Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) are being increasingly recommended as an effective new approach to fund and manage international development projects and to meet the MDGs.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote a highly influential book (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) on the philosophy of science.  He described how “routine” science dedicates itself towards puzzle-solving within a current paradigm or worldview.  When sufficient anomalies have accumulated against this paradigm, a scientific discipline will find itself in crisis.  The resolution of the crisis is the formation and acceptance of a new paradigm.

A number of sources have recently suggested that the international development sector is potentially in crisis.  Levels of foreign aid are still at historical highs (e.g. Africa receives development assistance of 8 percent of its GDP) and current estimates of hte size of the international aid and development sector range between $B100-150 per annum.  Despite this, poverty, reliance on economic models that do not promote self-sufficiency and institutional corruption are still increasing.  Public opinion also seems to be turning in certain countries against significant aid spending during periods of fiscal belt-tightening.

Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) are being increasingly recommended (e.g. see Hillary Clinton’s recent comments) as an effective new approach to fund and manage international development projects and to meet the MDGs.  With this fresh paradigm, the sector is therefore poised to expand rapidly.  But this may also change the development sector in unexpected ways.  The private sector certainly has the capability to leverage its substantial financial resources, to support sustainable development at local and national levels.  But maybe the real benefits to the aid sector relate to the professional resources and risk management practices that corporate organizations possess.

The mining industry is already engaged in this paradigm shift with CSR activities funded by CIDA related to the “social license to operate” in local communities.  Ideally, social contracts for community development projects are agreed with communities, to protect corporate investment on the one side and to ensure the best socio-economic outcomes for the community on the other side.  Given that the potential flow of funds to communities related to mining can be quite large, will the dynamics of donor and recipient be radically changed?  Is it possible that failures of aid projects may now be dealt with in the legal system?  Even where projects are not subject to contract law, will companies and their partnering NGOs be subject to tort of negligence or even charges of criminal negligence?  Where once a development agency would just withdraw to reflect on why a particular project did not deliver as anticipated, will the risk of failure begin to constrain the scope and range of projects attempted?

How do other sectors deal with similar risk management issues?  The global engineering sector (in common with other disciplines) has adopted a strong linkage between education and professional licensing.  Does the international development and aid sector need to follow this approach and attempt to certify qualifications and individuals?  This will have the benefit that professional status and practice of development workers will be legally defined and protected by governments.  A licensed practitioner would also have the authority to take legal responsibility for their development work – accountability is no bad thing.  In turn, this would affect the quality of formal training and field experience required by development workers and will help achieve harmonized and high-quality international best practices in the sector.

This blog obviously raises a number of other question, e.g. what type of training is needed and what attributes do we want our development workers to have?  Is this too onerous and will it exclude many willing and able people?  Where does the development worker fit into the preceding P3 model?  Whilst it is clear who we are referring to as the “private” party, who will the “public” party be?  I will discuss this subject again in subsequent blogs, but in the meantime I would be very interested in your opinions and comments.