Inclusive Partnerships: A Key to Achieving Sustainable Development
Partnerships are often defined as collaborative and institutionalized arrangements that are organized around the common goals and/or collective goods of various stakeholders (Bitzer et al. 2013; Glasbergen 2007; Schäferhoff et al. 2009). Specifically, inclusive partnerships, however, utilize a membership model that ensures adequate representation while simultaneously exploring member differences and searching for solutions that transcend individual capacities (Carlson 1999; Margerum 2014; Susskind and Cruikshank 1987).
Inclusive Partnerships for Sustainable Development
With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations has ambitiously charged members and organizations of the global society with ending poverty, addressing widespread inequalities, and combating climate change. The agenda specifically names 17 sustainable development goals to be adopted by world leaders to collaboratively mobilize for the betterment of our world at large (United Nations n.d.) To address the aforementioned wicked problems and to achieve the 17 global sustainable development goals, innovative and comprehensive responses are needed. These responses, which require multifaceted, holistic solutions, will see a combined effort of governments, civil societies, researchers, and private sector stakeholders, if they are to occur. In other words, in order to appropriately respond to the charge of sustainable global development while successfully navigating the complex contexts of sustainable development, an inclusive, multi-stakeholder, and people-centered approach to partnerships must be utilized (Kourula et al. 2017; Nelson 2017; Sustainable Development Goals Fund n.d.; Worley and Mirvis 2013). This entry, which highlights potential benefits and challenges for stakeholders, will provide an overview of inclusive partnerships as they relate to sustainable development, a framework for partnership typologies, value propositions, spheres of influence, and best practices for success.
In order to understand how and why stakeholders should partner inclusively, a discussion of sustainable development must occur (Shaw and Kidd 2001). The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) defines sustainable development as growth that meets current societal needs without compromising the ability of future citizens and communities to meet their own needs. Recently, the concept of sustainability has broadened beyond a strictly environmental focus to include the concept of “just sustainability,” which is inclusive of topics such as social responsibility and social issues as well as equity and justice for all (Kalkanci et al. 2018; Lee and Tang 2018; Tang 2018). As the concept of sustainability evolves with global trends, concerns, and priorities, there has been a charge to involve and reconfigure the “interconnected technological, environmental, social, economic, and political systems and processes” that come together to enable the grand sustainability challenges of our time (McCormick et al. 2013; O’Brien et al. 2012; Trencher et al. 2014, p. 153).
From a systems perspective, sustainability initiatives must take into consideration the following three systems: environmental, economic, and social (Barbier and Burgess 2017; Kalkanci et al. 2018). Environmental systems refer to the natural capital or biological productivity of the world that determines how supple and diverse an ecosystem is (Barbier and Burgess 2017). Economic systems focus on a society’s fiscal efficiency, as well as how/if equity is addressed, achieved, and/or maintained in order to reduce poverty (Barbier and Burgess 2017). Lastly, when considering social systems, sustainability initiatives should assess the presence of social justice in light of governance structures to determine potential opportunities for growth and development (Barbier and Burgess 2017). Sustainable development initiatives should consider and balance these three systems and their respective contexts in order to determine appropriate tradeoffs which maximize the goals across systems to ensure mutual holistic benefit for all members of society (Barbier 1987).
As the global economy continues to grapple with the concept of sustainable development, it is evident that attention needs to be paid to areas of inequality. This will ensure that growth and sustainability initiatives are inclusive, holistic, and subsequently more effective and sustainable across communities worldwide. Therefore, researchers are arguing for sustainable innovation that sees the “big picture” and focuses on aligning stakeholder goals through complex networks that emphasize integrity, as well as effectiveness, in innovative design, and sharing ownership of design via an inclusive partner model that envisions a better future (Ehrenfeld 2009; Elkington 2013; Leffers and Mitchell 2010; Mirvis and Worley 2013; Shaw and Kidd 2001).
