Please let’s stop talking about PPPs

As you might guess, I didn’t originally write this post for this blog. But no one else wants it, so I’ll publish the poor orphaned post myself.

The term public-private partnerships don’t get explained much. They partnerships a lot of attention, but it’s such common vocabulary that no one ever stops to explain it. That’s okay, though, because it’s a useless term.

A public-private partnership is any collaboration between public bodies – like a government, the UN, or an NGO – and a business entity. That’s all. Public organization working with a private one. A pharmaceutical company donating drugs to UNICEF or a developing country government. A consulting firm offering free services to the Global Fund. A local government providing start-up capital to a business that may serve a public good.

Personally, I think this piece of jargon has pretty much outlived its usefulness. It doesn’t describe an unusual situation, help corporations understand their role, or serve as an accurate or specific term. We should retire it.

Ten years ago, when private sector business rarely got involved in development, we needed special vocabulary to encourage them. “Public-private partnership” sounds reassuring. “You’re not in this alone, frightened little corporation! You’re in a partnership. The UN will help you, we promise!” The special term helped to normalize business participating in international development efforts.

Now, though, it’s pretty much become the norm. Businesses get involved in international development and global health all the time. They don’t need supportive language to help them understand that they belong. They have decided it’s in their interest to support global health, and that’s pretty much enough to motivate a profit-making entity.

Because it’s the norm, we also don’t need special exclusive language that sets apart business-funded development work from work funded by government or private donors. Those are not the traditional donors any more; people expect that there will be corporate involvement in global health, for example. So we don’t need to single out public-private partnerships as a special case. They’re just one of the many ways that we fund international development work.

It’s also a term that is so general it’s useless. For all that it was supposed to helpfully describe a special kind of health or development effort, instead it’s meaningless. I mean, what if the US government hires an international development company like Casals Associates to implement a development effort? Why isn’t that a public-private partnership?  If Oxfam buys plane tickets for its employees, why is that not a public-private partnership?

The horse has left the barn. The bird has flown the coop, and you can never get those square foam pieces to fit back into the box once you’ve opened it. The corporation has entered the hen house, and it’s pretty much okay with the hens. Public-private partnerships vary, to a huge degree. It’s not useful to try to lump them all together, any more than it is to assume all official development assistance is the same. This new world of business participation in global health needs a new vocabulary to describe it.