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Jasmine Whitbread
Jasmine Whitbread
Jasmine Whitbread is the CEO of Save the Children International.
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Learning how to work together to tackle the big issues
What kind of leadership is needed in a multi-stakeholder collaboration in order to combat issues like poverty?
Last Modified: 08 Feb 2012 08:27
Projects like 'education for all' seem like simple ideas, but are also massive propositions because of the level of cross-sector collaboration required to acheive the goal in a sustainable way [GALLO/GETTY]

Davos, Switzerland - Is there anything new left to be said about leadership? What it is, where it's failed us, how it's changing? While it's easy to be cynical, it's a topic that still draws, perhaps more than ever. At the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos just recently, there were no fewer than 39 sessions exploring the subject. One of the aspects generating increased interest is the kind of leadership that's needed in "multi-stakeholder collaboration to tackle the big issues like poverty" - to quote one session intro.

I've learnt a lot about this in my time at Oxfam and Save the Children. When I first switched sectors and moved to Senegal, I found myself sitting in the Dakar Education for All conference in 2000, in a ballroom full of representatives from NGOs of all shapes and sizes indulging, as I then thought, in a chaotic airing of views of what had to change to reach a mind-boggling 120 million children then out of school.  

This was far from the analytical, process-driven, project-managed, tightly budgeted approach to leadership I was used to in the private sector and I frankly doubted its efficacy - for a start, who was in charge? But less than a decade on, the number of children out of school had dropped by nearly half - which could never have happened without that coalition for change.  

These days, the people involved are more likely to be in a virtual room, and are more likely to include business leaders - which serves to strengthen these types of alliances. Technology means more people can be involved more meaningfully more consistently - instead of lurching from meeting to meeting with a select few. The evolving Corporate Social Responsibility agenda means more companies see the big issues as squarely part of their mandate.

Modest and massive

There are now dozens of these multi-stakeholder initiatives - part of the leadership nous is backing the one where you have the greatest potential to achieve the biggest impact. For Save the Children, we're investing in a growing coalition to stop children dying from preventable causes. 

"It's frankly shocking that a child dying every four seconds is still tolerated in this day and age."

Like "education for all", this is at once a modest and massive proposition. Modest in that its frankly shocking that a child dying every four seconds is still tolerated in this day and age, doesn't require anything more sophisticated than an increase in well-equipped, well-trained frontline health workers, and would only cost US $17.5bn a year to fix. Massive in the level of cross-sector collaboration required to get this done in a sustainable way. This needs companies and governments as much as NGO and UN efforts.  

This can be a daunting and messy challenge with everyone coming from a slightly different perspective. The leadership posture needed is not an easy animal to describe, but you know it when you see it - a curious mix of audacity and humility, patience (with process) and impatience (with outcomes), tight on principles and loose on control. The good news is, over the last 10 years it's not just me who has learned a lot - many of the leaders at Davos have their own experiences of working in these types of collaborations and have figured out what works and doesn't work.  

We need this experience to kick-in fast to super-charge the last few years of campaigning focused on the current set of Millennium Development Goals. And we need to tap into this experience in agreeing the next set of "big issues" that need to be agreed post-2015. Unlike the last set of goals, which were largely created in the UN with some NGO collaboration, the next set will be created by a multi-stakeholder collaboration.

If only we can stop this watering down of goals or accountability, a wider and joint leadership effort to improve the world has got to be a good thing.

Jasmine Whitbread is the CEO of Save the Children International.

Follow her on Twitter: @JasmineatSC 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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