openDemocracy post

29 January 2005

Its almost reached a point where having a session on partnerships is like having a session on ‘development’…I fondly remember Wolfgang Sach’s (the other one) Development Dictionary that unpacked the language of development…I suspect it is time to update it…I attended one large workshop on partnerships, mainly to explore whether the discussion had reached a stage where the governance and accountability issues had finally surfaced…Adele Simmons was great in highlighting the issue, and interestingly it was companies around the table that highlighted the issue…worrying was that the NGOs in attendance most involved in partnerships were least willing to put this top of their agendas, a sign of an Orwellian transition of at least some engaged NGOs into part of the accountability deficit, rather than the means through which it would be addressed…the representative from one fair trade labelling operation was clear about their agenda, which was in part “to pursuade more aggressive NGOs to come to the table to work with business”…a curious interpretation of the politics of change…we debate the pros and cons of ownership in fair trade as part of partnerships…Starbucks not impressed, Oxfam and Transfair cautiously supportive...another person argues, ‘fair trade is about trade, not ownership’, and the conversation dries and moves on…“The significance of partnerships in the world of MDGs is very small”, says a key UN person…we need to focus on going to scale and replicability…other people say that partnerships are the route to scale…

Oxfam gives feedback, highlighting that we had talked about governance and accountability in our session, but not mentioning that all that had in fact been discussed was the accountability of farmers, not at all of the commercial partner…I am confused!…Starbucks talks about the challenge of scaling up, “it will take decades to really get anything significant on the way”...my poor memory in the early fair trade days was that it was both a thing in itself but also a trigger of systematic change in how specific markets function…this version of scaling seems to have vanished in the discussion, the real strategic options of remoulding markets by taking full advantage of competitive dynamics between companies, and even viral effects between essentially non-competing markets….here we still seem to be confusing scaling for ‘getting bigger’, and confusing normalisation for ‘standardisation’…NGOs are seriously at fault here, again not trusting the potential of the market in getting to scale and so falling back on a compliance model of accountability, and institutional growth as the preferred model of scale.

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