There has been a lot of talk about partnerships at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, partnerships between governments and business to run vital services, and the involvement of NGOs in these schemes.
These partnerships present opportunities for voluntary organisations to get involved with programmes operating on a scale they could only dream of when working alone and they bring a great deal of knowledge and experience with them. Tear Fund and WaterAid have welcomed suggestions for water provision in poorer countries involving private-sector companies, and WWF has already been involved in a number of similar schemes.
But there is a lot of concern that all this talk of partnerships is a smoke screen to hide the fact that very little is actually being done when it comes to setting tangible goals for sustainable development - what the conference claims to be about. Politicians are under pressure to show that they haven't been sitting around eating caviar and the danger is that various partnerships will be rushed in at the eleventh hour to give the impression that something has been achieved.
NGOs must make sure they are genuinely consulted before getting involved in a partnership. Public-private partnerships need to be carefully constructed to be successful. NGOs need to have real input into the framework, not just be brought in to put a sheen of legitimacy over wider corporate agendas.
Involvement in these partnerships does put NGOs in a prime position to feed in expert knowledge and to blow the whistle if things are not being delivered as advertised. But there are lessons to be learned from the problems the voluntary sector has encountered at home with local authority contracts.
NGOs must make sure they don't find themselves in a position where they cannot criticise the companies involved.