Chapter 2 discussed the characteristics of sustainability partnerships and how they can be sustained. Successful partnerships emerge from the entrepreneurial activities of conveners with big aspirations and a strong commitment to challenge the status quo. This chapter focuses on what makes successful partnerships effective in the U.S.–Mexico border region by summarizing discussions and insights gathered at a virtual seminar, “Sustainability Partnerships in the U.S.–Mexico Drylands Region,” held in July 2020.1 By hearing from stakeholders in the region, this activity served as the primary source of information gathering for committee deliberations.
To plan the webinar, the committee developed a bilingual online questionnaire to generate a list of potential speakers and attendees; see Chapter 1 for an explanation of the process. The selected panelists had varying tenures and areas of expertise: see Appendix C for the webinar agenda with participant’s names and institutional affiliations. The panel participants discussed their work, while also underscoring sources of effectiveness in one or more of their partnership experiences.2 Because the widespread and profound COVID-19 effects led to cross-border travel restrictions, intermittent closure of the border, and, ultimately, the shift of the planned seminar from
2 Unless cited as a direct quote by a participant or as an external source, the points noted throughout this chapter, except for the committee’s conclusions at the end, represent a compilation of the webinar discussions.
an in-person to a virtual meeting, the shocks and stressors of the pandemic form a backdrop to this overview of current partnerships.
The committee recognized that the questionnaire responses and panel discussions did not constitute a consistent or exhaustive dataset about the status of U.S.–Mexico partnerships and so did not set out to evaluate the partnerships discussed at the webinar. However, the stakeholders’ feedback on forming and sustaining partnerships, improving communication among partners, and planning for present and future uncertainties in the operating environment served as the cornerstone for the committee’s work.
Binational problems require binational solutions
—Irasema Coronado (Arizona State University)
Stakeholders operating in the region have found that state and national policies are usually at odds with border needs and priorities, and partnerships originating at the border aim to engage local actors in ways that go beyond the conventional state-led, top-down approach. Yoselín Cárdenas (Consejo Empresarial Nogales, A.C.) believes that local citizens and local activists are most aware of an area’s economic, cultural, and environmental challenges. Andy Carey (Border Philanthropy Partnership [BPP]) said that his organization emphasizes this type of holistic, multi-directional collaboration—bringing members of government, business, academia, and nonprofit organizations to the table to share their commitment, expertise, and knowledge.
Turning participation into co-creation is challenging in the binational region due to the asymmetries, power dynamics, and knowledge systems, but partners find creative ways to tackle these challenges. Binationally, there is asymmetry and imbalance across several sectors regarding access to resources. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was in effect, many Mexican nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were funded by U.S. NGOs. Coronado noted that the agenda at the U.S.–Mexico border is often driven by the stakeholder with the greatest resources.
The webinar panelists supported the premise that capacity building between the United States and Mexico reduces resource and knowledge imbalances, allowing initiatives to arise from both countries. The El Paso Community Foundation (Texas) and Fundación Paso del Norte para Salud y Bienestar (Ciudad Juárez) are one example of sister organizations that emerged on either side of the border to address shared challenges.
Other notable examples of organizations working to build transborder capacity are the Fundación del Empresariado Chihuahuense in Chihuahua and the Desarrollo Económico in Ciudad Juárez. Other organizations, like BPP, engage NGOs to strengthen their capabilities to address issues of prosperity, equity, and opportunity along both sides of the border. Zach Hernandez (San Diego Association of Governments [SANDAG]) said that maintaining robust communication is central to his organization’s binational partnership strategy. SANDAG has institutionalized its communication framework in a way that enables the Mexican government to formally participate in regional planning. This approach has aided in processes such as binational transportation planning.
A webinar participant asked panelists whether they had seen an asymmetry in the initiation of binational partnerships—whether more were started in Mexico than in the United States, or vice versa—and if there was such an imbalance, why they believed that to be the case. The ensuing discussion focused on the fact that in many instances, U.S. NGOs have more resources than their Mexican counterparts. An example is the Colorado River Delta Water Trust, a robust and effective partnership to restore the Colorado River Delta. Pronatura Noroeste, a Mexican NGO, is aided by the U.S.-based Sonoran Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund to establish mechanisms to acquire water from Mexican farmers at market value to restore riparian habitats, adjacent forests, and ecologically and economically important wetlands in the delta.
