Blog: Why the private sector?

Sarah Cummings – Knowledge brokering is seen an important way of bridging the knowledge gap between practice, policy and research in the field of international development. A considerable amount of research has focused on how academic research is taken up in evidence-based policymaking. For example, the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) group of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), UK, which has been prominent in this field since 1970 has published more than 467 publications on ‘research and policy in development’ while ‘knowledge intermediaries’ yields of 1323 results on the search engine of the website of the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK. Through such research initiatives with their varying terminologies (knowledge intermediaries, knowledge translation, knowledge co-creation), many insights have been developed. Given this dense research, this project An unusual suspect: the private sector in knowledge brokering in international development  focuses on the private sector, because it has received much less explicit attention than other actors and because, according to Leo Horn-Phathanothai of the World Resources Institute, the development sector is in need of better evidence of what works and what doesn’t in marrying commercial and sustainable development success.

The private sector is an increasingly an important actor in international development for a number of reasons. First, the private sector has the potential to scale up the interventions that have proven most effective; to extend these approaches to new fields and unreached people (UK Department for International Development, 2011: 4) by employing its considerable financial, technical and technological resources (World Resources Institute/International Institute for Environment and Development, 2013) which are greater than the resources provided by Official Development Assistance (UNDP, 2012). Second, donors consider the private sector as an indispensable partner for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of aid (WRI/IIED 2013; Horn-Phathanothai, 2013). Third, working with the private sector is seen as one way of delivering a political agenda of market‐driven development (Horn-Phathanothai, 2013). Reflecting this emphasis, Agenda 2030 and the SDGs also focus on the private sector and call upon ‘all businesses to apply their creativity and innovation to solving sustainable development challenges’ (UN 2015: 34). According to an article published earlier this year by the author of this blog, this emphasis on the private sector within Agenda 2030 may be the result of the influence exerted by the corporate sector and corporate philanthropies during the process of elaborating the SDGs. In another recent article, Mahmoud Mohieldin and Svetlana Klimneko argue that this emphasis on the private sector in the SDGs is  probably a response to pressure from international organisations, such as the World Bank, which have argued that:

The private sector can become a financier, shifting trillions of dollars of capital toward developing economies. And it can play an important role as an implementer, translating profits into sustained economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection.

Despite this growing emphasis, a new review by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development-Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) indicates that the decision to partner with the private sector should be rooted in a theory of change that establishes whether and how the private sector is best placed to realise specific development results. Many commentators consider that a better analysis is needed of the relationship between the private sectors and development actors if the private sector is to continue to be recognised as an important partner.

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