The border region shared by the United States and Mexico is currently experiencing multiple crises on both sides that present challenges to safeguarding the region’s sustainable natural resources and to ensuring the livelihoods of its residents. These challenges are exacerbated by stressors including global climate change, increasing urbanization and industrialization and attendant air and water-quality degradation, and rapid population growth. Navigating these challenges and preserving the area’s cultural richness, economy, and ecology will require building strategic partnerships that engage a broad range of stakeholders from both countries. Effective partnership strategies that support sustainable development can enhance both human well-being and interconnected ecological systems.
The U.S.–Mexico border states have maintained longstanding collaborations around water management, flood control, fire management, and the sharing of information and scientific findings related to the region’s sustainability. However, as both countries’ priorities for the region change (for Mexico, to serve as the gateway for binational commerce and foreign investment, and for the United States, increasingly as a buffer against immigration), it has become clear that additional innovative partnerships are needed among a diversity of agencies and organizations in the public, private, and civil sectors to foster comprehensive cross-border collaboration and the coproduction of regional solutions, interventions, and stewardship.
Building on a history of collaborative work on these and related opportunities, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, together with the Mexican Academy of Sciences (Academia Mexicana
de Ciencias), Mexican Academy of Engineering (Academia de Ingeniería de México), and Mexican National Academy of Medicine (Academia Nacional de Medicina de México), appointed a committee of experts from the United States and Mexico to conduct a consensus study that identified partnership strategies to address select binational sustainability challenges.
This consensus report incorporates features of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 17. SDG 17 calls for revitalizing global partnerships for sustainable development. It is specifically focused on the advancement of multi-stakeholder partnerships that require coordination and collaboration among diverse stakeholders in pursuit of a common and mutually beneficial vision.1 With attention to SDG 17, the report draws on social science theory and applied research on partnerships to explore potential strategies and mechanisms to increase coordination between relevant government agencies, the private sector (such as the mining and energy industries), and civil society in the United States and Mexico.
The committee defines U.S.–Mexico binational sustainability partnerships as:
Organizations and individuals from different sectors and interest groups within the United States and Mexico, voluntarily coming together with organizations or individuals across the U.S.–Mexico border to address shared binational challenges and opportunities for sustainable development that isolated efforts or national initiatives would not be able to effectively accomplish.
To fully understand the state of partnerships in the region, the committee solicited input from stakeholders in the public and private sectors, government, academia, and civil society who are engaged in U.S.–Mexico binational partnerships. This stakeholder feedback, obtained via a questionnaire and a panel discussion at a July 2020 binational and bilingual webinar on sustainability partnerships, served to enrich the deliberations of the committee. The committee identified the following sustainability themes as the starting point for structuring the webinar (listed here alphabetically): Arts and culture, preservation; climate change and environmental conservation; critical resource management (water-energy-food); disaster and emergency management; education and research; environmental justice; humanitarian aid; migration; mining and extraction; public health; trade and commercial manufacturing; transportation; and urban planning and development. In addition to gathering input via the webinar, the committee assessed
the available scholarly literature on the characteristics of the U.S.–Mexico region and sustainability partnerships.
The report comprises four chapters. Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the statement of task and background on the committee process. Chapter 2 critically reviews the published literature and thinking on partnerships, placing it into context with the SDGs (both broadly and specifically to SDG 17) as well as with the characteristics of the binational region. Chapter 3 uses input from the July 2020 stakeholder webinar to explore key opportunities and challenges for sustainability partnerships. The final chapter outlines the committee’s recommended strategies for effective partnership strategies. Appendix D reviews the binational context and characteristics of the region and gives context to binational partnership discussions elsewhere in the report.
The following concerns, drawing from prior collaborative work between the two academies,2 were identified as priority areas by the committee for addressing sustainability challenges in the region: the increasing and evolving interactions and flows of people, resources, and services; a reconsideration of energy and industry based on the scarcity and abundance of natural resources; managing environmental and anthropogenic change in the midst of, and often resulting from, shocks and stressors, many of which are unique to the binational drylands region; and the benefit of governance and innovation that consider local communities and traditions while also keeping an eye on future challenges and opportunities for sustainable development.