Gabriela Múñoz-Meléndez (El Colegio de la Frontera Norte) pointed out that NGOs and universities face challenges, or impose their restrictions, in receiving, distributing, and administering funds. Universities often take 20–50 percent of the funds as overhead. These examples are set in the backdrop of other, related asymmetries, notably the differences in water management regimes between the two countries. Despite the presence and largely effective work of a binational water institution, the International Boundary and Water Commission in the United States and its Mexican counterpart, la Comisión Internacional de Límites y Aguas, the two countries have very different federal, state, and local legal and institutional arrangements for water resource management and policy; see discussion in Appendix D.
Indigenous tribes and communities have their territories and boundaries that often predate and do not align with the border established between the United States and Mexico. They also have their leaders who operate within an autonomous, independent government. Blake Gentry (Líderes Tradicionales de O’odham en México) mentioned that while Indigenous
tribes are federally recognized in the United States, there is no parallel process in Mexico—a difference that may create challenges in binational partnerships with these communities. Speakers of the O’odham language are spread across 1,200 miles on both sides of the international border. Gentry said his organization works with the O’odham peoples in Sonora, Mexico, and with the Mexican government, advocating for O’odham’s Indigenous rights and longstanding cultural traditions. Gentry believes that neither the United States nor the Mexican state and federal governments has prioritized tribes and that the Mexican government often ignores and represses the O’odham.
Historically, there has consistently been a census undercount of the O’odham population, which Gentry noted is problematic because public funding is contingent on population size. Since 1959, the Mexican government has officially counted only 300 O’odham in Sonora, and it annually assigns a budget for indigenous O’odham based on that number. Since this is a tribal nation without a centralized government, this apparent undercount has resulted in the O’odham being continually underserved. Because of this history, O’odham in Sonora now take their own annual census. The most recent estimated population in this census was 7,000–8,000. Assisting O’odham Indigenous community leaders, college preparatory students from the United World College in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and college students of the Border Studies Program of Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, engaged in the launching of the census project, known as O’odham Kuinta.
The Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras partnership, led by Octaviana Valenzuela Trujillo (Northern Arizona University), a Yaqui3 citizen, works with Indigenous people on both sides of the border. Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras hosts listening sessions with tribes to hear about community concerns, with an emphasis on building trust, developing long-term relationships, and creating common ground between tribes and partner agencies.
Trujillo discussed how the construction of the border wall is creating issues in places like Quitobaquito, Arizona, by depleting groundwater, dynamiting sacred terrain, causing ecological damage, and negatively affecting other resources. The wall also threatens to disrupt age-old Indigenous traditions of pilgrimage to sacred sites. Several participants asserted that the construction of the border wall is a violation of O’odham’s sovereignty. Attempts to stop development on Mexican tribal lands have failed. Múñoz-Meléndez commented that Mexican international relations limit tribes’ jurisdiction, which conflicts with International Labour Convention No. 169 regarding the extension of rights to Indigenous peoples and the preservation of their culture.
3 The Yaqui are an Indigenous people centered in southern Sonora, Mexico.
Trevor Hare (Watershed Management Group) noted that the border wall being constructed is causing problems in what he called “our water ways,” and he did not see any type of coherent strategy along the border to deal with the current circumstances. In particular, Quitobaquito, which is a sacred Indigenous site in the Oregon Pipe National Monument, is being affected: water is being used to build the wall and depleting the groundwater. In addition, Hare said, the O’odham and other Indigenous people will not be able to do what they have done since time immemorial, to go to Quitobaquito.
Gentry explained that working with Indigenous communities without understanding their protocols can do more harm than good. Indigenous communities have unique histories, cultures, and environmental needs. A webinar participant commented that a lack of outreach and extension skills on the part of most non-Indigenous organizations limits their ability to make appropriate contact with rural communities; thus, it is imperative to figure out how to ensure Indigenous voices are included in the right conversations. Panelists agreed that prior consent and prior consultation are of utmost importance. Múñoz-Meléndez added that while learning about Indigenous people’s challenges and capacities can take time and effort, it is key to building and sustaining effective relationships. Trujillo underscored the importance of understanding tribal resolutions in the areas of interest, and of listening to tribal councils about the interconnections between religion and biodiversity issues. She added that tribal councils on both sides of the border can advise partnership on the needs of their constituents. (For more general discussion on tribal nations and Indigenous communities along the U.S.–Mexico border, see Appendix D.)
