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Speaking of Sailboats not Trains

On Thursday and Friday 17 and 18 March 2016, the 8th Annual ‘M&E on the Cutting Edge’ conference took place in Wageningen. Organised by the Wageningen University Centre for Development Innovation (CDI), the main theme this year was on partnerships, M&E of partnerships and how to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals. The event brought presentations, workshops and papers from participants from around the world together in an intensive and well-visited conference.

Keynote speakers Bruce Byiers (ECDPM) and Ros Tennyson (Partnership Brokers Association) kicked off a lively conference. Bruce Byiers began by noting that in his opinion there are more than 50 shades of partnerships. This poses challenges for understanding what defines partnerships, and for the M&E that is needed of and for partnerships. Being in a partnership means engaging with a lot more partners and complexity: “plan for sailboats and not trains”. This is because partnership development is not linear, and the direction depends much on context and values. Performing monitoring and evaluation brings common challenges related to attribution and contribution, but also the additional need to build in flexibility in M&E systems and capture the value-addition of co-creation. Ros Tennyson (Partnership Brokers Association) brought years of experience in managing and facilitating partnerships to the conference. She opened by saying that she is absolutely passionate but also sceptical of partnerships. She stated that “unexpected imaginations are essential. I am most disappointed about predictable partnerships and much more enthusiastic about unpredictable partnerships”. Ros noted the importance of the principles under which partnerships operate, focusing on issues of control, interior condition and interdependence. Ros highlighted that partnership brokers have a key role to play in partnerships processes. Being advisors and facilitators of partnerships, they can engage in estimating and tracking but also help to deepen relationships and understanding. Brokers can play the role of participant observers and advocates, contributing to a wider societal comprehension of what partnerships actually (should) do.

Throughout the two days of the conference, participants experienced a diverse programme. Contributions ranged from stories and cases of partnership experiences, M&E approaches applied in research and programmes, M&E tools to explore the impact but also the process and essence of partnerships, and interactive sessions to generate ideas on how to assess partnerships. Conference participants sought to answer the following conference questions:

  1. What do we mean by partnerships?
  2. What is specific about the M&E of partnerships?
  3. What aspects, approaches and conditions for M&E help partnerships better contribute to the SDGs?

It is certain that the questions will be answered differently by each individual. It is also certain that more questions were raised in the aftermath of the conference. As CDI, we seek to encourage these discussions and critical explorations. Please find presentations and papers from the conference through the following link: We hope to share the conference report on this conference website within the next few months.