Sustainable development is grounded in the protection of the natural environment, both as the functional life-support system that provides environmental goods and services, and for the preservation of its species, habitats, and complex ecosystem. The U.S.–Mexico binational region is a complex social-ecological system (SES) shaped by multiple global, regional, and local processes that are intertwined with human and ecosystem dynamics. The region faces many ongoing challenges to the sustainability of its natural resources and the livelihoods of its residents. These are exacerbated by global climate change, increasing urbanization and industrialization, and rapid population growth, as well as policy differences and diplomatic tensions that reflect national political agendas (see Appendix D). Navigating these challenges and preserving the area’s cultural richness, its vibrant economy, and complex ecology will require strengthening existing—and building new—strategic partnerships that engage a broad range of stakeholders in both countries. The lack of comprehensive empirical data on sustainability partnerships in the U.S.–Mexico border region makes it difficult to obtain a complete picture of the number, type, quality, longevity, and effectiveness of the region’s binational sustainability partnerships. Nevertheless, the data that exist and the accounts shared at the stakeholder webinar overwhelmingly show that effective partnership strategies and broadly acceptable metrics (Stibbe et al., 2019) that support sustainable development can enhance the well-being of the region’s residents.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 17 and the 2030 Agenda Partnership Accelerator reinforce the importance of cross-sectoral and innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships in promoting
“enhanced understanding of relationships across participants from different sectors.”1 As mentioned in Chapter 2, effective partnerships involve the development and application of knowledge and information, services, skills, and financial resources. Effective partnerships also require an understanding of organizational processes, including cultural and organizational values, as well as expected outcomes. A review of the current understanding of partnership effectiveness shows that developing a shared vision, iterative and participatory decision making, and knowledge co-production are fundamental to collective value creation and sustainable development implementation strategies. The webinar discussions covered in Chapter 3 underscore the importance of adopting adaptive procedures, fostering inclusivity, enhancing trust, and prioritizing sensitivity to context to enhance institutional collaboration in cross-border settings.
Transborder, multi-stakeholder partnerships pursuing sustainable development are faced with highly complex and often conflicting societal and environmental goals, seeking to balance livelihoods, resource and environmental security, biodiversity conservation, and land degradation in the context of global markets and climate change. Looking at transborder partnerships for sustainability through a systems approach places equal emphasis on the social and ecological dynamics of the border region and provides insight on how to understand the important feedback each component yields to others in the system.
There are three central reasons why effective partnerships must take a systems approach. First, tackling complex problems often requires transformative system change with novel governance (Stibbe et al., 2019) and open communication. Partnerships are evolving, and adaptive processes and not fixed end-products (Stibbe et al., 2019, p. 19); the ability to adapt to such changes while continuing to provide services is a measure of SES resilience. Stakeholders in the U.S.–Mexico transboundary region are highly diverse and represent different civil and governmental interests, scientific disciplines, and knowledge bases, as well as political and cultural perspectives. They may speak different languages and approach partnerships in different and unique ways. Partners in the binational context are differentially accountable to local, regional, and national stakeholders, a fact that introduces additional complexities into partnership strategies. In addition, relationships and communication between the public and private sector, and between governmental and nongovernmental organizations, both within and across country lines, can be strained. As noted in Chapter 3, several stakeholders
1 More information is available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/PartnershipAccelerator.
underscored the importance of clear and open information and communication channels to building relationships and institutionalizing input between cross-border partners. As was noted in the committee’s discussion of the mining sector, some border-region industries share relatively little information with other actors about their use of resources, even when the resources are of mutual importance to several stakeholders—like water.
Second, responding to unpredictable shocks or extreme stressors, including emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19, requires the mitigation of multiple, often unforeseen risks (Di Marco et al., 2020). Maintaining and enhancing ecosystem services to support societal well-being and equitable economic development is essential to sustainable SES development. An effective partnership between the United States and Mexico in the border region should focus on strengthening adaptability—a key SES trait—so that actors can sustain the partnership while responding to changing conditions. Chapter 3 discussed the importance of leveraging both formal and informal methods of communication to strengthen and maintain sustainable partnerships; when the pandemic eliminated in-person meetings and restricted cross-border supply chain distribution, local physicians and stakeholders relied on informal networks and virtual communication to interact with patients and to receive and send essential protocol information. Collective binational response such as this can bolster partnership viability and mitigate the adverse effects of unpredictable external disturbances.
