Science - July 1, 2004

Universities need to set clear goals in public private partnerships

Companies working together with governments and local people to foster development is one of the current priorities in the development policy of the Dutch government. Public private partnerships, as the arrangements are called, are increasingly being used in development cooperation. Universities like Wageningen can play a role in public private partnerships, but should be clear about goals and outcomes. The North South Centre organised a platform meeting last week attended by 25 researchers from all parts of Wageningen UR to discuss the matter.

At that meeting, Dr Frank Hartwich of the International Food Policy Research Institute presented a study on Public Private Partnerships in Latin America. The study examined 124 partnerships involving 27 million US dollars. One of the case studies dealt with small-scale growers of cashew nuts in northern Brazil. In the past large cashew plantations and associated exporters have gone bankrupt, and the export company UNICA de Caju wanted to collaborate with farmers and EMBRAPA, the national agricultural research institute of Brazil, to develop better technology for processing the cashew nuts of small-scale growers. The idea was that this would open up new marketing channels for the growers as well.

The success in this case appeared to be the informal nature of the arrangements made and the complementarity of the knowledge of the different partners. Hartwich pointed out a difference that could lead to problems. In general private companies do not stand to lose much in public private partnerships, as their investments are often tax-exempted. On the other hand, public partners are often not clear about their goals in a partnership. Commitment of all partners and a sense of equality among the partners is crucial for the success of partnerships, Hartwich said.

Universities like Wageningen also need to take this into account. Often, public private partnerships are about research; in fact in R&D, partnerships become the dominant factor, Hartwich said. A public university works with the R&D department of a company on a common problem. Hartwich warned that while public private partnerships could be interesting for universities like Wageningen UR, public institutes need to have a vision of what they want to achieve through them. The distribution of benefits of research done jointly by a public university and a private company should be clear before engaging in a partnership, Hartwich concluded.

More on Platform meetings of the North South Centre: |JT