Since 2014, SNV has been part of PPPLab, a research initiative focusing on the relevance, effectiveness and quality of Dutch supported public-private partnerships (PPPs). In the past months, PPPLab has specifically looked at the role that PPPs can play in scaling processes by interviewing thought leaders as well as studying a large number of PPP cases.

The concept of “scaling” or “scaling up” is increasingly popular in international development efforts, as it has the connotation of bringing technical solutions to a large number of people. In general, there is a tendency to associate scaling with strategies for (inclusive) business growth; these strategies usually involve market-driven approaches to reach impact, with a lead firm or NGO promoting a specific solution in search of a market (share). This is what we call ‘horizontal scaling’ as such approaches are mainly focused on simply reaching large numbers of people.

PPPLab’s study, however, found that in many cases achieving significant degrees of scale also requires dealing with other system levels: not just spreading the solution or practice but also changing the ways that organisations and institutions function in order to enable that solution or practice. This is also labelled ‘vertical scaling’; changing the rules of the game in a specific sector.

Number of people reached & system levels (PPPLab 2016)

A classic example is sanitation; while an NGO can try to raise awareness and build sanitation facilities for local communities, it would greatly help if national policies also aim for large-scale sanitation adoption (for example through national awareness campaigns) or if financial institutions make the facilities affordable by offering sanitation loans.

It goes without saying that climate change is a typically ‘wicked problem’. The recently released movie, “Before the Flood” with Leonardo DiCaprio, shows us only a glimpse of the complexity of interests and stakeholders involved in this issue. Naturally, scaling adaptation practices in such a complex field will not be a simple matter of ‘selling a solution’; large-scale adoption of improved practices will only take place when we also address ‘higher’ system levels, as we need to embed those practices in policies, institutions and rules of the game. In other words, we need rich strategies that involve both horizontal as well as vertical dimensions of scaling.

Thus, it seems only natural that strong partnerships are needed for such scaling efforts. Bringing together different actors and drivers can help address the various dimensions of scaling, with businesses, certain types of NGOs and public campaigns usually driving the business approach/horizontal dimensions of scale and public actors, the more activist/advocacy NGOs and business leaders driving the vertical dimensions. Together, these different actors are better equipped to reach ‘higher levels’, which enables them to change policies and institutionalise innovative practices. Together, they are better equipped in addressing barriers to reach large and sustainable impact. Public-private partnerships can make a real change.   

SNV, as part of PPPLab, is currently finalising a paper on the role of PPPs in scaling. The first publication will be out on December 1st on

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Public-private partnerships & climate action: from ‘selling a solution’ to real systemic change