In search of a perfect partnership
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 themselves to on paper - in pursuit of sustainable development - and what has actually happened since then. The worsening trends of climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, desertification, resource depletion and poverty all pointed to a widening gap between vision and action.
There have been many calls for renewed efforts to tackle the mounting challenges. A glimpse of hope may lie in the idea of forging partnerships among the three major stakeholders - government, business and civil society. Such tripartite partnerships were approved by the international community at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. That was the first event of its kind attended by both government and non-governmental delegations from Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, there has been slow progress on Local Agenda 21 - an initiative from the Earth Summit to develop sustainable communities through broad public participation. It has been adopted by more than 7,000 cities around the world. But it was only two weeks ago that Wan Chai became the first district in this city to launch a public process under Local Agenda 21.
Calls for new partnerships have emerged from efforts to improve governance and the quality of life at the community level. Better governance is the primary objective of partnerships established to stimulate economic development, strengthen social cohesion and improve people's quality of life. That is because partnerships, if carried out to their full potential, should improve the ways society collectively solves its problems and meets its needs.
Yet, when theory is put into practice, too often the outcome of a partnership is distorted by each stakeholder's perception of what they stand to gain from its success - as well as by the opportunity costs of its failure. Good intentions to collaborate are often no match for entrenched habits of controlling and manoeuvring towards one-sided outcomes.
Consider, for instance, the many cases of urban renewal taking place in Hong Kong. High stakes are involved in every case as new funds are injected, new plans are produced and new opportunities emerge in old districts.
These are ideal opportunities for partnerships within which the government could fulfil its social objectives, the private sector could contribute its commercial expertise and the local community could seize the chance to revitalise itself.
Sadly, instead of becoming breeding grounds for innovative partnerships, urban renewal projects - such as the project involving Wedding Card Street in Wan Chai - often end up in conflicts among developers, residents and government policymakers.
A successful partnership demands a shared vision, shared resources and, most important of all, a shared and equitable decision-making mechanism among partners. It is important that no single partner become a dominant force. Such distortions can diminish the effectiveness of the partnership in question and dampen public enthusiasm for participating in community initiatives that are in their own best interests.
How can we create a partnership structure that is equitable for all the stakeholders concerned? How can we create an enabling environment that leads to mutually beneficial outcomes? How can we improve the impact of partnerships so that they can make a real difference?
If only we could create a set of healthy conditions in which stakeholders' cool-headed calculation of self-interest would strengthen - instead of weaken - tripartite partnerships. Then we would be one big step closer to the ideal of a sustainable community.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Hong Kong People's Council for Sustainable Development
For more information, please visit www.hku.hk/sdconf06 on the 12th International Sustainable Development Research Conference 2006