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Beyond Pragmatism: Appraising UN-Business Partnerships

3 Oct 2006

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.

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.

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.

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”. 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.

Peter Utting is Deputy Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

Ann Zammit is currently a consultant at UNRISD.

Order PP MBR 1 from UNRISD, 63 pages, 2006; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.