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Let's move beyond the conceptual chaos of 'public-private partnerships' and talk about what it really means.

In order to support the USAID-funded Transform WASH project in Ethiopia (, I was asked to do a desk study on the concept of public-private partnerships (PPPs) to better understand how the public and private sector can collaborate in promoting improved sanitation.

After engaging with the concept of PPPs in different capacities over the last five years, I know that PPPs are widely analysed and applied across sectors and regions, but at times used carelessly because it is an approach favoured by policy makers, donors, researchers and practitioners. Yet, just claiming that your new project is a PPP doesn't really clarify much, does it?

So, in the study I specifically wanted to understand models or arrangements, not necessarily bounded by contractual agreements, in which the public and private directly or indirectly influence each other and/or collaborate in establishing, strengthening or scaling up sanitation businesses targeting sanitation products and services for households. Let's call this broader non-contractual way of working 'public-private collaboration'.

There is no better way to learn than from past experiences and then trying again, mixing lessons learnt from the past with innovative ideas. For the desk study, I gathered 57 examples of models from 11 countries where the public and private sectors have made an attempt to collaborate, either directly and bound by contractual agreements, or indirectly by influencing and supporting each other's efforts. The selected examples were identified by reviewing existing literature and secondary sources, including reports and websites of organisations operating in the WASH sector. The search was complemented by interviews with a selected group of WASH practitioners across the world.

In a second step, I categorised all the examples in the scan and developed a framework based on the different models (building on an earlier framework developed by Water for People). I then selected a number of lessons learnt from the scan and discussed their potential strengths and weaknesses relevant to the Ethiopian context. Categorising models is a nuanced task with room for interpretation and drawing sharp lines between them proved difficult. The reader may find examples that are identified as one type of model but which includes elements of other models as well.

The proposed framework (see Figure 1 and 2) aims to assist in systematically evaluating where in sanitation markets a model of public-private collaboration may be relevant and (potentially) successful. It can also be used to identify what key challenges need to be addressed in order to increase the potential of the chosen model of public-private collaboration. The framework starts from the notion that sustainable sanitation provision needs to address both demand and supply simultaneously (including easing finance constraints for both consumers and suppliers), and that the enabling environment will facilitate rather than deter activities aiming to strengthen the demand and supply.

The framework centres around three goals – strengthening demand, strengthening the enabling environment, and strengthening the supply chain – and lists a number of activities under each goal. The public and private sectors can either engage separately in the activities or collaborate with each other in order to influence and stimulate sanitation markets. Each activity has a list of identified sub-activities (see Figure 2). The framework is envisioned to (a) work as a diagnostic tool to analyse the viability of current sanitation business models and related government systems and capacities by identifying their respective strengths and weaknesses (e.g. knowledge and capacity gaps). Based on this analysis you can then (b) identify how and where in sanitation markets the public and private sectors may find opportunities to collaborate. Additionally, the framework will help you to understand where in existing sanitation markets the system and actors function well.

Figure 1 Proposed framework for understanding public-private collaboration in sanitation markets

Proposed framework for public private collaboration

Source: adapted from Water for People (2016) Strengthening public sector enabling environments to support sanitation enterprises: based on Water For People's experience in nine countries. Guidance Manual

Figure 2 Overview of activities and sub-activities of the framework

Activities and sub-activities of the framework

The most important next step is of course to let go of this theoretical level and put it into practice. An abstract framework does not do the job but can be useful in making sense of unstructured information, showcasing correlations or help you tick boxes. What I have learnt from this research is the following:

  • Stop promoting the jargon and bland language that the sector revolves around. Sometimes it facilitates business, for sure, but more often it is a source of misunderstanding and an effective tool for creating non-common grounds. Multifaceted concepts that cross sectors, regions and time (like PPPs) need to be clarified to actually tell us something. Spell out what your collaboration essentially aims to accomplish, how you will achieve that by partnering with others, and name what each actor shall contribute with.
  • Select partners with care and learn from evidence. Set aside resources (including time) for creating a common ground and shared vision for all partners involved in the initial phase of the collaboration. This will serve to set the main features of the partnership, based on a thorough dialogue and analysis about what each actor can – and should – bring to the partnership. This is especially important when the partnership concerns a public good or a human right, such as WASH.

And, just a final remark I wanted to share with you before packing up my IRC identity and moving on to the next adventure. Aren't partnerships: truly about human relations, dialogue and trust? If so, how do we measure that and can a framework really help?

You can find the learning note here.


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