Ever since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, there has been a loud voice of concern in the international community. It concerns the gap between what the heads of state committed on paper in pursuit of sustainable development, and what actually happened around the world. The worsening trends of climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, desertification, resource depletion and poverty all pointed to a widening gap between vision and action.
Amidst the call for renewed efforts to tackle the mounting challenges, forging partnerships among the three major stakeholders – government, business and civil s oc iety, seems to offer a glimpse of hope. In the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 – the first such event attended by both government and non-governmental delegations from Hong Kong , the concept of tripartite partnerships was given a seal of approval by the international community.
Whilst there have been many attempts to forge partnerships at the global level, for instance, the Marine Stewardship Council established as an operational partnership between World Wildlife Fund and Unilever in 1999, or the “Choose Positive Energy” Campaign launched as an awareness partnership between Greenpeace International and the Body Shop in 2001, let us today focus at the local level, and use Hong Kong as a case study to examine whether partnerships are making real impacts at the community.
Despite the adoption of Local Agenda 21 – an initiative to develop sustainable communities by means of broad-based public participation – by over 7000 cities around the world in over a decade, progress has been painfully slow in Hong Kong . Up to now only one out of 18 districts, namely the Central & Western District – with the help of our organizer today, Centre of Urban Planning and Environmental Management at the University of Hong Kong - has attempted to develop a comprehensive sustainable development strategy. And only three weeks ago did we witness another district – Wanchai, the district where we are located today – launch the first ever public process for Loc al Agenda 21.
On the other hand, in the last few years the Hong Kong government has been pumping resources into the community to encourage partnerships through public funds, the most notable of which include the Sustainable Development Fund and the Community Investment and Inclusion Fund. These funds are administered by government-appointed committees and open for applications by NGOs. Have they succeeded in nurturing partnerships in the community?
To answer this question we have to revisit a more fundamental question. What exactly are tripartite partnerships at the local level?
Partnerships are meant to fill a gap in the current system of governance. Within each of the key stakeholders there are institutional weaknesses which render each of them a deficient player in the pursuit for sustainable development. Governments are hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency and the low trust factor with people. The private sector is unable to deliver comprehensive solutions because of the structural problem of market failure and the void in corporate social responsibilities. The civil society, though ideals-driven, suffers from a lack of resources and the absence of policy-making authority.
To put it simply, improving governance is the overarching objective of partnerships which can be used to stimulate economic vibrancy, strengthen s oc ial cohesion and improve people’s quality of life. Partnerships, if carried out to its full potential, should improve the ways s oc iety collectively solves its problems and meets its needs – for this and for future generations.
It can be argued that genuine partnerships have two essential characteristics.
First, partnering is a horizontal relationship.
The essential feature of partnership is mutual dependence. Neither party can achieve the desired results by working alone. Even though the partners may be vastly unequal in some aspects of their relationship, at some level their core interests are linked. This gives them the right and duty to speak freely about issues of mutual concern and to make joint decisions. The degree to which the partners can discuss matters as equals is a litmus test for whether the relationship can be called a partnership.
Second, partnering builds synergy.
Partnership brings expertise to the table that the partners lack individually. By jointly harnessing their respective skills and experience, the partnership can accomplish more. By the same token, a partnership will fail unless it provides clear and compelling benefits for each party.
For partnerships to function effectively there are some key principles which must be observed:
1. Shared values
Partners have many things in common, but also many unique elements to their work. It is almost impossible that all of the partners' goals and values line up together; it is however important that there be significant common ground, a shared mission, for joint action. Partnerships need to articulate what are important to them, and understand where their shared purpose and interests lie.
2. Shared Governance
Despite the imbalance of power between partners, there must be a mechanism which enables each partner to have largely equal voice and appropriate representation in decision-making. This is the starting point for building trust, taking risks, showing care, honouring commitments and creating a culture of mutual support among partners.
3. Shared resources
Each party to the partnership brings a different set of resources. A truly effective partnership utilizes all of its collective resources based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. For instance, governments and business may contribute the bulk of financial resources whereas NGOs may provide much-needed public trust and network. Withholding of resources is a common organizational phenomenon, so a positive climate must be built in which partners are encouraged to offer all that they bring to the larger whole.
4. Shared accountability
Partnership involves shared ownership of risks, benefits, and responsibility for outcomes. One of the great stumbling blocks in partnering is fear of being held accountable for the mistakes of others, or conversely not receiving recognition for success. In successful partnerships the partners clarify roles, make commitments, and devise ways to hold each other mutually accountable. Not only are partners accountable to each other, but they should also share the same commitment to make the partnership accountable to whom they mean to serve, and the community at large.
If the above partnering principles are used as yardsticks, many of the projects which have grown out of the Sustainable Development Fund and the Community Investment and Inclusion Fund appear to have fallen short of the definition of tripartite partnerships in both spirit and substance. Whilst these projects are often worthwhile initiatives per se, they are more appropriately classified as an alternative mode of service delivery with largely government funding and sometimes a small dose of corporate philanthropy. They do however cover a wide scope ranging from elderly and child-care services, employment creation for disadvantaged groups, to environmental improvements in the urban or rural setting.
