The challenges of partnerships – insights from The Forests Dialogue

14 April 2009 | News story

Jamie Gordon of IUCN talks with Gary Dunning of The Forests Dialogue about the challenges of forest partnerships.

First Gary, could you tell us a bit about the history of The Forests Dialogue (TFD)?

Well it began back in 1998 when James Wolfensohn, then-President of the World Bank, convened a meeting between the heads of large forest companies and of large environmental NGOs, to help reduce the conflict between these two groups and encourage them to establish a more constructive engagement. This group then decided to create an ongoing leaders’ partnership that was later renamed TFD – so TFD really grew out of this notion of partnership, as a means to develop collaborative ideas and solutions.

I can see it could be difficult to convince donors and other groups about the value of multi-stakeholder dialogue processes. Have you found this to be the case?

Certainly we regularly have to justify to donors who don’t know us why this dialogue process is important – that it’s not just a talk-shop, it’s not just a one-off, and it’s not just an opportunity for us to fly someplace nice for a few days! When we talk about our successes, it’s often the spin-offs from the actual dialogue – such as the side conversations, the agreements and partnerships that are formed between participating stakeholder groups – that bring real change towards sustainable forest management, which is what we’re all about. In fact, the whole premise behind TFD is that we can build trust among the different groups participating in our dialogues, and provide them with tools, ideas and an environment in which they can form their own partnerships.

What do you see as some of the main challenges in developing successful partnerships?

I think that part of the distrust that donors have towards partnerships is that they almost always seem expansive – the partnership starts off as a means to get certain groups together to solve a particular problem but it doesn’t stop there, it continues on beyond its original focus. That’s one of the challenges in partnership development – putting really firm objective delineations on what the partnership is setting out to achieve.

Obviously, TFD isn’t a great example of this. We were formed as a small entity to work over a small period of time with a small group of participating individuals, and we’ve now become an open network of leaders that is not really bound by anything other than realizing sustainable forest management and conservation! And we work on different issues as they come up. Mind you, we have a rather tight and efficient operating model – we don’t have a huge Secretariat, essentially it’s just me and some interns with whom I work. We can do things quickly and we rely a lot on in-kind support, which means that we get a high level of buy-in and ownership from the stakeholder groups.

One of the other criticisms that get laid at the feet of partnerships is that they tend to end up occupying the middle ground. Do you think that’s a useful place to be?

I’m convinced that partnerships can achieve much by ‘engaging the radical middle’. Change and positive solutions can come from the middle, and not just ones that are watered-down or mediocre. In TFD we consider it very important to have as much representation of opinions as possible in a room but we also know that agreement is going to move towards the centre. This is inevitable and is no bad thing – the outputs of our meetings often include challenging recommendations that nudge stakeholder groups forward.

Also, in order to get real dialogue and learning, we make it clear to all participants that they are coming to listen as much as to talk. They can’t simply deliver pre-prepared statements and then leave. Some organizations don’t like this more informal format and don’t want to participate. Those that do are open to collaborative dialogue – and that’s exactly what we want.

Contact: Gary Dunning, gary.dunning@yale.edu