Government diplomacy and planning processes vary not only between the United States and Mexico but also from state to state in both countries. Historically, the countries’ respective capitals, Washington, D.C., and Mexico City have controlled the binational agenda. Because decision makers in the national capitals are often disconnected from the realities of the region, subnational diplomacy at the state and city levels has become prominent in transboundary sustainability partnerships. Carey mentioned how border mayors meet regularly, as do border legislators. Border governors also meet, but not as frequently. In addition, nongovernmental institutions, organizations, and formal and informal alliances have been established to strengthen border relations.
Formal, multisectoral partnerships are key to orchestrating long-term responses to binational and bidirectional sustainability challenges, such as
those concerning water and pollution. Hare observed that strong binational connections and funding sources are essential to tackling pollution in urban areas and erosion in wildlands. James Callegary (U.S. Geological Survey) described prior attempts to regulate contaminants in the Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora, border region and in Ambos Nogales (Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona), noting that the success of the joint efforts varied in each region. Yoselin Cardenas (Consejo Empresarial Nogales, A.C.) said that in Ambos Nogales (as with other border areas), though the sustainability challenges are shared, feedback from each state’s stakeholders regarding the region’s priorities may differ widely, which can stymie collaborative efforts. Achieving consistency across borders is made more difficult given that political administrations in Mexico are on a 3-year cycle, while U.S. officials operate on a 2- or 4-year cycle. The outcomes of both countries’ elections may also play a role in the future of many partnerships. These changes can have major impacts on formal partnerships, but informal partnerships often have the capacity to withstand them.
While fostering working relationships can set the stage for dialogue and action-oriented collaboration between partners, personal relationships are often key to bringing together organizations and growing networks. Partners have to strategically navigate the informal-formal balance to make partnerships sustainable over time. Hernandez said that SANDAG wears many hats, making connections through various channels, within and absent of a formal structure. Carey added that diplomatic channels and personal relationships are key to BPP’s success.
Establishing a mix of formal and informal relationships enables partners in the binational drylands region to approach solutions from multiple angles. Benjamin Wilder (Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers) noted that sustainability work in the Sonoran desert consists of both top-down initiatives, such as bank- and government-funded solar plants and bottom-up initiatives, including food-water-energy nexus projects and community training conducted by academic and grassroots organizations. Agrivoltaics, a practice of co-developing solar plants and agricultural farms to boost both energy and food production, is a bottom-up example. Wilder added, bottom-up initiatives rely on bottom-up ingenuity. Bottom-up initiatives have been shown to be more responsive to local needs than top-down initiatives, which panelists agreed are often disconnected from local needs.
Partners use cross-jurisdictional and collaborative mechanisms to navigate different knowledge. The Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas funded a multiyear climate study that used self-implemented designs from Indigenous peoples. The project helped people outside the region see that Indigenous communities are not homogenous; while they have shared challenges, each group takes a unique approach to address them. Wilder said that the process of bringing together researchers and government
organizations to provide support for specific issues, such as health or access to freshwater, is a long process that requires listening and patience, but it leads to partnerships that stand the test of time. Establishing a long-term presence can improve consistency and trust and strengthen relationships. Panelists emphasized the need for NGOs and universities to consult with Indigenous communities in the region before embarking on projects, which aligns with the United Nations’ Office of Human Rights call for free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples.4 Múñoz-Meléndez reinforced this point by underscoring the importance of organizations taking time to build relationships with local stakeholders.
Gabriel Armenta (Índex Nogales, Asociación de Maquiladoras de Sonora, A.C.) noted that his organization, which brings together the maquiladoras (factories) in Ambos Nogales, is based in the United States and has strong relationships with financial institutions that aid the organization in initiating binational collaboration on environmental and social development matters. Involving local governments in these partnerships, however, remains challenging. The maquiladora industry participates in binational commissions and committees in various fields, including security, foreign trade, and customs. The main goals are to create jobs, improve training, improve quality of life, and foster sustainable development. Armenta noted that creating effective communication channels with the government to garner support for these projects, as well as communicating with immigration offices in local municipalities, is a critical success factor of maquiladora partnerships for sustainability. Múñoz-Meléndez observed that it is important to pay attention to the reasons why larger organizations such as government agencies and higher education institutions involve themselves in local affairs. For a binational sustainability partnership to be effective, it should understand the structure of decision making on both sides of the border. Partners rely on informal networks to keep partnerships alive, but engaging the right interlocutors is a key challenge. Múñoz-Meléndez added that partnerships need the right representations for effective change.