Addressing these priority areas requires the fostering of strategic partnerships that engage a diverse set of stakeholders on either side of the border to devise strategies in support of sustainable development, by protecting the well-being of humans and ecosystems in the binational region. Based on the literature as well as input from the stakeholders, the committee concluded that successful partnerships require organizational flexibility, adaptation to change, financial resources, and norms of distribution, as well as the maintenance of an environment that fosters
2 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Advancing Sustainability of U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Drylands: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25253; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine y Academia Mexicana de Ciencias, Academia de Ingeniería de México y Academia Nacional de Medicina de México. 2018. Avances en la Sostenibilidad de Tierras Áridas Transfronterizas de Estados Unidos y México. https://amc.edu.mx/amc/libros/drylands.
innovation, learning, collaboration, and trust. Knowledge co-production is key to combatting asymmetries and creating value in sustainability partnerships. Furthermore, it is imperative that stakeholders respect the knowledge and culture of the region by establishing informal community relationships and integrating Indigenous and local knowledge into the partnership strategies.
CONCLUSION 1: The U.S.–Mexico border region faces many ongoing challenges in safeguarding the sustainability of its natural resources—scarce in some aspects yet abundant in others—to ensure the economic vitality and livelihoods of its people while protecting its cultural richness and unique natural environment.
CONCLUSION 2: There is growing potential for partnership efforts around binational industrial, energy, and mining sustainability.
CONCLUSION 3: Navigating the sustainability challenges in the U.S.–Mexico border region will require sound governance and the building and strengthening of strategic partnerships.
CONCLUSION 4: Effective data sharing in transnational partnerships, or partnerships involving a mixture of private, public, and civil society actors with different sets of knowledge, experience, and information access, requires respecting the norms and institutional constraints of participants with enhanced transparency and accountability through partnership-specific data management protocols.
CONCLUSION 5: Establishing informal community relationships and integrating Indigenous and local knowledge are instrumental in partnerships that span administrative levels and geographic boundaries.
CONCLUSION 6: Knowledge co-production creates value in sustainability partnerships when it emanates from mutual or “horizontal” relationships among all the involved actors, confronting current power asymmetries with a commitment to combat inequality and exclusion.
CONCLUSION 7: Partnership persistence requires a systemic approach toward a shared goal. It is a function of the partners’ organizational flexibility, adaptation to change, financial resources, and norms of distribution, as well as whether they maintain an environment that fosters innovation, learning, collaboration, and trust.
CONCLUSION 8: Alignment as a process among partners to identify synergies for pursuing and securing the common good achieves coherent, efficient, and effective outcomes. Effective alignment requires flexibility in the partners’ perspectives, values, and processes to enable coordination, identify appropriate entry points for new information integration, and achieve continuous learning.
SDG 17 acknowledges that “A successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector, and civil society. These inclusive partnerships built upon principles and values, a shared vision, and shared goals that place people and the planet at the center, are needed at the global, regional, national and local level.”3 Ensuring that sufficient means of implementation exist to provide countries the opportunity to achieve the SDGs will require international cooperation; collaboration across the U.S.–Mexico Border is no exception. The committee agrees that partnerships can thrive or fail depending on partner norms concerning participation, relations of trust, transparency, and the acknowledgment of asymmetries in power, resources, and capacities. When there is a mix of actors from different sectors, the asymmetries in power can hinder the relationship building that is foundational to both participation in partnerships and their effectiveness. Complementarity in capacities and collaborative advantage is important to emerging partnerships.
ACHIEVING EFFECTIVE PARTNERSHIPS IN THE REGION
In this unique border region, the challenges involved in effectively pursuing sustainable development surpass the capacities of any single actor, type of actor, or government. Navigating these challenges and preserving the area’s cultural richness, economy, and ecology will require strengthening existing—and building new—strategic partnerships that engage a broad range of binational stakeholders. Effective partnerships involve the application of knowledge and information, services, skills, financial resources, and engaging institutions, as well as an understanding of the expected outcomes.
In all sustainability contexts, environmental and social processes are tightly coupled. Multi-stakeholder partnerships targeting sustainable development in the U.S.–Mexico border region confront a complex cross-border socio-ecological system, one that requires both the ability to adapt and the ability to transform itself in response to a range of economic, cultural, political, social, and environmental interconnected dynamics. However, because there is a general lack of systematic data on existing partnerships
in the region, including data on the quality and effectiveness of those partnerships, they often proceed without a full understanding of the current social infrastructure or other paths through which sustainable development might be pursued—a consequence that can inhibit innovation and overall effectiveness.
