Creating partnerships for the Green Aral Sea Initiative

January 25, 2021

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

Henry Ford once said that all great things come through partnerships.  “Coming together is a beginning,” he said, “staying together is progress, and working together is success."

Agenda 2030, in all its wisdom, lays out 16 Sustainable Development Goals covering the world’s challenges before bringing up the 17th to bring them all together – “Partnerships for Goals.” All successful and sustainable development requires inclusive partnerships — at the global, regional, national and local levels.

The UN Development Programme knows this, and why in all its work, whether a small scale local project or multisectoral regional programme, it relies on building partnerships with national governments, the private sector, civil society, NGOs, academia, international financial institutions, and other development agencies.

During the designing stage of the #GreenAralSea initiative we took the same approach, beginning with such fundamental questions as Who could be our partners? Do we already have working relationships with them? What would be the issues for partnering? What would be the role of each partner? What resources will each partner bring? What will be the benefit for each partner from the partnership? How do we communicate? How do we frame the partnership?

For some of these questions we had more or less clear answers, for other questions were not so sure. In our journey, we tried to make the best use of the guidance of our colleagues in UNDP Uzbekistan, AltFinLab, Bureau for External Relations and Advocacy  and Istanbul Regional Hub, but in uncharted (at least for us) areas, we had to make our own way.

First step: setting up symbiotic and successful Government partnerships

Establishing the need for partnership with government agencies did not require much effort.  As the Aral Sea catastrophe has gradually evolved and escalated since the 1960s, the importance of addressing the issue was well felt, and every government agency we approached shared a common vision of the necessity to take urgent actions to improve the wellbeing of the population in the Aral Sea region. Also, everyone agreed the Aral Sea problem is so complex and interdependent that no single organization can address them alone. UNDP has been working closely with the national partners and UN Agencies since the 1990s to improve living standards in the region by carrying out projects on governance, environmental protection, poverty reduction, improving infrastructure, access to water, health care services and  introducing best agricultural practices. Therefore, when we approached potential partners, which we identified with the assistance of UNDP colleagues, we were received with a spirit of openness for collaboration.

Photo: Meeting with Abdoulaye Mar Dieye to Head UNDP’s Global Policy Bureau at High-level Conference on Aral in Nukus, Karakalpakstan (October 2019, photo by UNDP)

Using the stakeholder mapping exercise, we identified the unique skills and resources of each partner and tried to link them to respective aspects of the Aral See Greening Initiative.  In October 2019 we participated at a High-Level International Conference on the Aral Sea in Nukus with a subsequent field visit to Muynak.  These  provided good opportunities to connect with a wide range of stakeholders from different government sectors.  In particular, we identified and captured the interest of the State Forestry Committee, the Ministry for Innovative Development, the Ministry of Investments and Foreign Trade, and the State Ecology Committee.

Developing relationships with each of these partners required discussions to understand what is important to each of the organizations. Several discussions were held both on senior management and technical working levels and this process allowed everyone to appreciate each organization’s values and interests in order to find synergies and areas where each could work together.  Through this process we were able to formalize the partnership through the Memorandum of Understanding, in which the roles and responsibilities of each partner were spelled out.  The MoU was signed during the launch ceremony of the crowdfunding campaign.

The following presents an overview of the roles and responsibilities of each partner, as articuled in the Memorandum of Understanding:

Second step: pursuing private sector partnerships

Aside from public sector partnerships that were created through the MoU, the Green Aral Sea Initiative also needed to form partnerships with the private sector.  If creating shared value with the public sector came naturally, it was not quite a simple task with the private sector. We started by meeting with companies that displayed a commitment to social responsibility and made presentations and pitches of the initiative. We had to provide a customized narrative for each potential partner. However, the common approach was to explain the urgency of the issue. Even though there was a general awareness of the tragedy, the complexity, magnitude of the issue, and the need to apply new solutions and approaches was not easily agreed to or comprehended.

Another challenge was to explain our proposed solution (i.e. planting). In our presentations, we  started with an overview of the Aral Sea catastrophe, its negative consequences on humans health, wellbeing, environment, biodiversity, and its threat to our future. Then we provided information on the benefits of planting trees on the dried seabed. We stressed that we’re building on the government initiative of planting the trees but trying a new financing mechanism, which if tested successfully could be scaled up and also used for other socially important causes.

Photo capture: Our Green Champions: Huawei, MacCoffee – Future Enterprises, UPL, Webster University in Tashkent (photo by UNDP)

We cannot say that we succeeded in each meeting, but we are pleased that Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd. , MacCoffee – Future Entreprises PTE, and UPL Limited have joined us as Green Champions and made substantial contributions to the initiative. To date, Huawei following its corporate social responsibility policy, provided the biggest contribution to the campaign, followed by Future Enterprise, owner of the MacCoffee brand. UPL Limited, an Indian multinational chemicals company, provided both financial support and the starch-based water gels to use in our planting experiments.