Building and sustaining successful relationships that are the core of partnerships requires effectively facilitating the flow of information. Carey emphasized the need to continue educating people about the region and engaging border stakeholders in various projects to help build confidence around action. Hare and Callegary noted that the opposite condition—that is, a lack of information—is often an obstacle to successful partnerships. Hernandez emphasized the importance of clear information flows among partners in helping
build relationships; institutionalizing input, dialogue, forum, and information sharing are crucial in building relationships. He also noted, however, that there is a learning curve that comes with working with partners in Mexico. Having Mexico represented through the voice of its binational partners in policy making is key to successful binational planning.
Academic partnerships across the border involve internships, student and professor exchanges, and in-person presentations. Many Mexican students attend school in the United States, and vice versa, especially at local public universities (though the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the rate). Engaging the next generation is key to sustaining partnerships. Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies works binationally to cultivate future leadership by including students in its work.
Wilder has noticed a generation of new researchers focused on the binational region and multinational, cross-discipline collaboration. Interest is increasing such that the number of people interested in teaching about the region at higher education institutions and conducting relevant research exceeds the number of positions currently available. He believes that the solution is to think about ways to undertake new research and to create new partnerships. Hare also noted the importance of engaging with and mentoring youth in the United States and Mexico around border sustainability issues. Trujillo noted how the Healing the Border Project organizes community hearings and helps youth create digital stories about the region.
Trujillo noted how the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the ability of the Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras to hold in-person meetings, which slows relationship-building. She added that while Zoom meetings and conversations on WhatsApp are useful to facilitate communication when in-person contact is not possible, it is no substitute for in-person contact when it comes to developing relationships, strengthening alliances, establishing new allies, and building solidarity.
The border has become particularly important recently, as Carey noted, for the shipment of personal protective equipment for COVID-19 from the United States to Mexico. Expediting the shipment of supplies to address issues emerging around COVID-19 requires leveraging formal and informal relations. Several webinar participants noted ways in which the pandemic has negatively changed the nature of communication at the border, but also mentioned ways that the move to virtual engagement has facilitated communication.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a bureaucratization of partnerships, noted Cota de Yáñez (committee member), and a formal regularity of meetings with set agendas. Though the structure of business
has changed during the pandemic, the flow of information has not stopped. Many binational partnerships, covering such activities as maquiladoras, rail transport, and medical services, continue to play critical roles. Panelists discussed how in this era, informal networks have been strengthened to an extent never seen before, aided by access to communications technology (e.g., cellphones, Whatsapp).
It is not known whether formal structures and hierarchies will reassert themselves after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed or whether partnership members will see advantages in the informal nature of communications and decision making and continue in that fashion. Commerce between the two countries continues to rely heavily on technology, and participants expressed the hope that partnerships can withstand the changes that have resulted from the pandemic through high-tech tools and information technology services for both Mexican and U.S. partners. Panelists were hopeful that the significant investments that stakeholders have made into forming relationships around sustainability are only being strengthened during the pandemic and will continue after it is over.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, health service networks in the U.S.–Mexico border region were managed very formally and from the top down: in Mexico, these networks started with the national health secretary, and included officials at the federal, state, and municipal levels; in the United States, the networks are managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Carey told panelists about the U.S.–Mexico Border Health Commission,5 which began as a binational commission in 2000 between the HHS Secretary and the Mexican Secretary of Health. He commented that even though then-President Trump had somewhat sidelined the U.S. work of the commission during his administration, partnerships at the border have continued to thrive. There have been successful joint planning around infectious disease, juvenile diabetes, and cancer, led mainly by state governments. Carey noted the severe impacts of the pandemic at the border region: [at the time of the workshop,] hospitals were overrun, and there was a lack of personal protective equipment. BPP and other organizations have been working to expedite the crossing of in-kind medical supplies in the border region. He said that when there are gaps in border health service coordination, particularly at the political level, it can create significant challenges for providers.
