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Partnering for change in chains : on the capacity of partnerships to promote sustainable change in global agricultural commodity chains

By V.C. Bitzer


Partnerships mirror the changing nature of the relationships among state, business and civil society organizations, and are often considered as innovative mechanisms to overcome single actor failure in the context of globalization. This thesis analyzes the capacity of partnerships to promote sustainable change in global agricultural commodity chains, using the global coffee, cotton and cocoa chains as main fields of application for the empirical analyses. All three chains are characterized by various sustainability challenges, including environmental degradation, abundant use of agrochemicals, poor working conditions, and widespread poverty. From a governance perspective, the emergence of partnerships is largely positive inasmuch as partnerships act as initiators and agents of change which, although still mostly confined to niche markets, unfolds a chain-wide governance effect. Partnerships create new practices focusing on technological change and performance at the production level. While many partnerships promote standards as competitive strategies to safeguard the application of the new practices, other partnerships link up in networks and exchange resources to facilitate sustainable change. From a development perspective, the positive effects of partnerships are rather indirect and ambiguous. Several aspects of partnerships can be viewed critically and challenge their capacity to promote sustainable change. The benefits for producers are often uncertain as partnerships largely operate in a business-driven and top-down mode, and do not address certain development concerns, such as the strengthening of organizational capital. These differing conclusions on the capacity of partnerships can be explained by the fact that partnerships largely embody the neoliberal agenda, which appears to marginalize certain development concerns, including the issue of smallholder empowerment, the costs and benefits of different certification schemes, or the implications of partnerships for the poorest segment of producers. The dominance of business objectives over development concerns shows that partnerships are constrained in their capacity to reshape the relationship between business and development without external incentives. Ultimately, they might adjust current structures, but it is unlikely that the incremental change pursued by many partnerships would lead to a more fundamental change. This indicates that such concerns cannot be addressed through a collaborative attempt to make a business case, as is the underlying assumption of partnerships. As a result, it might be hypothesized that the resolution of such issues would require a political struggle of social contestation rather than collaboration in order to re-negotiate the relationship between business and development. Given the active role of NGOs in initiating the partnership trend by challenging firm behavior, it depends mostly on NGOs to re-politicize their interactions with businesses, and achieve a broader framing of the sustainability problems than businesses are willing to endors

Publisher: Gildeprint Drukkerijen
Year: 2011
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