Photo capture: Experimental planting saxaul with Zeba water gel on the dried seabed of the Aral Sea (photo by UNDP)

To formalize each partnership we relied on  our colleagues at UNDP’s Istanbul Regional Hub and the Legal Support Office at our headquartrers in New York City.  They were of great help in completing the due diligence procedures and in  preparing necessary documents. 

Third step:  securing partnerhsips with NGOs and academic institutions

Photo Capture: Learning with activities of the International Innovation Center for the Aral Sea Basin in Nukus (photo byUNDP)

Aside from the importance of partnering with government and the private sector, we also knew the endeavour would fall short of success if we did bring in NGOs and academia as partners. Our colleagues at AltFin Lab, which helped us enourmously during the process, also strongly advised to develop a partnership with an NGO for many good reasons, including the need to meet the eleibility requrements of global crowdfunding paltforms. Following our stakeholder mapping exercise we reached out to local and national NGOs - the International Innovation Center for the Aral Sea Basin under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, operating in Nukus and Muynak, International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, National Yuksalish Movement and others.

To our dissapointemnt, global crowdfunding  platforms we were considering to work with didn’t allow not allow NGOs from Uzbekistan to run a crowdfunding campaign due to various reasons and limitations. On a positive note,through our discussions with NGOs we were able to fine tune the concept of the #GreenAralSea Initiative and to run the crowdfunding campaign as UNDP with NGOs as our allies. Researchers from the Academy of Science of Karakalpakstan agreed to help us with monitoring of the saxaul growth.  We have also reached out to Uzbek diaspora abroad and the Uzbek American Association of Chicago

Photo Capture: Field visit of representatives of Academy of Science, Forestry Committee and UNDP to dried seabed in November 2020 to assess the growth rate of saxaul planted in April 2020 (photo by UNDP)

The process of creating a pitch video resulted in creation of coalition of fascinating personalities - Peter Shockey, a New York City Film Festival award winner for a television film Life After Life (1992) and Vincent Isner, professors of the Webster University in Tashkent to help us with filming, while Nasiba Abudullaeva, a well known ethno-pop artist, Janisbek Piyazov, young opera singer from Karakalpakstan, Umid Gafurov, a famous blogger, known for his project, and Diana Ibragimova, photographer, gender and environment activist, drew attention to the Aral Sea catastrophy and our call to action.

Images from our video campaign to raise awareness of the Aral Sea challenges, and to call for financial support from the general public. From left to to right down: Nasiba Abdullaeva, Umid Gafurov, Diana Ibragimova and Janisbek Piyazov

Lessons learned from the partnership process

  • Build a shared vision. Don’t assume that what you think is important is equally important for others. One needs to identify and create shared value to have shared success.
  • Learn to listen. Different parties may share the same overall goal, but they may also have their own interests. Therefore, in order to bring diverse partners around one initiative it is important to listen to them and then find a way to equally respect the roles and contribution of each partner.
  • Learn and leverage each other’s comparative advantages. It is the case when the phrase ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ applies well.
  • Allow flexibility. In our case, the formalization of partnerships resulted from balanced flexibility both on the part of UNDP and the government and the private sector. In the course of the initiative we utilized UNDP’s wide framework for partnership – the Memorandum of Understanding, Statement of Intent, Financial Contribution Agreement, Donor Agreement.
  • Invest in for the long-term relationships. The reputation of UNDP in Uzbekistan as a long trusted partner of choice has greatly benefited us in launching the GreenAralSea Initiative. It is important that partnerships be kept alive not only within joint initiatives, but also by regularly exchanges and meetings, which can take both formal and informal formats.
  • Build trust. In crowdfunding, building trust is challenging. Even through UNDP in Uzbekistan is a trusted partner, it was the first time UNDP in Uzbekistan ran a crowdfunding campaign. We had to ensure we not only kept but also strengthened trust. In this effort we relied on communication with our stakeholders through website, which displays each dollar received, while spending is guided by UNDP accountability mechanisms; posting updates on social media accounts on facebook, twitter, Instagram, traditional press; organizing field visit to the planting site; physically meeting backers, when possible.

With this blog we attempted to document and share our experiences and lessons learned while creating partnerships. It is one of series of blogs offering overall learnings from the GreenAralSea Initiative and a more detailed blog on our learnings on the Communication. Please feel free to contact us if you are interested in running a similar initative or to share your own experiences and feedback, so we can learn from each other.