In 2015, the United Nations developed an updated sustainable development agenda with 17 individual goals related to the three systems (environmental, economic, and social) previously described. These goals range from improving education to the resolution of poverty and hunger to climate action and realizing gender equality (United Nations n.d.). However, for these goals to be reached, stakeholders worldwide must partner to collaboratively develop plans and resolutions. This is why the 17th goal of the United Nation’s (n.d.) sustainable development agenda is the creation of partnerships for the goals.
Partnerships can be defined as a range of participants agreeing to work together to achieve a common purpose or goal while subsequently sharing risks, resources, and benefits, with mutual accountability for outcomes (Moore-Cherry et al. 2016; Nelson 2017). From a sustainable development perspective, partnerships “point to a paradigm shift…which recognizes the need for multi-actor collaboration in the face of single-actor failures” (Bitzer et al. 2013, p. 17; Reed and Reed 2009; Van Tulder and Fortainier 2009). As per the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda, stakeholder-oriented partnerships among governments, the private sector, and civil society that are focused on shared goals and governance will be required in order to obtain progress toward sustainable development (Biermann et al. 2017; United Nations n.d.). This multi-stakeholder model is not a new concept. Bitzer and Glasbergen (2015) argue that since the 1990s, collaborations between businesses and nongovernmental organizations have become the “go-to” method for addressing complex sustainability challenges. The growing popularity of partnerships is due to the constraints of leadership that are often experienced at the individual and organizational level. Simply put, transformational and systemic change, specifically toward sustainable development, must be achieved through collective action, as no single agency or entity has the power or resources to address such large-scale issues on their own (Kalkanci et al. 2018; Margerum 2014; Nelson 2017).
In recent history, multi-stakeholder cross-sectoral inclusive partnerships have been gaining speed across industries as a means to address global challenges, particularly surrounding sustainable development (Bitzer et al. 2013; Glasbergen 2007; Lubell 2015). Inclusive partnerships are built upon shared principles, values, visions, and goals that place people and the planet at the center, recognizing that holistic approaches to problem-solving are needed at the global, local, regional, and national levels (Kourula et al. 2017; Margerum 2014; United Nations n.d.). Because inclusive partnerships concern themselves with who is involved, on what grounds, and how the issues at hand can be examined through the perspective of everyone involved, these relationships are grounded in a foundational framework of voluntary collaboration rather than hierarchical control (Alexander et al. 2003). Furthermore, inclusive partnerships are constructed as arrangements that include “marginalized people, sectors and countries in social, political and economic processes for increased human well-being, social, and environmental sustainability, and empowerment” (Gupta et al. 2015, p. 546). By bringing together varied stakeholders with specific skills and experiences, inclusive partnerships are better capable of bringing about sustainable change because they have greater potential to address global issues across the broad spectrum of their members’ experiences. In this sense, an inclusive approach to partnerships serves as a strategy to achieve equity and stress empowerment in development initiatives. The diversity of inclusive partnerships can vary in organizational, cultural, and/or demographic variables; however, regardless of the combinational differences, partnerships with diverse perspectives have reportedly fostered deeper understandings of the topics at hand while simultaneously encouraging systemic and innovating thinking (Alexander et al. 2003).
By bringing the knowledge and aspirations of community members and smaller grassroots organizations to the table, inclusive partnerships are better able to sustain long-lasting influence, as the perspectives of affected individuals enhance the decision-making and implementation process by bringing often overlooked or unheard opinions and perspectives to the discussion (Borel-Saladin and Turok 2013; Fritz et al. 2009; Gupta et al. 2015; Narayan et al. 2009). These inclusive partnerships can then be mobilized to develop social movements and culturally relevant communities of practice, as well as transformative governance with the knowledge gained from all members (Gupta et al. 2015). It is, however, important to note that some communities are better able to create and sustain inclusive partnerships than others. It has been argued that communities with high levels of pre-existing social capital are oftentimes the hubs for emerging collaborative partnerships (Margerum 2014; Ostrom 1986, 2007; Sabatier et al. 2005). This is reportedly due to the fact that these types of communities have the benefit of robust networks already in place that partnership groups can utilize to generate initiatives, collect resources, and gain buy-in for consensus and community building, rather than facing the challenge of starting from scratch. Therefore, communities with established networks and pre-existing channels for communication are often more successful in collecting buy-in and determining proper stakeholders for the creation of a partnership. Therefore, the United Nations (n.d.) is requiring partnerships between the private sector, government, and civil society from countries of all sizes, as the transformative power of inclusive partners is key to achieving delivery of the sustainable development goals.