When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, essential services provided by partnerships could not go under lockdown, so each partnership had to decide what worked best for it in terms of continuing collaboration. With border crossing restrictions, agency closings,
5 More information is available at: https://www.hhs.gov/about/agencies/oga/about-oga/what-we-do/international-relations-division/americas/border-health-commission/index.html.
cancellation of in-person meetings, stay-at-home orders, and many stakeholders dealing with personal and family illness, networks such as the one between Sonora and Arizona started to rely on informal communication. Examples of such communications at the peer-to-peer level include drugstore owners networking directly with customers, Mexican physicians communicating directly with their colleagues in the United States, and families forming a community with other families. On the institutional level, local public health agencies relied on official updates in each country to make decisions affecting their communities. Local stakeholders met as needed, using virtual platforms, to discuss the status of private and public hospitals, both COVID and non-COVID facilities.
The webinar panelists all said that the true test of the strength of the binational partnerships will be how they fare during and after this pandemic. However, the panelists noted that the binational response to the health crisis would not have been possible if partnerships had not been formed and developed before COVID: the trust, confidence, and personal involvement that had been cultivated before the pandemic were essential to continued collaboration. Cardenas noted that although the pandemic has changed the way Consejo Empresarial Nogales communicates, many of the organization’s relationships are stronger now than ever before.
While many health-related partnerships continue to thrive, others have been severely strained by the pandemic. An example is ARSOBO (an acronym for Arizona-Sonora Border), which is a binational collaboration among academia, businesses, NGOs, individual patients, the U.S. Consulate, municipal governments of the state of Sonora, and volunteers from the United States. The volunteers would come to the border area every 6 weeks or so to provide health services, such as therapies, audiometer tests, hearing-aid adaptations, and prosthetic measurements. Under COVID restrictions, students and others are not allowed by their U.S. academic institutions to cross the border, and Mexicans were also prohibited from crossing for a time. In response, a new virtual partnership has developed. Based probably on the strong personal relationships among the members on each side, subnetworks connect by specialty areas, including physical therapy (with U.S. volunteers and Mexican translators, mostly), audiology (U.S. medical doctors and Mexican technicians), and prosthetics (U.S. Hanger, Inc., a prosthetic manufacturer, and local technicians they trained in Nogales, Sonora).
All these partnership initiatives relied on monthly or more frequent visits, often back and forth daily, due to the age of many of the patients and the border closure to nonessential travel. These new partnerships have relied on Mexican staff accommodating patients’ schedules to the U.S. participants’ working hours (mostly from home using virtual technology), as well as finding volunteers to translate virtually. Patients from all over
northern Mexico communicate via Facetime with the Mexican ARSOBO staff, who in turn connect via Zoom with University of Arizona academic staff, volunteers, board members, Hanger, Inc., and others. For follow-up, patients were provided with future Zoom appointments to reduce the number of trips and exposure at the border. Many of the patients are diabetics, children, and the elderly—all at high risk of health complications.
This 12+-year partnership would not exist today if not for the commitment of the participants. All manner of challenges have been faced, from city-to-city cross-border coordination, to the dollar-to-peso exchange rate, to the taxation of imports even for NGOs, to the perception of border violence, to border-crossing bans by universities and corporations. The U.S. Consulate played a crucial role for staff and volunteers without visas.
Successful partners challenge each other and defy the status quo. Set BIG goals and don’t settle for minimal progress.
—Zachary Hernandez (SANDAG)
Chapter 2 discussed the characteristics of sustainability partnerships and illustrated how partnerships ensure their sustainability. Successful partnerships emerge from the entrepreneurial activities of conveners with big aspirations and a strong commitment to challenge the status quo. This section focuses on what makes successful partnerships special in the U.S.–Mexico border region.
