Partnership is the new buzzword. All aspiring politicians, business tycoons, or institutional leaders must, at the very least, envelope their agenda in the soft language of partnership. This creates the gooey sentiment useful to any enterprise – good or bad.
Partnering for good
Doing good such as by advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, necessitates the mobilisation of collective resources, knowledge, and skills. That is because there are not enough individual capacities to do sufficient good at a large scale.
Thus, partnering for good needs no further justification. Many examples exist in all human development sectors of the SDGs i.e. health, water, education etc. It is then mostly a technical issue to figure out the processes and mechanisms to make strong and efficient partnerships.
Of course, there is still work to do because do-gooders are only human i.e. they are also self-seeking, jealous and competitive. And when do-gooders herd together in good-making institutions such as NGOs, UN agencies, and the Red Cross Red Crescent, the human ego problem is consolidated and magnified. That is why coordination is complicated in international humanitarianism and development. I can vouch for this having held senior positions with the word coordinator in them.
We have learnt that partnerships can’t rely on good faith alone. They need rules and regulations. Someone has to produce the tips, tools and manuals to be used to control or re-direct the selfish or un-cooperative sides of our nature. That is why partnership punditry is a thriving endeavour with courses and conferences dedicated to its art and science.
If partnering for good is difficult, what then about partnering for bad? Historically, the most successful partnerships were criminal ones. After all, there is no need to invoke higher morality if your motivation is simply to make money. The Mafias of many countries understand this very well. Also Hollywood and Bollywood. We even romanticise and fantasise criminal partnerships in blockbusters such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather.
Nowadays, highly lucrative partnerships exist in people trafficking, drug pedalling, trading in fake medicine, gambling, selling arms, and countless other enterprises that prey on human vulnerability, greed and insecurity. Indeed, the partnership gurus and business schools should make case studies of them so that the do-gooding partnerships can learn about ruthless efficiency.
But criminal partnerships are generally restricted to thugs. They also need to be exclusive. That maximises profit-sharing among like-minded crooks while reducing discovery risks. They are also very adaptable to changing operational environments, technologies, and new markets. Hence criminal partnerships are often highly sustainable. The good-making partnerships can learn something here.
But, even more informative than criminal partnerships are the evil ones. These are orchestrated by leaders that mobilised their populations en masse towards whole-scale destructive ends. The classic example is Hitler’s Holocaust. How else could you kill 6 million Jews and 3 million others except through getting most of Germany’s population to be your partners? And then making partners out of conquered territories such as Vichy France or neighbours such as Mussolini’s Italy, and even partnering with far-away Imperial Japan. The tactics for that are detailed in Hitler’s Mein Kampf which could be studied by partnership gurus.
Similar proven “whole of society” partnerships are exemplified by the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Srebrenica and Darfur. Also the Islamic State partnership against the Yazidis in Iraq, the Myanmar state against Rohingya, the Chinese state against its Uyghur minority, or the Ethiopian state against Tigray. The massive war in Yemen is a well-known multinational partnership effort.
The Soviet Union used ruthless partnership tactics to trigger catastrophic famine in 1930s Ukraine, as did Mao of China in his Great Leap Forward which would have been impossible without a vast orchestration of civil society partnering. Unsurprisingly, modern Russia has learnt all such partnership lessons and applied them in Syria and now in Ukraine. As have many dictators in Africa where there has been a rash of recent coups.
What is the mechanism behind evil partnerships? It is always the same: combining the latest technology (such as drones, nowadays) with potent communications (internet and social media in our time). They meld to target the vulnerabilities of potential partners through withholding true and generating false information that breeds insecurity, fear, and the “othering” of the enemy. We always fall for this methodology, in all cultures and continents.
Partnering for SDG 16
I have talked about criminal and evil partnerships – and what to learn from them – so as to introduce SDG 16 on peace, justice, and strong institutions. This is the direct converse of criminality and evil.
The wording of this goal takes time to discover as it needs scrolling down to Number 16. It is not particularly cohesive as the three dimensions – peace, justice, and institutions – appear to have got married together because there was no space left in the extensive overall SDG framework to give them their own goals. Having been involved somewhat in the design of the SDGs, that was indeed the case.
Of course, peace, justice, and strong institutions are interrelated but the array of their underlying 12 targets and 23 indicators take the classic silo approach. The unifying vision and energy behind this SDG are missing – apart from the platitudes. And, while many good organisations struggle on these topics, genuine and significant cross-domain partnerships are elusive.
For example, the trade-offs between justice and peace are well known. If we look at crimes against humanity including the genocides referenced earlier, we can see that the desperation for peace always trumps justice and accountability, although we know that there can be no sustainable peace without justice being done. Time and time again, we sell the victims down the road by consoling them with humanitarian aid – which is usually too little and too late. We have seen that in numerous conflicts around the world.
Thus, how do we expect the scores of fragile conflict-affected countries to navigate SDG 16? Especially, when even the global organisations dealing with political, humanitarian, human rights, security and development issues are in creative tension with each other. Of course,, in principle, they are pointed towards the same vision – eloquently touted in the UN Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the SDGs. While a shared vision is essential to create partnerships, it is often just a blanket to fudge fundamental value differences which seem unbridgeable at the current time of broken globalisation, divisive multilateralism, or rabid nationalism.
This scepticism is not a criticism of the merits of partnership. Working together to achieve a collective good is self-evidently a good idea. The concern is that, as far as SDG16 is concerned, it is very hard because of the contradictions and tensions that are in-built into this rag-bag of a goal. This also makes it difficult to determine if we are progressing its numerous targets.
That is doubtful, because externalities that influence whether or not we get peaceful and just societies served by effective, accountable institutions, are often inert to influence using the tools we have at our disposal.
How can partnership approaches shift that? Einstein said that “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” Fresh mindsets around creating effective partnerships for SDG16 are sorely needed but are not yet evident.
(Based on the author’s address to the special session on “SDG16: Peace, Justice, Strong Institutions” at the 18th DIHAD, in Dubai, 15 March 2022)