Typologies of Inclusive Partnerships
While every partnership and collaborative initiative is unique due to its location, membership, and area of concern, Margerum (2014) provides a typology of partnership archetypes for collaborative groups based on their focus and design framework:
Policy. Based on a constitutional design framework, these partnerships are focused on policy and higher-level administrative rules and functions. Typically, these groups are created and charged by government agencies or officials in order to support policymakers and/or special interest groups. Therefore, these groups are often supported with governmental or quasi-governmental resources, affording them greater opportunities for engagement and options for visibility and impact in comparison to more grassroots-style partnerships.
Organizational. Utilizing a collective choice model, organizationally focused partnerships are concerned with the priorities and programs of members and are subsequently resourced by member organizations. These collaborative groups are focused on building member agency and organizational capacity to solve problems and make changes. The effectiveness of these groups lies in the capacity and resources connected to their larger partner members that are used to support and encourage their smaller member organizations.
Action. Focusing on an operational framework, action-based partnerships are committed to direct actions and building community consensus and orientation. These partnerships are often comprised of independent organizations and nonprofit entities and are led by community leaders and citizens. Oftentimes, due to the capacity of members, resources are scarce as this model is essentially a grassroots approach to partnership.
Mirvis and Worley (2013) provide an alternative typology of networks. Their model refers to the members’ hierarchical affiliation and considers the leadership strategy within the operation:
Horizontal. This network refers to a specific type of collaboration that links organizations side-by-side, referring to coalitions, such as mergers, strategic alliances, and joint ventures, as organizations with the same focus or within the same industry that also share similar power relations and/or compositions. These partnerships consist of equal members bringing similar expertise and resources to the table to align for change.
Vertical. Vertical partnerships are comprised of multiple organizations within and across sectors that work to move resources among agencies and communities. There is a spectrum of power and access present within these partnership types, but the overarching goal is to enact change and share resources and/or knowledge. In these arrangements, larger or more stable partner members may be required to provide additional resources and support for the good of the partnership as a whole.
Issue or opportunity. Issue-focused partnerships occur and exist temporarily to accomplish a specific focus or goal. While these networks are formed across organizations and sectors, they disband once the designated goal is achieved rather than focusing on the sustainability of the arrangement. Therefore, these arrangements require less resources, commitment, and overall risk than the horizontal and vertical models.
As described above, every partnership is unique. Some partnerships will fit these particular descriptors or typologies more closely, while others will transcend categories, forming a hybrid approach or structure (Imperial 2005; Margerum 2014). Regardless of design or typology, all partnership groups are working to deliver significant results and face challenges through a collaborative process.
Consequential. Consequential value is related to the “asserted efficiency, security, productiveness, legitimacy, and adaptability of particular collaborative efforts” (Alexander et al. 2003; Cropper 1996). The greater the consequential value associated with a partnership, the more likely the partnership is to attain success.
Constitutive. This realm of value assesses a partnership in light of previous associations with reference groups, as well as in the environmental contexts in which the collaboration exists (Alexander et al. 2003). In this sense, the historical, political, physical, and economic environments surrounding a partnership will influence its overall value.
Consequential Value Variables
Alexander et al. (2003) propose that there are five variables that determine a partnership’s consequential value: outcomes-based advocacy, vision-focus balance, systems orientation, infrastructure development, and community linkages.
Outcomes-based advocacy. This variable refers to the group’s ability to identify and articulate the partnership’s unique capability to meet community needs for stakeholders. Honing this ability affords opportunities to attract resources and support.
Vision-focus balance. Vision-focus balance is achieved when the members of the partnership are able to agree on their long-term mission and vision for the collaboration and subsequently design tactics and initiatives to achieve that vision.
