Cross-sector partnerships can accelerate progress on some of the greatest challenges we face today, like climate change, mass migration, and future pandemics. These partnerships involve two or more types of partners, often a donor and a company, working together to achieve a targeted goal within a particular region or supply chain. In some cases, partners can scale their efforts by forming a multi-stakeholder initiative, or MSI. MSIs bring together myriad organizations to address challenging or systemic issues where business and development interests align, often on a global scale.
Q&A with Brett Johnson, Managing Director of Growth & Technical Services, and Partnership Expert
Resonance partnership expert Brett Johnson recently helped release new research for USAID on MSIs with the private sector. Below, we asked Brett to share some thoughts about how large-scale, coordinated collective action can help companies and global development organizations achieve greater impact, particularly in the time of COVID-19.
Resonance: What are MSIs, and why are they important?
Brett: The difference between a traditional cross-sector partnership and an MSI is that you're trying to create systems-level change. It's not so much about fixing a problem for two partners, but about bringing together a variety of partners of all sizes—donors, local government, multinational corporations, local businesses, NGOs—to solve a complex issue through collective action. They generally necessitate the creation of an entity to manage the collaboration, such as a secretariat.
From a public sector perspective, MSIs are attractive because they offer greater reach and power to address pervasive development issues like digital inclusion, global health, and climate change. For companies, an MSI can help them address business problems they can't solve alone, such as poor labor conditions in their supply chains. MSIs often involve what's known as "pre-competitive" activity, in which several companies come together to solve problems that advance the entire industry. Individual partners may be involved in different workstreams, but they share information to enhance everyone's combined knowledge and expertise.
Resonance: How might MSIs be directed toward COVID response and recovery?
Brett: Take Gavi, a global vaccine alliance whose core partners include the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Over the past 20 years, the initiative has immunized almost a billion children and is working to protect the next generation. During COVID, the partners have continued to offer immunizations but have also allocated resources to protect healthcare workers and purchase diagnostic tests. Now they are co-leading a global effort called COVAX to create equitable access to COVID vaccines. Their organizational and governance models are incredibly strong but also lean, which has helped them move quickly—and strategically—in response to the pandemic.
Education could provide another interesting example: amidst the pandemic, how do we bring kids back to school in a safe way? You've got remote education solutions, technology partners, curriculum developers, schools, connectivity players: it makes sense to bring all these partners together to say, how do we solve this? An MSI co-creation process could be a starting point for collaboration and wider-reaching solutions.
Resonance: What key partnership lessons would you highlight for future resilience?
Brett: The key thing is to take the time to get it right from the start, which means thinking through the why, the who, and the how. Too often, partners want to go straight into an MSI without thinking through partnership design and how the new collaboration will be governed. This "building the plane while taking off" approach often creates problems: you end up with the wrong partner mix or misaligned expectations. Some MSIs never truly get off the ground because of this. You need to articulate the MSI's theory of change: if X group of partners does Y, then Z will happen. A lot of the partnerships in our research didn't articulate a clear theory of change, or cause and effect.
Further, bringing together a group of people with common objectives isn't sufficient to get something done. You've got to think through why each stakeholder is motivated to solve this problem, and how to weave those motivations into an approach that provides value to everyone. You also need to understand that the nature of the problem will evolve over time. You should build in flexibility to adapt to what's going on in the world, and to build on the progress you make.
Finally, be realistic about what you can accomplish in a given time. The reality is that MSIs take a lot more time and effort than everyone generally expects.
Resonance: Why is cross-sector partnership important?
Brett: COVID has strained our systems and resources like no event outside of war has. It's shown the vulnerabilities within markets, institutions, value chains, and service delivery mechanisms. Collaboration is paramount to our ability to recover and rebuild. There's only so much the market can do on its own, or individual companies, or even governments. COVID has exposed a real need for joint solutions and information sharing about those solutions. How can we collaborate to engage at-risk or vulnerable people? How do we figure out how to educate a billion kids with schools impaired and the pandemic raging? These are incredibly complex issues that require mobilizing a lot of different peoples' ideas, resources, and expertise.
Resonance: Looking forward, how will MSIs gain or lose importance over the coming decade?
Brett: MSIs take a lot of work, and establishing a secretariat function—a central body with the ability, authority, and know-how to effectively coordinate and channel the activities of diverse global actors—can require a sizable investment. MSIs do fail. It's harder to produce outcomes than people think. It's not a given. There are many things you need to evaluate in a potential MSI to understand if it makes sense. Organizers will also have to be careful about MSI fatigue because there are only so many initiatives an influential partner can join. The need for collaborative solutions is going to be overwhelming, so how do you stay focused? A lot of the breakdown in MSIs is the how. With so many big issues, everyone wants to throw in more: more partners to weigh in, more focus areas to tackle, more objectives to achieve. It makes it harder to focus on the problem.
That said, I suspect MSIs are going to gain importance. So many 21st-century problems are bigger than what individual actors can influence. Whether you are looking at climate change or youth employment, we need so much more than just market-based or government-based approaches. These problems also require technology, money, and behavioral change. MSIs are one of the few models that can bring all of these pieces together, at a grand enough scale, to offer meaningful solutions. The question is, who's going to lead