High-Stakes Partnerships: Lessons from Difficult Settings

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NBS Thought Leaders offer guidance on sustainable business models for the 21st century. Thought Leaders are leading academics and practitioners: world experts on sustainability issues. Here, Dr. Ans Kolk provides advice based on her extensive research on partnerships, including in (post-)conflict settings in Congo and other countries in Africa and Latin America. Dr. Kolk is full professor at the University of Amsterdam Business School in the Netherlands.

Find multi-stakeholder partnerships in Canada, the US or Western Europe challenging? Companies in countries shattered by conflict, widespread poverty and weak government face even greater partnering challenges. Here, I share their experience and the implications for all partnership activities.

From Predictable to Unpredictable Problems

NBS has targeted partnerships as a priority issue in 2013/2014. This focus resulted in a comprehensive report on:

  • How to select the right type of partnerships, specifically looking at the goals you want to achieve
  • How to choose partners, considering the potential partner’s relevance, resources and approach
  • How to best manage the process, by being inclusive, setting the right expectations, building understanding and developing relationships.

This work provides insight into the predictable problems in partnerships (Berger et al., 2004): the issues that occur often and that companies can thus expect and try to address beforehand.

Predictable problems usually result from different organisational cultures and approaches of businesses and their non-profit partners, and lack of familiarity with these differences and with working together. Partnering therefore takes time and effort, and patience in getting to know one another. “Real collaboration takes more than meetings and powerpoints,” conditions can change and relationships must be allowed to evolve.

But context can bring new challenges to a partnership, including unpredictable problems.

Companies often begin their partnership experience in relatively stable settings: e.g. Canada, the US or Western Europe. International supply chains and the location of key resources can lead companies to engage in developing countries. Many of these countries have environmental and social problems, including widespread poverty, and weaker institutions, meaning less government ability to address the issues.

Most extreme are high-risk, conflict-affected areas, often found in “fragile states,” home to one-third of those living in poverty globally. Partnerships here can be highly valuable for both business and society, but are not easy.

Challenges for Partnerships in Post-conflict Countries

We studied partnerships in fragile states in Central Africa. These countries are characterized by violent conflict or a transition to peace, and have faced serious human rights violations and human suffering. Challenges in this context include:

  • Lingering fear and hostilities, making the context generally less supportive of collaboration
  • Close scrutiny, especially of extractive companies, by NGOs, local communities and the press
  • High expectations: in addition to “doing no harm,” business is expected to ”do good,” contributing to reconciliation and development
  • Lack of functioning governments: collaboration must initially take place between business and NGOs, sometimes supported by a foreign donor agency.

The result: Traditional philanthropic partnerships — most prevalent in conflict countries — are inadequate, especially in the long term. In these partnerships, a company provides charity to address a specific need with limited community involvement. Such actions can improve health, education or infrastructure in areas that suffered from devastation, but do not address the wider conflict issue.

Transformative partnerships, which address conflict legacies from a broader community focus, are needed. These partnerships seek to co-create a peaceful context from which communities and businesses can benefit.

We found only a few such partnerships, however, generally initiated in response to NGO pressure, particularly in the extractive industries (e.g. in Angola and Congo). In Rwanda and the Kivu province in Congo, coffee partnerships help to further peace, reconciliation and economic development, a phenomenon I also discovered in Colombia.

In addition to philanthropic and transformative partnerships, we also found engagement partnerships, intended to build trust through dialogue and to enable mutual learning, which is very important in a governance vacuum. They can be a stepping stone to transformative partnerships. Some companies had all three types of partnerships: e.g. AngloGoldAshanti, Katanga and Freeport-Tenke in Congo.

Learning from the Extreme: Takeaways for all Partnerships

Companies working in difficult settings learn to deal with unexpected issues and to help address huge social problems. The following lessons can be just as useful for inspiring collaboration in less turbulent circumstances:

  • Patience promotes peace: Even in difficult settings, longer-term involvement can bring very positive results. Over time, partnerships have reduced tensions and even fostered peaceful relations between previously fighting parties.
  • Preparedness promotes partnering: Turbulent environments demonstrate how rapidly situations can change. Managers should be prepared to collaborate with unexpected partners. Former “foes,” e.g. campaigning activists, can become valuable partners.
  • Partnerships help business: Partnerships help to earn a societal license to operate, especially for international firms, which face high expectations. They may also yield reputational benefits and lower costs. Extractive industry studies show that the cost of conflict with communities can be very high due to project delays, loss of productivity and staff time required.
  • Partnering requires sensitivity: Partnerships involve a search for benefits for all partners, both business and the community. Finding these benefits requires sensitivity to the human element, personal commitment and leadership. Partnering organizations thus need staff with these capacities, and should pay attention to these skills in training and recruitment.
  • Capacity-building addresses crowding-out: In (post-) conflict countries, governments are usually weak and thus unlikely partners. To prevent business-NGO partnerships from further weakening and even “crowding out” the state, they need to help build capacity, for example by involving government representatives in stakeholder dialogues.

About the Author

Ans Kolk is full professor at the University of Amsterdam Business School, The Netherlands. Her areas of expertise are corporate social responsibility and sustainability, especially in relation to international business firms and their interactions with stakeholders and society. Specific topics addressed have included poverty and development; bottom of the pyramid and subsistence markets; partnerships; codes of conduct and non-financial reporting; stakeholders and governance; and climate change and energy. She has participated in international projects on strategy, organisation and disclosure related to social and environmental issues, in cooperation with different private, public and societal organisations. Professor Kolk received the Aspen Institute Faculty Pioneer European Award (Lifetime Achievement Award) in 2009 (akolk@uva.nl; http://www.anskolk.nl).

Additional Resources

Berger, I.E., Cunningham, P.H., & Drumwright, M.E. (2004). Social alliances: Company/nonprofit collaboration. California Management Review, 47(1), 58-90.

Kolk, A. (2014). Partnerships as panacea for addressing global problems? On rationale, context, actors, impact and limitations. In M. Seitanidi & A. Crane (Eds.), Social Partnerships and Responsible Business: A Research Handbook. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 15-43.

Kolk, A. (2014). Linking subsistence activities to global marketing systems: The role of institutions. Journal of Macromarketing, 34(2), 182-194.

Kolk, A. & Lenfant, F. (2012). Business-NGO collaboration in a conflict setting: Partnership activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Business & Society, 51(3), 478-511.

Kolk, A. & Lenfant, F. (2013). Multinationals, CSR and partnerships in Central African conflict countriesCorporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management, 20(1), 43-54.

Seitanidi, M. & A. Crane (2014) (Eds.). Social Partnerships and Responsible Business: A Research Handbook. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.