Menu

PPP consultants: blessing or curse?

Stephan Manning | 03 April 2013

Public private partnerships (PPPs) have become important means to pursue complex development goals, such as sustainability and food security. Recent examples include the German Initiative for Agribusiness and Food Security (GIAF) and the African Cashew Initiative (ACi). Initiating PPPs, however, can be a complex and tedious process. This is because PPPs typically involve multiple, both global and local, stakeholders – development agencies, businesses, NGOs and local partners. Partners not only have different interests, but often follow different norms, values and principles of action. Often, they are not even aware of the existence of potential project partners, nor are they clear about what kind of ‘project’ they could pursue to best serve their individual and joint interests.

Public private partnerships (PPPs) have become important means to pursue complex development goals, such as sustainability and food security. Recent examples include the German Initiative for Agribusiness and Food Security (GIAF) and the African Cashew Initiative (ACi). Initiating PPPs, however, can be a complex and tedious process. This is because PPPs typically involve multiple, both global and local, stakeholders – development agencies, businesses, NGOs and local partners. Partners not only have different interests, but often follow different norms, values and principles of action. Often, they are not even aware of the existence of potential project partners, nor are they clear about what kind of ‘project’ they could pursue to best serve their individual and joint interests.

Facing this complexity, development consultants have become important facilitators in the initiation of PPP projects. For example, one of the first collaborations of the German development agency GIZ with Kraft Foods in the late 1990s – which was aimed at raising the quality of Peruvian coffee in a sustainable way – was facilitated by a freelance consultant. This project would become a major stepping stone for today’s global Common Code for the Coffee Community. Like in this case, consultants are typically industry experts with experience in aid projects in particular regions, and with connections to both the business and development world. They can help build bridges between potential local and global partners, frame and negotiate feasible project ideas, and speed up the project formation process. Also, consultants can help initiate follow-up projects and develop long-term PPP alliances. For example, the above mentioned freelancer facilitated multiple PPP coffee projects in Latin America and paved the way for a longer-term alliance between GIZ, Kraft Foods and other partners in the coffee sector (see related article by Manning and Von Hagen, 2010).

Yet, a recent study of PPP projects run by GIZ and the Austrian development agency ADA (see article by Manning and Roessler, 2013) indicates that many consultant-led PPP projects do not have this kind of impact. To secure project success and to promote repeat business, consultants often go for ‘low-hanging fruits’ – small-scale, low-risk projects in well-established domains, e.g. local training programs that benefit business partners and satisfy criteria of ‘capacity building’. One example are numerous PPP projects aimed at training textile workers in developing countries on behalf of Western textile firms. While consultants have repeatedly succeeded in initiating such projects, their actual contribution to larger development goals has been limited. By contrast, several much more innovative and impactful PPP projects, such as the first ever certification of Indian textile suppliers by GIZ and a German shoe-maker in line with ILO labor standards in the late 1990s, did not involve any consultants at all. So, how helpful are they really? Was the PPP between GIZ and Kraft Foods just an exception?

Not quite. The study reveals that the key question is not whether but how consultants get involved in PPP projects. Projects that are initiated and driven by consultants tend to be narrow in scope, repetitive and limited in their regional and global impact. This is because consultants tend to choose project domains that are agreeable to all parties, likely to succeed and repeatable. By contrast, project ideas that originate from internal members of development agencies and/or business partners tend to be more ambitious and often do not resemble established templates. This was the case when a GIZ agriculture expert and Kraft Foods representatives began talks in the mid-1990s about joining forces to promote high-quality coffee production in Peru. However, in order to implement their project idea they brought in a consultant at a later stage to support proposal writing, negotiations with local partners and project execution. As another example, an Austrian beverage producer once initiated a project with ADA to promote sustainable pomegranate cultivation in Bosnia. To secure seamless and professional project implementation, an external consultant was hired later in the process.

What can we learn from this? Consultants can facilitate PPP projects. But this is not always desirable from a development standpoint. When consultants initiate and ‘sell’ project ideas, they can be a curse – as they typically aim for low-hanging fruits and avoid more ambitious and risky project agendas. By contrast, when consultants are brought in later to help implement a project idea that has already been developed by main project partners they can be a blessing – by making unlikely projects happen.

Further readings:

Stephan Manning: Global PPP networks for sustainable food production [LINK]

Link: http://www.thebrokeronline.eu/Blogs/Towards-a-food-secure-world/Global-PPP-networks-for-sustainable-food-production

Manning, S., Von Hagen, O. 2010. “Linking Local Experiments to Global Standards: How Project Networks Promote Global Institution-Building”. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 26 (4), 398-416.

Link (Download): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1668888

Manning, S., Roessler, D. 2013. “The Formation of Cross-Sector Development Partnerships: The Role of Bridging Agents and Project Network Alliances”. UMB College of Management Working Paper.

Link (Download): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2241067

Related themes:

About the author

Stephan Manning

Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His main research in...

full profile ▶