Thinking differently about the private sector

Topics Cross-sector partnerships | Networking

On October 10, the University of Queensland (UQ) and the RDI Network co-hosted the second annual networking forum in Brisbane – responding to an appetite for practitioners, academics and others to network and connect over issues of shared interest.

The event was booked out and attended by 60 participants, representing NGOs, universities, managing contractors, consultants and more. The chosen thematic discussion was Partnering for impact: leveraging the private sector for sustainable development. It was framed by a recognition that there is a wealth of knowledge, skills, approaches and resources which the private sector has – and wants to offer – to benefit the international development sector.

This event progressed from previous forums on this topic by not only talking about the private sector, but actually talking with the private sector about important opportunities to work together.

A panel discussion was facilitated by Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller (UQ), and elicited a range of views on resourcing, risk appetite, small and medium enterprise, sustainability and innovation. The RDI Network is hugely thankful to our four expert panellists:

  • Meredith Hickman – WaterAid
  • Ass. Prof. Damian Hine – University of Queensland
  • Mel Dunn – AECOM
  • Scott Roberts – Rubicor Group and Australia Papua New Guinea Business Council

Following the panel, a ‘carousel’ of small group discussions, facilitated by Dr Nina Hall (UQ), participants joined the panellists to further unpack four ‘curly’ questions related to the overall theme. A summary of key ideas arising from the discussions is below.

Can the private sector share a commitment to ‘do no harm’?

  • In entering collaboration, it is essential to share goals, and understand the various drivers and interests from all sides.
  • Acknowledge and address power differentials; create space for all voices to be heard (including at community level)
  • Incorporate ‘do no harm’ in into standard processes such as risk assessments and monitoring and evaluation (M&E).

How do we manage risk and attract impact investment?

  • The private sector will do their due diligence prior to investment, so the onus is on projects to prove effectiveness.  Once on board, corporate experience has a lot to offer in regards to transferring success across contexts and sectors.
  • Enterprise at the local level is one of the keys to wealth redistribution. There is a lot the development community can learn from different entrepreneurial cultures.
  • Corruption and the associate need for transparency are key considerations of risk; the private sector has strong expertise to offer in financial management.

What positive private sector ‘thinking’ is useful for development projects?

  • Acknowledge that a pure profit motive is not a requisite of private sector entities – we should be careful how we conceptualise and label what is a not a monolithic sector.
  • The private sector has a lot to offer in terms of approaches and ways of working, including (but not limited to): sustainability (of operations), scaling up, risk management, working in uncertain conditions and dealing with failure.
  • The private sector should be looked at to fill existing gaps in capacity of NGOs or other implementing partners. However, learning is two-way: the private sector has much to learn from other actors.

Can profitable business really lead to positive change? What does this look like?

  • Yes, in the right environment (regulatory and otherwise)
  • Ensure we understand the full scope of private sector activity, from grassroots social enterprise, to major corporation social responsibility programs.
  • Examples of positive change are numerous and significant, covering a range from provision of clean water, schools, clinics etc. to integration of sustainable practice into supply chains.


Not only did this event spark new ideas, but also new connections. We hope that many of the conversations started last week will continue and lead to potential collaborative research or practice in this area. We extend a special thanks to the Global Change Institute at UQ for providing the venue for this event, and to all the members of the organising committee – representing a truly university-wide effort.

We look forward to returning to Brisbane for future events, and are open to suggestions of different topics which might attract a range of interest from across academic, policy and practice in development.