Third, because the SDGs are interlinked and interdependent, taking an SES approach can generate synergies among sectors and actors at the highest levels of the national government and lead to integrated sustainable development plans supported by political leadership (Stafford-Smith et al., 2017). Partnerships aiming to achieve food, energy, and water security, biodiversity conservation, and climate change mitigation as key pillars of sustainable development are socially and politically acceptable means toward pursuing sustainable development that is consonant with complex SES objectives (Di Marco et al., 2020; Fu et al., 2019; Stafford Smith et al., 2017). Webinar participants agreed that although the process can be complex and challenging, engaging federal government agencies in sustainability partnerships is often a necessary step to garner sustained, widespread support and effect positive change (see Chapter 3).
In an SES, managing interdependent challenges together and closing collaborative gaps so that sustainability issues are tackled jointly may reduce emerging, often undetected, and thus unaccounted-for tradeoffs (Bergston et al., 2019). The 2018 workshop on advancing sustainability of U.S.–Mexico transboundary drylands (NASEM, 2018) highlighted the Los Alisos water treatment plant in Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico, as an example of successful binational collaboration in which the United States and Mexico addressed a shared challenges by leveraging their respective resources. After thorough
analysis of the region’s water conditions, water direction, and pumping and energy needs, the North American Development Bank, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Mexican government developed a plan to install solar panels at the Mexican plant. The Los Alisos wastewater treatment plant is the first in Latin America to run exclusively on solar energy.
RECOMMENDED STRATEGIES FOR FORMING AND MAINTAINING SUCCESSFUL U.S.–MEXICO BINATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY PARTNERSHIPS
Functional collaboration stresses the complementarity among partners and the recognition of the benefits of coordinated action. This is true for any transdisciplinary or transcultural (transnational) collaboration (Klein, 1996; Pohl, 2005). While every effective multi-stakeholder partnership in the U.S.–Mexico border region will not require the full representation of all groups of interest that work at the border and across the region (e.g., government, nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations, academic, business, civil society, and Indigenous communities), they can benefit from employing the following strategies.
Strategy 1: Identify Critical Issues 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 this understanding involves identifying a target audience and location of influence for the partnership’s activities while considering the impacts the partnership will have on other audiences and processes. When framing the partnership’s desired outcomes, partners need to acknowledge relevant assumptions, for example, resource availability, institutional and managerial capacity, and co-dependent processes such as organizational scrutiny or political criticism, as well as the risks involved in pursuing their outcomes. A targeted focus on critical challenges and outcomes may be at odds with a more open-ended, inclusive “big tent” approach to outcome framing that itself can have inclusiveness and resource merits. 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 well 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 and effectiveness
often do not lend themselves to the pace of learning societal norms and acquiring cultural sensitivity that help foster and build partners’ trust.
For U.S.–Mexico sustainability partnerships, particularly those involving representatives from Indigenous communities, interculturalidad (intercultural communication and competence) is a key capacity. Of particular importance are sovereign Native Nations’ relationships with the United States and Mexico as other governments. Indigenous people’s vision for development, goals, and objectives in building partnerships and opportunities for Native communities have historically been marginalized, even though they often have a very comprehensive understanding of the border region ecosystems.
As noted in Chapter 3, community engagement and citizen-to-citizen diplomacy aid in building trust in a broader sense. Though connecting local and governmental agencies with the private sector can prove challenging, successful cross-sectoral partnerships can work to build public trust. Developing new, beneficial relationships among stakeholders and actor groups involves establishing continuous and open dialogue, having an agreed-upon partnership structure (often involving a formal memorandum of understanding), and creating procedures 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 may mean rotating leadership, even if the partners vary in size, organizational strength, financial standing, and other key characteristics. Addressing power asymmetries among partners requires active listening, particularly with Indigenous communities at the border, as well as awareness of the differential risks and responsibilities for each actor of engaging in partnerships. Equitable operational plans for the partnership must factor in each partner’s organizational capacity and cross-partnership complementarity of resources and assets, as well as ensuring that decision making is as equitable and fair as possible. It can also be helpful to view institutional influence and social power as enabling forces in partnership execution. Partnerships can emerge in contexts where financial resources are controlled by just a few actors; whether the asymmetries are an obstacle depends on the how the partnership is managed and the levels of interpersonal trust that exist between partners.
