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openDemocracy reports from the World Economic Forum taking place in Davos, Switzerland from 26-30 January.

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Partnerships – the New Development Pathway

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” 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.

January 29, 2005 | Permalink


It is fascinating to read this blog from Porto Alegre, while attending the World Social Forum, in the heat and intensity of an event filled with creative chaos, where +2000 self-organized events have been set up by civil society organizations from all over the world.

In a meeting yesterday with Chico Whitaker, one of the creators of the WSF, it was illuminating to get to understand the organizational mechanics behind this increasingly massive event. The WSF conceives itself as the facilitator of a ‘space’, where diversity of organizations and causes converge and self-organize, and advance the development of interconnections between horizontal networks. The WSF, once again this year, chooses not to proclaim a cause of its own but provide the space for those causes and affiliations to emerge.

Although organizations like Instituto Ethos and AccountAbility, which work with business organizations to advance their ethical transformation are present and lead on different issues of systemic change, business is, both physically and ideologically, nowhere to be seen along the 4km-long ‘social territory’ of meeting spaces, in the midst of the 150.000 people assembled to proclaim that, however different everyone might be in their agendas and struggles, ‘another world is possible’.

At first, one can view this with quite a cynical eye; what kind of ‘other’ world can arise out of this chaos? But slowly one realises that it is not about the workshops that are being conducted, it is not about the slogans or the banners. There is something in the ‘way’ the forum is organized that renders the vision of another world attractive. It is not about the themes themselves, but about the process of a collective construction of a space. While this is not a theme which is discussed by the thousands of individuals present, the process carries the encryption of a different way of understanding development and, ultimately, scale.

Need not to say that here, at the WSF, the mere idea of ‘markets’ being an instrument of social change is not even in the fine print of the collective imagery, it not even whispered in low voice. After a second thought, it would seem to have a direct relationship with the – rather reasonable- idea that social exclusion is a natural consequence of ‘a way’ of conducting social and economic development. In this sense, it is interesting to contrast the discussions about ‘scaling up’ social change both here and there, WSF and WEF.

Simon’s description of the WEF discussions portray questions of scale as related to institutional growth, and issues of social regulation as related to compliance models. Even the large NGOs present would seem to replicate a corporatist view of development, which is quite understandable when one looks at their multinational-like organizational models.

In the midst of chaos and the semi-disorganization of the WSF, one senses that scale is linked to the most literal understanding of collective action; to the connection of diversities through the elaboration of new and wider forms of societal consensus about the values that should underpin the way we organize and develop our societies.

Are these two forums a ying-yang-like opposition of forces in how we think about processes of social change? While the word “partnerships” dangerously equates with “development” at the WEF, it responds to a view which is highly intertwined with the image of an organization’s hierarchical structure, even as it creates new organization in the process of association. Does the increasingly dogmatic idea of ‘partnerships’ itself induces us to understand scale as institutional growth?

The risk then becomes obvious: The discourse of development as increasingly associated –through its equation to ‘partnerships’- with established organizational structures, might overshadow an understanding of ‘scale’ which resonates with horizontal processes of consensus building and broad interconnections of social networks, which transcend the institutions entering the partnership, and the partnership itself, of course. Still, the ying-yang stands for the union of the opposites. The WSF contribution might call for a reduced emphasis on large institutions and a deeper engagement and mobilization of actors and their networks that orbit the public goal which wants to be addressed in the first place.

Posted by: Alejandro Litovsky | Jan 29, 2005 8:32:36 PM

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