging. We have to accelerate our impact fourfold if we hope to meet the targets.

In the search for silver bullet solutions, 2023 has also been declared the year of “Accelerating Change through Partnerships and Cooperation.” It is assumed that collaboration between the water sector and actors outside the community (the financial sector, private sector, energy sector, agricultural sector) will lead to more comprehensive, holistic solutions that can achieve the needed monumental gains. Partnerships – announcements of them, celebrations of them – will be front and center at the global event.

This is well and good in theory. The challenge, however, is building effective partnerships that achieve these noble aspirations. I have observed that while people know there is value in partnership and pay lip service to the value of partnering, when we get to the practical, operational details of HOW to partner, things inevitably get stuck.

Here’s the reality: partnering is hard, and in a development/public sector environment where there are limited funds and a lot of scrutiny, the pressure to perform disincentivizes collaboration. And because of this high-pressure environment, no one is willing to talk about why partnering is hard.  Having an honest conversation about it can make the person or organization raising the issue appear to be a “bad partner.” No one wants that label, as it could damage their prospects for funds.

Let me start the difficult but needed conversation by highlighting several critical conflicts that make partnering so hard.

Conflict 1 – Single-organization timelines applied to multiple-organization projects

Partnership-based projects take more time than when one organization works alone.

This makes sense: both organizations have multiple priorities and calendars to balance, so genuine co-development of a project invariably takes longer because you have to integrate schedules that you cannot control.

Moreover, the “prolonging factor” is only more likely to increase with the inclusion of more people and more organizations.

Throw in power differentials and healthy disagreements about the vision and/or means of execution, and you can easily imagine that a collaborative will take much longer to complete the design phase than an organization with a single set of priorities.

Unfortunately, donor or general project timelines frequently fail to build in the additional time needed for co-design, and the project falls behind schedule well before it has a chance to get going. Partners then feel pressure to catch up, and they might blame the lack of progress on the other party, further complicating the partnering process.

The African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together” perfectly summarizes the tradeoff. We have to be willing to trade the speed that comes from full control for the distance gained when we partner with others. We’re trading time for an expectation of exponential results.

If the standard “project inception” phase is six months for an organization, it might be a year or more for a multi-party project and require a substantial investment of staff time. But donors are not used to such protracted timelines and are under pressure themselves to justify their investments. Holding a partnership-based project to the same standards and timelines as those applied to a single organization will not lead to success. It is setting good people up to fail.

Conflict 2 – Underestimating the effort to inculcate field-level buy-in

I’ve been a regular participant in the global conversations about the future of water that take place at events such as Stockholm World Water Week, private roundtables, and webinars. I’ve always gravitated to this kind of space because I like to explore ideas.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I started to truly appreciate the difference that engaging at this level has on professionals. I oversee a program striving to unite the Water Resource Management (WRM) sub-sector and the Water and Sanitation (WASH) sub-sector for climate-resilient water management, a goal that has attracted a lot of attention recently within the community. The value of uniting WRM and WASH has long been obvious to me (and others) because the global conversation has been encouraging this collaboration for the last several years, if not more.

However, my colleagues in-country – seasoned experts with extensive careers – haven’t necessarily participated in those conversations and do not see why they should have to embrace a new partner or slow down their work to accommodate another party. So even though there is an overabundance of good will at the global level, getting the country-level partners to work together requires its own dedicated socialization process. Let me be clear: I think this is fairly typical of the headquarters-versus-field tension that exists in arguably every organization. But the fact that it applies everywhere does not make the implications less critical.

I posit that the way to make these partnerships happen is for project leaders from the headquarters of the partnering organizations to facilitate a group meeting in the target country. Such a workshop could build collaboration and willingness and perhaps even set joint work-plan activities.

This could be misinterpreted as paternalistic, but simply instructing two offices representing distinct work streams and organizational cultures to suddenly work together is not going to lead to the kind of partnerships we are counting on to achieve SDG6. These are not traditional partners and if we want these partnerships to be successful, we have to be more proactive. This kind of work takes more time (see Conflict 1) and money. But if we’re truly committed to seeing joint work plans (and subsequent results) that reflect the united strengths of the organizations, we need to invest in the foundations of the partnership.

Conflict 3 – Metrics that support business as usual (and actively resist partnerships)

Tyranny of the urgent prevails as 2030 draws increasingly, uncomfortably close. The current imperative is to accelerate progress, and actors are encouraged to “be innovative” in their quest for impact.

