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Back | Programme Area: Markets, Business and Regulation

Beyond Pragmatism: Appraising UN-Business Partnerships



In recent years, the United Nations (UN) has emerged as one of the principal proponents of public-private partnerships (PPPs), considered by many to be a key instrument of development and an ideal to be emulated. The authors of this paper argue that idealizing the concept and its normative content, as well as the feel-good discourse that infuses much of the mainstream literature, risk diverting attention away from various tensions and contradictions that characterize UN–business partnerships (UN–BPs) and that raise questions about their contribution to equitable development and democratic governance. Both the theory and practice of partnerships suggest that thinking and policy need to go beyond evidence and assumptions about “good governance” and pragmatism.

The paper identifies key ideational, institutional, political and economic forces that have driven the PPP phenomenon, only some of which are recognized in the mainstream literature. This analysis reveals the multiple, sometimes contradictory agendas and interests involved. The authors argue that if the contribution of UN–BPs to equitable development is to be adequately assessed, these diverse logics underpinning partnerships need to be identified and addressed.

“Partnership” has become an infinitely elastic concept, and the authors suggest that it is essential to unbundle the notion, by analysing the different activities and relationships subsumed under various partnerships in order to reflect on their contribution to equitable development. A review of UN–BPs suggests that, unless the UN’s partnering work is founded on greater conceptual clarity and more robust analytical frameworks, it will be difficult to make useful comparisons or draw practical conclusions.

The paper outlines the growing number of partnerships across the UN spectrum and notes the recent emphasis placed on mainstreaming and scaling up partnership activities in the UN system. The authors argue that the case for scaling-up, and how this should be done, rests on whether it can be plausibly demonstrated that such scaling-up would, in and of itself, have a decisive impact on the problems or issues at stake. Both the theory of partnerships and empirical studies that have been carried out on actual experiences suggest that it is crucial to study the effects of such partnerships from a political economy perspective: will they strengthen local capacities or simply facilitate faster and deeper penetration of foreign capital and globalization; are they really compatible with the nature, mandates and priorities of the UN in general and UN agencies in particular; and how do they affect power relations among different development actors and institutions?

From the above analysis, the authors conclude that there is a need to develop a more active, critical intellectual culture in and around UN partnership activities. This would involve the UN moving beyond the present emphasis on accumulating and showcasing best practice examples of partnerships, and devoting greater resources and energies to developing and applying methodological tools that facilitate ex-ante and ex-post assessments of the immediate or direct development impacts of partnerships, as well as of their wider development implications.

It is essential to devote greater attention to seeing the bigger picture and to take account of key contributions, contradictions and trade-offs. This requires both the development of a panoply of evaluation methods that go beyond some conventional tools, and a broader conceptual framework regarding development than that which currently informs the UN–BP arena. For example, focusing on foreign direct investment, linkages between transnational corporations (TNCs) and small and medium-sized enterprise, and privatization as an objective or outcome of partnerships, is problematic from the perspective of equitable development. Corporate social and environmental responsibility, net balance-of-payments flows, value added, transfer pricing and the crowding out of domestic competitors, among other things, also need to be included in the reckoning.
While impact assessment has not been a priority of UN agencies promoting partnerships, some measures have been taken to reform the operating and normative environment of UN–BPs. The paper pays particular attention to reforms related to accountability, mainly in relation to the United Nations Global Compact, as well as the issues of decentralization and local ownership of partnerships.

The authors emphasize the need to be more selective about which partnerships potentially contribute to the fundamental goals of the UN. Among other criteria, they highlight the principle of “policy coherence” in the sense of avoiding ad hoc interventions where there is a disconnect from core government or agency policy, or a situation where one policy or governance approach contradicts another, as illustrated in the cases of some partnerships associated with water privatization, or global health funds that generate tensions in relation to public health policy.

In spite of the complexity involved, it is incumbent on the UN, as a leading institution in the field of international development, to reflect on how partnerships relate to particular patterns of development. However, critical thinking in the UN on its relationship with the private sector in general, and partnerships with TNCs in particular, has been marginalized in recent years.

Given its key roles in promoting partnerships and as a learning forum, it is important for the Global Compact to accelerate its efforts to move beyond best practice learning and embrace “critical thinking”. This would require greater intellectual pluralism and interactions with a wider range of subdisciplines and research institutions, as well as with civil society organizations that are organically linked to social movements. Without this balance of intellectual and social forces, the Global Compact runs the risk of doing as much to legitimize corporate power as promote inclusive and equitable patterns of development.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 3 Oct 2006
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1991-9921
    From: UNRISD