Partnerships, particularly those aiming to address sustainability and sustainable development challenges in the region, and at the border, in particular, would improve effectiveness by adopting a complex social-ecological systems approach. This framework can help partners better understand the dynamics between the social and ecological processes to address problems through transformative, adaptive change. It would also help them effectively respond to unpredictable or extreme events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, severe drought, or other disasters. Aligning partnership strategies with the SDGs can also promote systems thinking and integrated development.
RECOMMENDED STRATEGIES FOR FORMING AND MAINTAINING SUCCESSFUL BINATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY EFFECTIVE PARTNERSHIPS
To be effective, binational sustainability partnerships must be centered on trust and have clear, mutually defined objectives, the ability to navigate power dynamics, transparency in partnership implementation (including flexibility, timing, and sequencing of activities), and, above all, process and governance as mechanisms to deliver partnership outcomes. The committee recommends six key strategies for forming and maintaining successful binational partnerships, as follows:
Strategy 1: Identify Critical Areas to Be Addressed by the Partnership
It is important for stakeholders to have a clear, mutual understanding of the explicit objectives of a partnership. Developing partnerships and understanding objectives involve identifying a target audience for activities and learning what impacts the partnership will have on other audiences and processes. When considering the desired outcome, partners also need to consider the assumptions around that outcome—such as resource availability and codependent processes—and the risks involved in pursuing it. Partners also need to identify tradeoffs and understand and accept that there is always uncertainty with respect to desired outcomes.
Strategy 2: Establish Trust Among Partners
Relationship building is essential to successful partnerships, often starting long before a formal partnership has been established among stakeholders and continuing long after it has ended. There is great value in practicing
diplomacy within intergovernmental and civil society partnerships. However, a project’s or a program’s timing and a desire for efficiency often do not lend themselves to the patience and pace of learning societal norms and cultural sensitivity that help foster and build partners’ trust.
In the case of partnerships among stakeholders from the United States and Mexico, particularly those involving representatives from local Indigenous communities, intercultural communication and competence—interculturalidad—is a key capacity. Developing new, beneficial relationships among stakeholders and actor groups involves establishing continuous open dialogue, having an agreed-upon partnership structure (often involving a formal memorandum of understanding), and the creation of a procedure for conflict resolution.
Strategy 3: Balance and Organize Power Dynamics
Achieving and maintaining successful multi-stakeholder partnerships requires the pursuit of “horizontal” interactions among partners that are fair and transparent. This means adopting a rotating leadership, even if the partners vary in size, organizational strength, financial standing, or other key characteristics. Addressing power asymmetries effectively requires active listening, such as that of academic engagement with Indigenous communities on the border, as well as awareness of the differential risks and responsibilities of engaging in partnerships for each actor. In these cases, equitability will arise from creating an operational plan for the partnership that factors in each stakeholder’s organizational capacity and the complementarity of assets, as well as by ensuring the equal, equitable, and fair participation of actors in decision-making processes. It can also be helpful to view nontraditional attributes of strength and influence, such as social power, as equally enabling forces in partnership execution.
Strategy 4: Establish a Stable Governance Structure
Adopting strategies for effective partnerships requires a highly flexible and adaptive collaborative structure that incorporates robust decision-making and goal-oriented action. The overall approach requires strong leadership support to articulate and pursue short-, medium-, and long-term goals that set stakeholders’ expectations for partnership effectiveness. Adaptive governance of multi-stakeholder partnerships entails the adoption of iterative approaches to monitoring, assessment, and interpretation of outexpectations, goals, projected impacts, and internal and external benefits of the partnership. Boyle and colleagues (2001) suggest that this type of transformative governance is the process of continuously targeting the collective benefits (and values) while responding to and resolving tradeoffs in the pursuit of sustainable development.
The complex sustainability context in the U.S.–Mexico cross-border region may cause governance gaps, in which stakeholders confound challenges with actors (Bergsten et al., 2019), attributing responsibility for certain outcomes to institutions or individuals who may have little control over the circumstances. Open communication, sharing of analogous experiences, and collaborative identification of responses can mitigate these situations.