Partnerships that succeed share mutually beneficial goals that are well-grounded in the unique characteristics of the region. The Border Health Commission’s role is to “bring together the two countries and their border states to address border health challenges by providing the necessary leadership to develop coordinated and binational actions that can improve the health and quality of life of all border residents.”6
Partnerships are bidirectional. Partners of the Americas connects higher education institutions across borders to exchange knowledge, build programs, and foster long-term partnerships.7 BPP has built the capacities of NGOs on both sides of the border, enabling initiatives to emerge from both countries. Partnerships build relationships to maintain an enabling environment to take advantage of opportunities and collaborate across sectors, often with a sense of urgency. For example, organizations across
6 More information is available at: https://www.hhs.gov/about/agencies/oga/about-oga/what-we-do/international-relations-division/americas/border-health-commission/index.html.
the border have shown remarkable cooperation to respond to COVID-19 with personal protective equipment.
Successful partners have a binational mindset that acknowledges that challenges on one side of the border affect the other side. The work of partners is crucial to educate leaders in both countries on the complexity of the region and develop the future leaders that successful partnerships require in government, in NGOs, among academics, among indigenous communities, and in the private sector. Universities in the region address important and complex topics in the U.S.–Mexico border region, including migration, health, and applied social policy; media and expressive culture; culture, language, and learning; and U.S. and Mexican regional immigration policy and the regional economy. El Colegio de la Frontera Norte does research and education on the complex regional social processes with a multidisciplinary perspective.
Successful partnerships rely on participatory mechanisms to achieve effective co-creation. They do so by tackling the challenges of asymmetries in the region. Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras works with Indigenous people across the border to affirm their rights and listen to their concerns on policy decisions, such as those concerning the border and COVID-19 travel restrictions, that have an impact on the pilgrimage to the sacred site of the O’odham people. SANDAG effectively manages the complexity of subnational diplomacy to achieve participatory transportation planning that includes Mexico and builds the public trust to engage the private sector constructively.
“Success” is a relative term, and every webinar panelist discussed those factors that they deemed critical for the type of success that they hoped to achieve from the partnerships in which they are involved. In some instances, success might be defined in terms of the explicit objectives of the partnership. In other instances, success was defined in more process-based and subjective terms. Thus, success could be the creation of trusting relationships, the creation of a shared sense of place around the border, or the elevated visibility of a particular issue being addressed through the partnership irrespective of whether any explicit goals had been achieved.
Panelists identified a series of challenges faced by binational partnerships. Obstacles may involve the presence or (in-)visibility of an institution in one country with a lack of representation in the other, which can lead to an imbalance or lack of trust. Organizational processes that require the cross-border exchange of resources (e.g., financial, material, human) are often subject to cumbersome regulation. Asymmetries exist in organizational capacities, especially with regard to NGOs in Mexico. Effective mechanisms
to address these complexities may vary from state to state and from community to community. Several themes emerged from the partnership experiences discussed in the webinar.
“Relationships Are Everything”
This general idea was repeated by multiple participants in several ways: as the centrality of interpersonal trust; as the value of day-to-day subnational diplomacy in intergovernmental partnerships or of citizen-to-citizen diplomacy in civil society partnerships; and more generally as the centrality of relationships, partnerships, friendships, and trust. Trust is needed not only among partners, but also in the mutual benefits of the partnership.
Leveraging Established Frameworks to Develop Trust
The building of interpersonal trust that underlies effective partnerships itself depends on several factors, one of which is the existence of formal or established frameworks. Such frameworks provide a degree of structure and predictability that can facilitate the development of personal and informal relationships, which can be especially important when facilitating relationships across differences that are usually barriers to a partnership. Established frameworks have been especially helpful in developing relationships with the private sector, business actors with whom civil society, community, and public-sector officials do not normally have much horizontal interaction.
Cross-Boundary Literacy or “Interculturalidad”
The development of relationships across differences draws attention to the principle that interculturalidad, intercultural communication, along with competence, is central to an effective partnership. This principle applies to communication across ethnic and racial differences as much as across sectoral differences. Indeed, there are particularly serious challenges to partnerships across ethnic differences in the border region insofar as Indigenous groups are especially disadvantaged stakeholders. Indigenous groups are also subject to different degrees of government and social recognition and appreciation on the two sides of the border.
Partnerships involving Indigenous peoples will also be more effective when other actors can actively listen to tribal leaders and councils. As noted in a U.N. decree,8 the “free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples” is key to partnership.
