Jane Nelson: Four Reasons Why GSK and Save the Children’s Partnership Stands Out

By Jane Nelson, Director, Corporate Responsibility Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School

In recent years, collaboration between companies, governments and civil society has become an integral part of the development landscape.  Its importance has been underlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which all sectors recognise cannot be achieved without partnership and the contribution of the private sector.

Growing numbers of businesses are entering into partnerships, whether at a project specific, industry or systemic multi-stakeholder level, contributing to sustainable development through their core operations and competencies, through social investment resources and through public policy engagement and advocacy.

GSK and Save the Children’s partnership over the past three years demonstrates the power of project-level, implementation focused initiatives aimed at delivering more efficient and effective results on the ground in relatively short time frames, while also contributing to broader capability building and change over time. Given the urgent need to act, these types of partnership have a key role to play alongside longer-term industry-wide or multi-stakeholder collaborations designed to address more deeply entrenched systemic challenges.  Neither approach is mutually exclusive. It is clear that GSK and Save the Children recognise the importance of both approaches as evidenced by their engagement in a variety of multi-stakeholder platforms, such as the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunisation (GAVI) and Every Woman Every Child.

In an increasingly crowded field, there are four reasons why GSK and Save the Children’s partnership stands out for me as an example for others to follow.

First, the partnership explicitly recognises that the challenge of helping to save the lives of one million children is multi-dimensional.   With a clear and shared vision at its heart, the partnership is structured around a series of different, but inter-related interventions. These not only include ensuring children have direct access to life saving healthcare, but also address other inter-connected challenges such as training and equipping community health workers, developing life saving medicines and calling for more child-friendly health policies. The partnership is addressing both immediate needs as well as some of the longer-term systemic changes that are required to save the lives of children.   

In the SDG context, although GSK and Save the Children’s partnership is focused primarily on supporting Goal 3: to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages, it also demonstrates the opportunity to spur a wider set of development impacts – for example in support of better nutrition (Goal 2) and women’s empowerment (Goal 5).   As businesses and other stakeholders step up their support for the SDGs, they need to keep in mind the inter-connected nature of many of the goals and the opportunities to design specific targeted programmes and interventions that also have the potential for wider impact.

Second, the partnership is notable because it underlines the importance for organisations to identify and leverage their core competencies.   For both organisations, taking the time to understand their respective capabilities, strengths and motivations has paid significant dividends. One example has been leveraging GSK’s product innovation expertise to re-formulate chlorhexidine, an antiseptic ingredient found in mouthwash, into a gel to prevent umbilical cord infections. Another has been Save the Children’s ability to draw on its deep on the ground understanding of child health and its reach into communities. This has helped the partnership to improve effectiveness in responding to real needs and constraints, including in challenging humanitarian response situations.  This clear understanding of respective capabilities and roles, underpinned by mutual respect, has enabled the partnership to widen and deepen its impact, with the number of work streams doubling from five to ten in three years.

Third, at the heart of the partnership is a commitment to pursuing an “action learning” mind-set and approach to collaboration, which has enabled greater flexibility for both organisations to learn quickly from experience and to change course and innovate across programme activities. This is a key differentiator in partnerships that embark on projects with pre-defined goals and timelines, and with rigorous monitoring, evaluation and accountability frameworks.   If we are to be successful at addressing complex development challenges, we need to be adaptive over time, which requires fostering a more evolutionary “learn by doing” approach and building in scope for on-going learning and adjustment from the outset of a partnership.

Fourth and finally, the partnership underlines the importance of individual leadership. More specifically, the need for “systems leaders” from across functions and sectors who have the mind sets and the skillsets required to be more adaptive and collaborative in solving shared challenges.  The GSK and Save the Children partnership demonstrates the crucial point that leadership does not just come from the C-suite, although this is valuable.  Managers from across a range of core functions in both organisations have had to step up and learn to work in different and unfamiliar ways with non-traditional partners. As collaboration increasingly goes deeper into organisations, moving beyond the small teams that usually manage cross-sector partnerships, we need to do more to equip people with the skills to manage and deliver collaborative action,

There is still much to be done by all sectors to strengthen our capacity to partner effectively. As more companies, civil society organizations and governments build partnerships to achieve the SDGs, there is a great deal we can learn from GSK and Save the Children’s on-going journey together.

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