Unpacking the private sector. An interview with Unusual suspects researcher Sarah Cummings.

'(Un)usual suspects' — SURe programme,Inclusive Economy15 May 2019Yannicke Goris, Arthur Rempel

If you are working in today’s development sector, you are bombarded with abbreviations, acronyms and complex jargon on a daily basis. The notions of ‘multi-stakeholder partnerships’ and ‘working with the private sector’ will most likely be all too familiar, but, as Sarah Cummings argues, “when we talk about working with the private sector, people often don’t consider the different types of private sector and what that really means from a development perspective”. In her research, Cummings, who works at the Athena Institute at VU University Amsterdam, tries to unpack this idea of collaborating with the private sector, focusing on knowledge brokering in the field of international development. Hang on… research on the role of the private sector in knowledge brokering for international development? It is quite likely that people don’t know what this means either … Perhaps it is time to have a word with researcher Sarah Cummings herself.

Let us start with the basics: knowledge brokering? What does that entail? Knowledge brokering is defined as any activity or process that facilitate the exchange of knowledge, often between policymakers, academics and those working in – in this case – development practice. It is associated with knowledge co-creation by different types of stakeholders, knowledge sharing between them, but also peer learning and communities of practice. Within the development sector, knowledge brokering is increasingly recognized as essential for improving development policy and practice, and for ensuring that accumulated insights from the field are not lost over time. As the involvement of the private sector in development efforts is receiving more attention, as reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals and Dutch development policy, there is increasing recognition that private sector actors hold a vast amount of knowledge that could greatly benefit development practice, as well as knowledge brokering efforts. Yet, to what extent, if at all, is the private sector already engaged in knowledge brokering for international development? And, if we want to increase their involvement, what opportunities and barriers exist? It is these kinds of questions that are driving Sarah Cummings in her research project An unusual suspect: the private sector in knowledge brokering in international development (the Unusual suspects project).

Moving beyond the literature

The Unusual suspects project started in September 2017 as part of the NWO-WOTRO Science for Using Research (SURe) programme. From the beginning, it was clear that the team – Cummings and her colleagues, Barbara Regeer of VU and Suzanne Kiwanaku of Makerere University in Uganda – was venturing into uncharted territory. As Sarah Cummings explains, already in the first phase of the study, a comprehensive literature review, it turned out that “very little research had been done on the role of the private sector in knowledge brokering for development”, which in and of itself is an interesting finding, given the increased emphasis on the private sector’s role as a key development actor, but also given the huge amount of literature on knowledge brokering within international development.1  As such, the Unusual suspects project will be a great contribution to the existing literature, an important feature for an academic study. However, the project’s ambition goes beyond adding to the literature. With its research, it aims to contribute to current development practice and meaningful cooperation with the private sector in particular. This is one of the motivations of the research projects under the SURe umbrella, which all aim to have an impact on development practice. For that reason, the research team has now moved from literature research to the phase of questionnaires and interviews in order to identify barriers and opportunities for establishing productive relationships with the private sector. The first interview has been conducted with Frans Verberne and Vanessa Nigten of the Food & Business Knowledge Platform, which has a strong tradition of working with the private sector. Interviews with other knowledge platforms are to follow.

Science for Using Research (SURe)

SURe is a research programme supported by NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development. It aims to strengthen the scientific and evidence base for knowledge brokering activities in research programmes for international development. For the purposes of SURe, knowledge brokering comprises all of the activities and processes that facilitate the sharing and use of knowledge, as well as the co-creation that takes place between research, policy and practice.

Unpacking the private sector

“The success of most collaborations or knowledge sharing often comes down to relationships, not only between organizations but also between people. This is particularly important when people are coming from the private sector and might have different expectations about roles and time-lines, for example”, Cummings notes, when asked to delve deeper into working with the private sector. “Yet”, she continues, “we should be careful about talking of the private sector”. Cummings points to the sector’s incredible diversity, which makes it crucial to analyse in detail what type of private actors we are working with and what their different interests are. “I think everybody would agree that it is important to engage with small and medium-sized businesses in developing countries in our initiatives”, says Cummings. “But when you’re involving multinationals, it becomes a whole different kettle of fish and you have to be really careful about how to involve them, at what time, and for what purpose”. So far, the Unusual suspects project has revealed that such ‘unpacking’ of the private sector is often lacking. Looking at key policy documents about the private sector’s role in the Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, Cummings and her colleagues found that a general ‘pro private sector’ stance in favour of increased collaboration with the private sector prevails, without a critical assessment of what the different categories of the sector may contribute. Such views carry a certain risk, warns Cummings: “There can be trade-offs to working with the private sector, such as having to compromise on development or sustainability objectives – and these trade-offs can be both real and perceived. For this reason, traditional development organizations need to be realistic about who they can and want to involve”.

The challenge of translation

Now that the Unusual suspects project is moving towards its final stages, Cummings is working to bring its findings to her target audiences. As for reaching academia, this might be the most straightforward. For example, available online in an Open Access format, is the project’s first paper, The future of knowledge brokering, which is currently the most downloaded paper from the academic journal ‘Information Development’. Bringing the findings to policymakers and practitioners, however, is a different challenge. “For people other than those specifically interested in knowledge brokering for development, [this project] might seem a bit arcane and impenetrable”, laughs Cummings. Yet, despite the complexity and theoretical nature of the Unusual suspects project, it has great relevance for development practice. Think of it this way: if we value the knowledge that is shared and co-created between sustainable development actors, and if we regard private sector actors as key partners in our development efforts, then we must make sure we understand what specific roles the private sector can play and how we can best work together. The Unusual suspects project can improve this understanding and help policymakers and practitioners think critically about how to engage the private sector in their work. Accordingly, in the following months, Sarah Cummings and The Broker will work together to translate the project’s findings into clear policy briefs and interactive meetings, so that these insights will find their way into both policy and practice and contribute to sustainable development.

Cummings CGIAR

To further concentrate on the role of the private sector, Sarah Cummings has started working on a new project, based at the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research. This project, ‘Improving the effectiveness of public-private partnerships within the CGIAR: knowledge sharing for learning and impact’, aims to facilitate practice and learning across the CGIAR system.


  1. For more details on the key findings of this literature review, also read this article on The Broker website.