Leadership and an Ethic of Place
Leadership is intrinsic to effective partnerships. In the cross-border context, leadership can foster trust and the creation of an ethic of place: that is, an ethic in which the border is similarly understood by actors on both sides as a shared place. The place ethic also implies that partnerships will be more effective when leadership rotates among different parties, including people on each side of the border. It is also important that the actors and leaders involved in partnerships
are rooted in the location of interest rather than engaging with it from a distance as absentee economic, political, or academic actors. This ethic of place is often complicated because each country’s capital city is far from the border region; the webinar panelists supported the idea that narratives about the border region are best controlled by the actors rooted there.
Considering and respecting different knowledge systems play a key role in fostering inclusion. The process of building trust is long and gradual; partners have a responsibility to be inclusive with their stakeholders. In addition to engaging organizations, partners need to do extensive community engagement to build trust in a broader sense. Citizen-to-citizen diplomacy is essential to address sustainability challenges. Involving the private sector remains a challenge in the region. SANDAG provides an example of a partnership that implements participatory mechanisms that build public trust, yielding more leverage to engage the private sector.
Webinar panelists noted the importance of money for partnership development, though finance did not feature as prominently in the webinar discussions as might have been expected. Several participants noted that resources are needed for many partnership activities. How these financial resources are distributed is also significant. Symmetrical distribution of financial resources is more likely to favor effectiveness in partnerships; however, financial asymmetries are not always an obstacle. Partnerships have emerged in contexts where financial resources are controlled by just a few actors, and in most cases, the actors that control greater resources are typically private corporations and organizations based in the United States. Whether the asymmetries are an obstacle depends on how they are managed and on the levels of interpersonal trust among the partners. A negative example comes from mining companies in the border region, which have been perceived as sharing relatively little information with other actors about their use of resources, especially water.9 Asymmetries of power between mining companies and other actors are also accentuated by laws that give companies preferences. (See Appendix D for more discussion on mining partnerships in the region.)
Diverse political factors impinge on the success of partnerships. The nature of relevant political factors varied across the cases discussed at the webinar, but among those mentioned were the relative interest and support of border governors and federal authorities, as well as the degree of political cooperation among them. A relative lack of interest and support from governors can complicate partnerships, especially those
9 It should be noted that all Mexican mining companies have to provide their usage of resources in a report to the government, and most post this information on their websites; however, stakeholders sometimes do not know how to find this information.
involving subnational government authorities. When federal authorities attach a negative stigma to the border area or when they recentralize to the federal-level authorities that had previously been delegated to actors closer to the border (as in the case of the Border Health Commission), it compromises the success of partnerships.
Panelists also emphasized the need for stakeholders to better understand how official government structure and decision making impact partnerships. Even when local stakeholder partnerships establish a shared vision and common agendas, engaging government actors can be a significant challenge. Nevertheless, government engagement is invariably required because political will and sustained commitment are needed structurally to bring about positive change.
Information and Knowledge Strategies
Information and knowledge strategies involve improving the availability and quality of information on existing partnerships, on how they operate, and on the factors that appear to favor their effectiveness. This information would be a source of data for participants in different partnerships, allowing them to learn from other experiences, draw lessons that they could apply to their own partnership, and even forge links or build synergies across partnerships. It is best if these information bases are publicly accessible (within the constraints of legitimate information disclosure) and at least bilingual. There is also a case to be made for making some of this information available in Indigenous languages.
Closely related to information strategies is the need to develop strategies that facilitate the exchange of experiences across different partnerships and that promote the possibility of critical dialogue so that learning can occur. The webinar itself was valued by participants as just such an opportunity to hear each other and learn from each other. Strategies to promote such active learning across partnerships are therefore an important ingredient for the effectiveness of individual partnerships, at least by making their members aware of other interconnected sets of problems that likely impinge on the problems they are addressing. These learning strategies can also foster greater understanding among those actors who influence the context in which partnerships thrive or dwindle. For instance, study tours of the border area for political leaders could foster greater understanding and support from these leaders. More generally, cross-border university partnerships can help bring people together in ways that both foster learning and contribute to relationship building.
Partnership processes are slow, and if partnerships last a long time (which is one measure of effectiveness), they will experience several rounds of leadership change. Consequently, the ongoing and active cultivation of leadership across generations is important for the
continued effectiveness of partnerships. The type of leadership cultivated should be oriented toward collaborative, cross-border relationships.