Although we can identify what qualifies as a tripartite partnership, when theory is put into practice, too often the outcome is distorted by each stakeholder’s perception of what one may gain potentially from the success of the partnership, as well as the opportunity costs of its failure. Good intentions of collaboration are often no match for die-hard habits of control and maneuvering towards one-sided outcomes.
Consider, for instance, the many cases of urban renewal now taking place in Hong Kong . Due to the level of resources needed in each project, government intervention is a norm. Stakes are high in every case as new funds are injected, new plans are produced and new opportunities are capable of being created in old districts. These are ideal opportunities for partnerships in which the government can fulfill its s oc ial objectives, the private sector can contribute its commercial expertise and local stakeholders can seize the chance to revitalize the neighbourhood. In fact, if managed well, urban renewal can give a much-needed push for a sustainable community.
Sadly, instead of becoming breeding grounds for innovative partnerships, local urban renewal projects, such as the H15 project involving the wedding card street in Wanchai, often end up in conflicts among developers who f oc us on their bottom-lines, residents who deplore the loss of community fabric, an urban renewal authority which seems to have been constrained by self-imposed business logic, and government policy-makers who are all too happy to stay out of the controversies despite the pr oc laimed s oc ial objectives.
Planning for Victoria Harbour
Another example is the ongoing debate on the conservation of Victoria harbour and the enhancement of the harbourfront areas. For those of you who come from overseas, I trust you would not disagree that the harbour is one of the most precious assets for Hong Kong . Yet for nearly a decade this natural asset, far from becoming a centre point for vision-building, has become a subject of much attrition among administrators, politicians, professionals, developers and green groups and the public at large.
The latest controversy surrounding the planning of the newly-reclaimed Central habourfront and the use of the Tamar site for government headquarters is a good illustration of the elusive nature of partnerships. Whilst all stakeholders seem to have agreed on a shared vision, there is no agreement on a structure for shared governance, let alone any willingness to consider shared resources among potential partners from the government, business and civil society. The statutory town planning process – considered by many as long overdue for reform, is incapable of building consensus or generating constructive partnerships.
The Chief Executive, putting emphasis on procedural correctness rather than good planning, is apparently on a personal crusade to build a new government headquarters on Tamar. The business sector is keeping its skepticism under wraps despite its unease about the proposal’s negative impact on the vibrancy of the Central District and certain developers’ fortunes. The civil society is aggrieved on the lack of a holistic view and a sacrifice of good urban design over administrative expediency.
Here is the irony: when the logic for partnership is strong, the will for partnership is weak. The ideal of tripartite partnership seems to be as elusive as ever.
Can we ever nurture a set of healthy conditions under which the cool-headed calculation of self-interest by each stakeholder will strengthen, rather than weaken, tripartite partnerships?
Whilst there is no magic formula to fit all local conditions, perhaps there is one direction worthy of our collective effort. Lately there are emerging interests in developing international standards in collaborative partnerships. These standards offer several advantages to the development of cross-sector collaboration, such as greater sustainability, enhanced legitimacy, transparency, accountability and good governance. An example of this is the PGA Framework on partnership governance developed by an U.S. group, AccountAbility.
If local standards can be developed on the basis of these international initiatives, and if these local standards can gain formal recognition from key stakeholders in the government, business and civil society, local actors may feel compelled to use these standards for partnership building. There will thus be an enabling environment to facilitate genuine partnerships.
Yet these are two big “ifs”. Many have observed that partnerships are more common in societies where there is a balance of power among stakeholders. Perhaps the ultimate solution here lies with the partner embracing the most ideals but the least resource: civil society must work hard to increase its persuasive power so that partnerships will be seen as a necessity rather than a luxury.
“Hong Kong Air Challenge”
To conclude this speech and to test out Hong Kong’s commitment to partnerships, may I invite the keynote speakers today – from Hong Kong ’s environment regulator and the largest power company, to consider this tripartite partnership with the civil society: the “Hong Kong Air Challenge”.
Given the worsening air quality and the public outcry, we all have a shared vision for a Hong Kong where we can breathe freely without fear of SOx, NOx or involuntary particulates. This “Hong Kong Air Challenge” will be a “partnership beyond compliance” – working together to develop implementation plans to reduce Hong Kong ’s pollutant emissions beyond the announced 2010 air quality targets, and to continuously improve air quality beyond 2010. None of these has been attempted by any group before.
Civil society groups are ready to invest their expertise and credibility in this all-important partnership. Will the government be ready to invest its administrative resource and political capital in this partnership, and to adopt a structure of shared governance? Will the private sector be ready to invest with technical expertise and financial resource, and be accountable to its partners?
Let us keep our fingers crossed for the birth of a partnership that everyone in Hong Kong may benefit. Thank you.