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 outcomes. This may require discarding or significantly modifying the original expectations, goals, projected impacts, and internal and external benefits of the partnership. Boyle, Kay, and Pond (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 Partnership Effectiveness
For partnerships to succeed, it is essential to have identified outcomes and mutual commitments by the partners to pursue these outcomes. Despite similarities across the U.S.–Mexico border, stakeholders from cities, industries, and a range of organizations in each country will invariably hold different, potentially contradictory, perspectives on partnership effectiveness. The collective process of defining specific objectives and activities may require knowledge co-generation among partners. In particular, partnerships should strive to develop a theory of change (Taplin et al., 2013) for sustainable development, identifying obstacles and avenues for progress, and rallying champions within and outside of the partnership. Institutional learning (how partnerships incorporate success and failure) is based on iterative monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. Partners may not always agree on goals, objectives, activities, indicators, underlying assumptions, and outputs (Perz, 2019); however, when this leads to “discontinuity in action or interaction” (Akkerman and Bakker, 2011), partnership leaders may initiate a learning environment, following theories of change that require individual and community engagement. While desired outcomes may evolve, mutual commitment, open communication, and a trusted process of conducting joint activities can ensure that partnership evolution brings along all partners. Explicitly adding guidelines for partners’ compliance with partnership aims and activities, as well as using practical decision-making tools, can help legitimize the partnership. All partners need to be engaged in achieving partnership goals.
Strategy 6: Develop Short-, Medium-, and Long-Term Goals
Partnership strategies can be implemented over multiple 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. Partnerships may need to focus on short-term, tactically important activities, while also articulating and pursuing longer-term cumulative success. Sometimes “effectiveness” in the eyes of the stakeholders involved may entail a partnership having to exclude certain actors. Thus, there may be a tradeoff between effectiveness and inclusion, suggesting that success is often short-lived, and may be viewed very differently by stakeholders who are external to, or who have been excluded from, the partnership. Effective partnerships require a strategy that takes account of the timing and sequence of collective and individual partners’ tasks. Periodic reevaluation of the sequence of tasks can increase the probability of achieving short-term aims. Similarly, effective partnerships require flexibility in the timing and sequencing of medium-term objectives to reach broader SDGs.
Strategy 7: Establish Guidelines for Partnership Evaluation
There are three key measures for assessing partnerships: process (forming partnerships, setting goals, 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). These key measures build on the central sustainability partnership characteristics identified in Chapter 2, namely participation, collaboration (with additional traits of inclusiveness, and leadership), and knowledge and its co-production. The criteria of process, governance, and outcomes are interwoven with principles for effective 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 the pandemic, informal participation temporarily gained 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 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, which 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, water-management partnerships in the binational region 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.
Sustainability challenges that are addressed through binational partnerships are not unique to the U.S.–Mexico border region. They are, however, brought into sharp relief as a result of this region’s social and political context, its intertwined histories, its cultural, geographical, and ecological diversity, and its shared climate vulnerability and commercial inter-dependence. Indeed, a key strategy for the effectiveness of partnership-based initiatives is the recognition and harnessing of both challenges and opportunities presented by the region’s diversity and complexity.
Sustainable development in the U.S.–Mexico border region entails incremental change across a variety of inter-dependent factors. Transformative change will only be possible over the long term through an integrated approach, building on short-term steps. An integrated, medium-term approach will require partnership efforts not only to safeguard the region’s unique characteristics but also to sustain partnerships themselves. Maintaining participation, collaboration and trust-building, commitment to partnership goals, and persistence with flexibility in response to changing conditions are partnership characteristics that can be strengthened through capacity building and training, as well as through the sharing of lessons learned and mutual partnership-to-partnership support. The key to sustaining partnerships is maintaining a process of continuous learning, feedback, and organizational innovation that harnesses new communication technologies and platforms, involving partners who may have historically been sidelined, and harnessing the enthusiasm and know-how of youth. In some cases, tradeoffs are required such as excluding certain actors who may view success differently than other stakeholders. In these situations, partnerships should focus on process effectiveness in reaching short- and medium-term goals instead of idealized long-term success.
Building a shared vision internally among partners and externally with stakeholders requires intentional effort and cannot be sidelined or downplayed. Leadership as a core governance competency involves identifying and pursuing common goals, navigating power dynamics and resolving conflicts (or harnessing differences for positive change), and communicating internally and externally. Finally, human, financial, and material resources must be continually mobilized, deployed, and often conserved—both for partnership effectiveness and for the broader pursuit of sustainable development.
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