But we also don’t have time to fail. For all the discourse on “falling forward,” no one wants to be that person, or that organization. Risk taking is not rewarded unless you are certain of success – and then it ceases to be a risk. The expectation is that innovation will yield results immediately, ideally at scale. There is a lot of pressure on innovation to cure all the problems that dedicated, smart, passionate people have been unable to solve.

If we measure partnerships and innovation (and at this stage, partnerships are innovation) by the same metrics we always use, we are going to fail. In the current rubric, if all you have to show after one year of work is a joint work plan, supervisors and donors are not going to celebrate your success. More likely they will question what you have been doing with your time.

In effect, the lack of metrics that encourage building a partnership prevents true partnerships from being formed. In short, partnerships are expected to demonstrate success at the same pace as well-established methods even though they are much more experimental.

Given Conflicts 1 and 2, both of which underscore the need for a completely new and much slower partnership timeframe, the expectation that innovation and partnerships are already producing quantifiable results – or, more dangerously, that new methods should immediately produce such results – is detrimental to the effort to truly partner.

As highlighted by the Centre for Community Organizations, a constant sense of urgency frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results. We say we need to partner, but the metrics we have in place reward speed. As long as those metrics remain the only ones in place, we are dooming ourselves to perpetually praising partnership in public but continuing along our current path of single-player games in private.

We need metrics that highlight the robustness and growth of partnerships that, if nurtured, have the potential to be game changers.

Conflict 4 – How much do you invest in a solution that has not been proven?

The conversation about time and metrics begs the question: if partnerships take so long to nurture, are they really going to be a major contributor to the achievement of SDG6? Do we really stand to gain so much from a partnership two or three years from now compared with the results we know we can achieve under Business As Usual? How would we even go about making that calculation?

In this way, the emphasis on partnerships requires a huge leap of faith. We have to be willing to forgo short-term results that we know we could achieve in favor of presumed exponential results several years down the road. We have to be absolutely sure that 1+1=3 (if not 5) if we’re ready to delay making tangible progress while we get the partnership set up.

I assert that it really hasn’t been fully attempted yet. That’s why more of the literature simply makes the case for partnering rather than providing strong success stories. We don’t yet have proof that it works. And it hasn’t yet worked because we’re still applying single-organization metrics for measuring success (Conflict 3), the most important of which is the acceptable timeframe for project inception (Conflict 1), which ignores the investment needed for building the partnership (Conflict 2).

A way forward for partnering

I’m not closing this reflection with another sermon on the value of partnering – its virtues are well understood intellectually. However, if we want to genuinely test whether partnering will lead to the exponential results we crave, we need to seriously reevaluate our approach.

A first step is adding more time for a multi-partner inception phase. The additional time needs to account for prolonged project design and development at the headquarters level, where leads are likely dividing their time amongst multiple priorities and calendars will take time to align.

Project schedules also need to build in substantial time at the field level to allow for face-to-face work plan development. Teams on the ground need the full support and guidance of headquarters leadership as they are encouraged to find new approaches to doing their work in partnership with a non-traditional ally. Donors have to be willing to accept a slower timeline, which may sometimes fall out of sync with their political timelines.

A second step involves measuring success. Metrics for the first phase of the program should focus mostly on the growth of the partnership, with deliverables and milestones from the field as well as headquarters. Putting these in place can help ensure that the teams are investing in building the work plan and the partnership together and developing a shared vision of programmatic success.

Final steps include changing the global discourse on partnership by adding additional metrics related to partnership development. Progress towards all SDG targets needs to be monitored, no questions asked. At the same time, however, actors engaged in building partnerships should be judged by metrics related to the growth of these relationships, instead of being held to the standard metrics before the partnership is sufficiently developed. This releases them from the pressure of showing “hard results” so they can adequately invest in the partnership’s foundational work.

Is the potential gain worth the effort? As discussed in Conflict 4, the verdict remains unknown. What we do know is that Business As Usual has resulted in the water community being far behind the level of progress needed to achieve SDG6. Business As Usual will not get us where we need to be – recognition underscored by the emphasis on game changers in New York next week – so the Partnership Experiment is unlikely to cause irreparable damage. I’m choosing to optimistically believe that partnerships, if approached fully as outlined above and with the right set of metrics in place, can be the game changers we seek.

Let’s get to work. What are you bringing to dinner?

Lesley Pories is the coordinator of the Global Water Leadership Programme at the Global Water Partnership.