Strategy 5: Agree on a Definition of Effective Partnership Execution
For partnerships to succeed there needs to be a clearly defined outcome and a mutual commitment by each partner to execute the outcome. Although there are numerous similarities between cities and industries in the U.S.–Mexico border region, each country and each stakeholder group’s conceptualization of partnership success is likely to vary—and they may at times contradict one another. While desired outcomes may evolve, mutual commitment and a trusted process can ensure that such evolution brings all partners forward in continued collaboration. Adding guidelines for partner compliance and using tools that can aid in practical decision making can help validate the partnership process and legitimize the partnership. Each actor should demonstrate a continued commitment to engaging in and achieving partnership goals.
Strategy 6: Develop Short-, Medium-, and Long-Term Goals
Partnership strategies can be applied over different timeframes. While sustainable development is a long-term goal, pursuing it requires consistent short- and medium-term efforts, which will be enhanced through partnership-based initiatives of the kind detailed in this report. Such a strategy goes beyond recognizing that different timeframes apply to different goals, and hence that some are to be pursued in the short, medium, or long term. Consideration of timing, as pertaining to partnership strategy, has to evaluate the sequence of tasks so that each activity maximizes the probability of achieving the aims of the next step. This is crucial in the context of reaching broader SDGs, for these can only be attained by building on necessary preconditions. Effective partnerships require a strategy that is mindful of the timing and sequence of the assumed tasks, since appropriate timing and sequence are crucial for reaching SDGs.
Strategy 7: Establish Guidelines for Partnership Evaluation
There are three key measures for assessing partnerships: process (partnership formation, goal setting, defining stakeholder roles, and conducting partnership activities); governance (flexibility, equity, accountability, responsiveness, transparency, and consistency among partners and external stakeholders); and outcomes (results in relation to goals and associated
tangible factors that emerge from partnership activities). The criteria of effective process, governance, and outcomes are interwoven with principles for sound partnerships, chiefly, principles to guide institutional transformation, social and political power, conflict, communication, and leadership.
Process guidelines for effective partnerships start with the way clear goals are achieved, with participants and external stakeholders jointly defining the roles and responsibilities they will pursue, and where appropriate, modifying goals. Both formal and informal means of participation are important, though each must be understood, monitored, and promoted distinctly. For example, in a pandemic, informal participation may gain temporary priority. It is essential for partnership participants and leaders to be aware of, and seek to promote, equity through procedural justice to incorporate and address the needs of less dominant actors and groups. Latent and overt forms of internal conflict can destabilize both emerging and established partnerships if not harnessed as a force for positive change, for example, when legal pursuits by Indigenous communities are used to assert resource rights. The choice of leadership approaches and the establishment of checks and balances are critically important, in process terms, when leaders are themselves involved in, or may be the cause for, conflict. These final two process guidelines—navigating power and conflict—are ultimately also governance challenges.
Governance guidelines include flexibility and responsiveness, especially the ability to produce qualitatively different strategies for different approaches to partnership goals, activities, and outcomes. Co-production of knowledge and process within partnerships (among members and leadership) and for partnerships with external stakeholders or constituents influence the quality of those partnerships, the initiatives they pursue, and the broader communities of practice they build and sustain. Additional governance guidelines for partnerships involve setting and maintaining policies and procedures, including (where necessary) legal agreements, that enhance transparency and predictability as well as improve and ensure coherence of policy and institutional aims.
Outcome guidelines for a partnership, that is, the degree to which results and impacts are generated, sustained, and equitable, are perhaps the best signal to external constituents that partnerships are effective. Given the focus of this study on SDG 17, a more nuanced appreciation of local needs and context-specific indicators of the suite of SDGs is an important consideration. For example, binational water-management partnerships are crucially important to enhance water security in this arid and semi-arid region, which is confronting growing water demands for human and ecosystem needs. Additional, key considerations for partnership outcomes include resources, both material and financial, as well as capacities. Partnerships’ abilities to mobilize and deliver such outcomes as knowledge sharing, expertise, technologies, and financial resources are central to their pursuit of achieving sustainable development locally, in the binational region, and globally.