All organizations have a role to play in this process, though it may be that the academic community has a particular contribution to make in how it trains emerging professionals and the types of skills and values that this training imparts.
Alongside civic space, the existence of narratives that create favorable environments for partnerships is also critical. The construction of narratives—frequently in the face of less than favorable dominant ideas—is a long-term process. In a context in which the border is cast as violent, unruly, and of little positive interest to the centers of authority in the two countries, the success of partnerships will be enhanced if this adverse set of ideas can be reversed and recast. Building narratives about a border with potential and with a wide range of positive human, environmental, and social assets is, therefore, a critical part of a strategy of building contexts that are favorable for partnerships. Following from the point about cultivating new leadership, these narratives would be best to be crafted in terms defined by younger people, who constitute the emerging next generation of leaders. All actors have a role to play in this narrative building, though most important is that it be done in a way that is deliberate and coordinated. This narrative building is challenging because of the transient nature of large proportions of the population along the border, at least on the Mexican side. The border needs active champions and championing.
The success of a partnership may depend on the ability of key actors to take a long approach. This approach allows for slow interactions, the slow building of trust between, for instance, the public and private sectors, and steady learning and adaptation. Resilient partnerships are not created from one day to the next, or from one year to the next. The strategic implication is that taking time is critical, and entering into partnerships with a long-term view and patience is likely to enhance the overall success of the partnership. Although it is important to find ways within the community of researchers and government organizations to provide support for the issues that are at hand, be they health or access to freshwater, it is a long process to build partnerships that stand the test of the time. Again, the challenge is to give partnerships time to mature when working with transient communities and in the face of pressing social and environmental challenges.
Anthony Bebbington (committee member) wrapped up the webinar by noting that the key challenges for effective partnership involve recognizing the scale of the border and including those actors who have been otherwise excluded by the tendency to pull power away from the region. Central to this pursuit are narratives, as was mentioned many times during the webinar, and the need to tell the story of the
border as it is and not as it is constructed to be. This needs to be done in a way that involves diverse pieces of knowledge, not just singular knowledge. And “that’s certainly a warning shot across the bows of academics,” he said. Key to that process, and the process of building effective partnerships, is what Bebbington referred to as “interculturality,” the vital importance of recognizing a broad range of kinds of knowledge and being able to find a way to communicate across them, which may involve bridging differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities or across generations or just across different organizational cultures.
The webinar served as a unique base of knowledge to inform the committee’s subsequent analyses and deliberations. The manner in which the webinar was conducted was conducive to rich discussions in the panel session, which often spilled over into conversations in the chat room. All observed discussions converged into eight main themes, which can be summarized in no particular order as follows:
- Regardless of the sector or objective, robust communication and effective decision making are common characteristics of successful partnerships.
- Intercultural communication, patience, and cultural sensitivity are essential to establishing trust and strong relationships with local communities and are the key to understanding the effects of changes such as industrialization on Indigenous lands. It is important to inform and receive consent from Indigenous peoples about the changes that affect tribal lands.
- State and federal policies are usually at odds with border needs and priorities. Fostering co-creation at the border level is challenging in the region due to asymmetries, power dynamics, and knowledge systems (see Appendix D for more on the asymmetries and key governance challenges facing sustainable development in the region). Community-led partnerships are essential to respond to and combat the conventional, top-down approach.
- Stability is vital for binational partnerships. Government transitions on both sides of the border can affect the strength of formal partnerships. Political administration turnovers complicate processes in both countries.
- The construction of the border wall has complicated partnerships with Indigenous communities and has disrupted ecological flows. This problem is poised to grow if current tendencies in border management do not change.
- It is difficult to simultaneously empower local involvement and garner meaningful support from government agencies for binational partnerships. Because citizen participation in community processes has different histories in both countries, it is important to engage binational stakeholders in ways that do not perpetuate asymmetries.
- The environment, public health, education (including exchange visits), migration, and commerce represent the themes and sectors with the most durable partnerships. Such partnerships are particularly effective for binational communications and coordinating rapid response to acute and chronic challenges.
- Binational sustainability partnerships are in need of improved evidence and data for decision making, as well as human, financial, and institutional resources to maintain or extend their effectiveness.