Building and Managing Cross-Sectoral Collaboration for Sustainable Development and Food Security: Lessons Learnt from the IP Programme

Susanne Muller and Esther S. Wiegers, FAO, Roma, Italy, January 2002.

Executive Summary

The paper discusses lessons learned from the Integrated Support to Sustainable Development and Food Security Programme (IP) in terms of its stated goal of increasing interdisciplinary collaboration at FAO headquarters and in the field. Its aim is twofold: first, to serve as a building block for Phase two of the programme; second, to guide the FAO in other similar endeavours as it begins to implement its Strategic Framework and develop new horizontal mechanisms, including the Priority Areas for Interdisciplinary Action (PAIAs). Following the introduction, the paper has five parts. Part II, discusses and analyses the IP's strengths and weaknesses, while Part III highlights the main issues arising during implementation. Part IV then examines the IP's experience against the backdrop of two sets of literature: one on institutional behaviour and another on collaboration. In its conclusion, Part V enumerates the general and specific lessons learned and presents recommendations for both.

The IP was designed to do something that was very difficult: create new horizontal mechanisms within formal vertical institutional cultures both at headquarters and in the field and facilitate interaction between the two. Supported with US$ 3m from Norway and Finland since 1998 for three years, the IP developed a Project Implementation Task Force (PITF) at headquarters. Consisting of members from the Sustainable Development and Agriculture Departments, the PITF reviews proposals for normative activities submitted by National Task Forces (NTFs) in Namibia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. NTFs, groups created by the IP, consist of members who come from a broad spectrum of sectors and ministries, both in and outside government. NTFs, in turn are supported by National Facilitators (NFs), paid for by the programme. Donors selected seven sub-sectors or components to be funded. To increase interdisciplinary collaboration, NTF members had to integrate at least three out of following the seven components in their proposals: farm animal genetic resources; socio-economic and gender analysis; farm household resources management; gender disaggregated data analysis; agricultural research; extension; and environmental information systems and communication for development. The size of the grants has ranged between $US12,000-$US25,000 each with 37% of the proposals accepted going to gender related activities.

Developing a common understanding of concepts such as interdisciplinarity, choosing which individuals should be represented in the PITF, what countries should be part of the IP, who should be appointed as NFs, where they should be based institutionally, how to co-ordinate the programme from headquarters and a range of other matter, including whether SADC should be involved and at what level, all took a lot of time and were not simple matters. Furthermore, the day to day tasks involved in co-ordinating the IP, a task partly assumed by two APOs, was radically underestimated. These issues were compounded in 1999 when the four partner countries came on board and had start up problems similar to those at headquarters.

At both headquarters and in the field, the IP experienced similar difficulties trying to create a new horizontal interdisciplinary mechanism within their vertical institutional cultures. PITF members initially came to the IP interested in obtaining more funds to promote their sectoral work. They were also not always able to maintain their commitments to review or follow up on proposals or to attend all meetings due to the pressures of their regular sectoral work. In the field, the situation was similar. Proposals often had a strong single sector flavour and because the Letters of Agreement between headquarters were designed to disburse to one lead institution in the field, collaborating partners felt short changed even though funds eventually did go to the activities funded. Members of the PITF and the NTFs reportedly have found it useful and interesting to collaborate across sectors. However, both groups also report feeling a tension between the incentive systems of their vertically hierarchical services and organisations, which reward their sectoral work, and that of cross sectoral endeavours such as the IP, which does not. Furthermore, the spillover effects of the IP in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration are not entirely clear, partly because expectations about the programme, including what was meant by interdisciplinary collaboration, were not concretely spelled out from the beginning. The IP also might have benefited from better communication between headquarters and the field concerning the following: the content and format of proposals; information on FAO administrative procedures including Letters of Agreement (LOAs), and more face to face contact between the PITF and the NTF.

The main issues faced by the IP relating to the complexities of managing and developing cross sectoral collaboration were as follows: the lack of an incentive system to support horizontal interdisciplinary collaboration; the problem of developing a shared vision between headquarters and the field given that the IP was an SD/ FAO and donor driven concept; the amount of time it has taken to develop a strategy and co-ordinate the IP that sometimes has led to a focus on process rather than substance; and problems of communication between Rome and the field.

Two bodies of literature shed some light on the experience of the IP and other cross sectoral organisational experiments in the FAO, including the Priority Areas for Interdisciplinary Action, known as PAIAs. The literature on institutions provides some explanatory power, while that on collaboration describes the symptoms of successful or unsuccessful partnerships. The literature on institutions argues that organisation operate according to certain "rules of the game" that define how the players in them behave. These rules of the game consist of formal written rules and administrative procedures, informal norms and belief systems, and mechanisms to enforce both, including various types of incentives and disincentives. This literature explains why attempting to introduce new horizontal institutions within systems where all the rules of the game and the enforcement mechanisms are vertical is bound to be difficult, complex, and confusing. Individual behaviour within vertical organisations will tend to reinforce their rules of the game in contrast to those of the horizontal collaborative mechanisms, where either the enforcement characteristics are unclear or do not exist. Hence, the higher the level of collaboration that is expected the more the rules of the game will have to change to support the collaborative endeavour or the latter will not work. This means, at the very least, that cross sectoral interdisciplinary mechanisms need concrete budgetary and staff support from very high level management to ensure that services budget for and reward cross sectoral work.

In contrast to the literature on institutions, that on collaboration identifies a set of factors that describes the ingredients of more or less successful efforts at collaboration. However, it does not explain why and how they arise. These factors include the following: a shared vision; a common problem definition; selection of members who perceive the partnership to be in their mutual interest and adding value to what they could achieve on their own; commitment; communication; time and financial resources; and convenors with good management, organisational and interpersonal skills. The paper juxtaposes these factors against the experience of the IP.

The lessons learned from the IP and recommendations that follow can be divided into those that are both generic and specific. The former speaks to collaborative efforts in general, including those that are cross sectoral, whether in or outside the FAO. These include the IP, PAIAs, and informal groups. The latter applies to the IP, especially particular recommendations that might be used in Phase II.

The lessons learned are as follows:

The specific lessons learned that related to the IP are quite numerous. An innovative experiment such as the IP proved to be complex and needed time to evolve. Both donors and the FAO took insufficient account of this complexity and the need to create an incentive system, including institutional rewards for horizontal work, to ensure strong participation from all parties. The proposals provided some glue to motivate members. However, a genuine incentive system would have necessitated real support from higher level management in terms of budgeting staff time for the IP both at headquarters and in the field. Those involved in the IP also did not take adequate account of the time involved in and energy needed to manage, co-ordinate, and administer the IP. Aside from becoming rather process oriented, this also put pressure on the PITF to disperse quickly, and made it difficult both for those at headquarters and in the field always to meet their commitments. Communication between the field and headquarters could have been better and its inadequacies created some disappointments in the former. The evolution of the IP in a somewhat ad hoc fashion had costs and benefits. Interdisciplinary collaboration was never well -defined, making it hard to be very specific about what that meant in terms of proposal writing, the necessity for NFs and NTFs, or even evaluating the programme. Furthermore, the IP did not take sufficient time to develop a joint vision with the field, as it was both headquarters and donor driven. Nevertheless, both NTF and PITF members found it valuable to be part of the IP and to interact with colleagues outside their own sectors.

Drawing on the lessons learned from the IP, the paper makes the following recommendations: