Building partnerships (B4.03)


A partnership is often characterized as a working relationship between stakeholders with mutual and equal participation, joint interest, and shared responsibilities. In the water sector, a well-functioning partnership is a core approach to the practice of integrated water resources management principles. Partnerships have been established at regional and country level and area/basin partnerships are a new focus. At the global level, building partnerships has been reaffirmed as one of the main goals for achieving sustainable development (SDG 17).

The need for a partnership emerges from a specific set of conditions. Partnerships will, for instance, exist only if the parties see a mutual interest and benefit of partnering. However, this also precludes that parties want to remain and be considered separate – but – collaborating organizational structures. Depending on the needs and the desired outcomes, partners might want to merge into one single entity (e.g. WUA, NGO). Partnership thus exist on a variety of scales ranging from broad partnerships that involve several cross-sectoral actors to specific ones that are made in the interest of few particular players representing a certain expertise. Defining the scope and the format of a collaboration (partnership, association, umbrella association, etc.) is something that only partners themselves can decide and dialogue on those matters should always aim for transparency and openness.

Starting a partnership involves extensive work on many aspects: Stakeholder Analysis (C3.02), gap analysis, development of common goals, planning, programme design, social changes accompanied by social capacity building, cooperative inquiry, supporting self-organization, and organizational development, (work)conferencing. These are complex processes, where stakeholders may want to achieve many different goals at the same time. Setting up a partnership has a number of dimensions that need to be addressed simultaneously:

  • Stakeholders need to get to know each other; understanding and interpreting concepts in the same manner, and establishing a common language in the partnership.
  • Leveling of the playing field between the partners in terms of information, knowledge and expertise (C5); at the beginning there is usually a (large) difference in information levels.
  • The partnership need to develop its goals, outputs, and actions based on the will and motivation and collaboration of the partners.

To support the start of a partnership, framework conditions (protocol), working modalities (e.g. forum), and the scope of content (aspects of IWRM) need to be created. The method/protocol allows the stakeholders to interact with each other, and generate an outcome that is owned by all. This is possible because there is intensive horizontal communication and little hierarchy. The protocol agreed upon should be able to create space for dialogue and is characterized by:

  • Clearly defined roles, both for the participants and for the facilitating team. By maintaining these roles, the responsibilities will also remain clear: the participants are responsible for finding a response to their own issues and the facilitating team is responsible for maintaining a space for the dialogue.
  • Defining the question/issue, and the group that will be involved in answering this question. If the question is too big for the group or because a specific group is missing, then the question should be altered or the group has to be extended.

Resource-persons/specialists can, therefore, be added to the group. They will work in the same role as the other participants to avoid a hierarchy based on knowledge-status. Some partnerships, for instance, specify that meetings are to be facilitated by a neutral outsider. Mediation methods can be applied in various forms, both intensive and more extensive.

Lessons learned

  • Ground work is needed in order for partnerships to be established. Gains and trade-offs held by a future partnership can be determined by performing task such as: stakeholder analysis, gap analysis, development of common goals, planning, and programme design.
  • Diversity of partners across different categories of institutions solidify partnerships. They can involve individuals, associations, government agencies, research centers. The principles of transparency and equality between actors should also be respected even when the partnership is set between two or more different categories of institutions.
  • Partnerships are based on open dialogue and horizontal communication. A partnership is a form of association that works separately from conventional hierarchical structures.
  • The enhancement of learning, network, and transfer capacities are key gains from starting partnerships. This helps create Information Gathering and Sharing Networks (B4.01).
  • Partnerships require solid foundations as to avoid conflict. Memorandum of Understandings or other forms of bi- and multi-lateral agreements are documents that can help define and delimit each of the partners’ respective responsibilities.