Systems orientation. Partnership groups must be able to fully comprehend the social problems they are addressing as a result of multiple factors and forces. In doing so, they also need to assess the key networks of stakeholders to come to a collaborative solution and a holistic approach to success. In other words, they need to create proper channels and sustain workflow to systematically achieve their goals.
Infrastructure development. Infrastructure development refers to a partnership’s ability to develop systems of communication and problem-solving that afford members the opportunity to develop professionally inside and outside of the partnership to hone their leadership skills and build independent capacity for change.
Community linkages. Partnerships are only as strong as their relationships with institutions, organizations, and individuals within the community. Therefore, partnerships that are deemed valuable by the community create space for direct and regular community input and participation in the partnership’s initiatives, which subsequently increases their potential to impact change.
Constitutive Value Variables
Historical/Cultural. This realm considers the community’s prior collaborative arrangements with organizations, as well as the level of diversity (ethnic, socioeconomic, etc.) within the community.
Political. The political realm concerns itself with the amount of leverage the state and/or local government has in regard to control of policy and planning efforts, as well as whether the social issue at hand has been deemed controversial by the community.
Physical. The physical environment effects the value proposition of partnerships in that it takes into consideration the geographic elements partnerships must navigate, such as distance to resources and spread of the population.
Economic. As a variable, the economic environment factors in the local and regional economy and tax revenue base, as well as the variety of employers within the affected region.
While constitutive value variables do not directly affect or determine the value of consequential variables, they do influence the conditions that ultimately affect the value ascribed to consequential variables. For instance, if a partnership is focused on environmental justice initiatives in a community that has historically been at odds over conversations surrounding fracking, it will be hard to establish community linkages, as the “fit” between the partnership and the community’s culture will appear at odds as there is not a general consensus on an appropriate position to take. In this sense, constitutive value variables “provide an important set of interpretive and social constructions for determining the salience and direction in which value-generating activities by the partnerships are formulated and operationalized” (Alexander et al. 2003, p. 136S).
Networks of Influence
While the membership component of inclusive partnerships is important, there is an additional constituency that is just as crucial to the lasting impact of partnerships: the partnership’s affiliated networks. In order for partnerships to be successful, they must have the ability to influence communities and decision-makers alike. Margerum (2014) defines networks as groups of individuals connected by communication, relationships, positions, and/or interest areas. However, when specifically discussing the networks that contribute to the success of inclusive partnerships, Margerum (2014) has identified three specific types: social, interorganizational, and political.
Social. Social networks are comprised of the interpersonal relationships affiliated with partnership members (Putnam 2000). A social network may include colleagues, family members, and personal friends who could be influenced or persuaded to participate in community action (Margerum 2014). While these networks exist separately from the formal partnership, they are beneficial to plug into via partnership members in order to facilitate community discourse.
Interorganizational. These networks are created through the structures and processes that organizations and businesses use to communicate among themselves (Alexander 1993). Interorganizational partnerships can find spheres of influence and visibility surrounding the programs, budgets, and affiliated priorities and initiatives of governments and interest groups (Margerum 2014).
Political. Political networks are comprised of the governance system within a community, specifically paying attention to positions of power within the system (Knoke 1990). These networks are beneficial to tap into as they can assist partnership collaboratives in navigating the rules and policies of a community and subsequently assist in the implementation of initiatives (Margerum 2014).
All partnerships are embedded within larger networks of community, be they political, social, or economic. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge and utilize the spheres of influence that partnerships have via their related networks in order to spread information and influence to increase the possibility of achievement of the partnership’s goals (Margerum 2014). By creating channels to communicate with existing networks or by working across networks to create new affiliations, collaboratives can improve their potential for success by gaining support and consensus with individuals external to the formal partnership itself.
Benefits of Inclusive Partnerships for Sustainability
While every partnership is different, based on scope, content, and stakeholders, the foundational goals and benefits of inclusive partnerships are essentially the same:
Capacity building. By utilizing complementary resources and capabilities across stakeholder sectors, partnerships are able to grapple with problems that single actors would not be able to address individually (Austin and Seitanidi 2012; Bitzer et al. 2013; Laasonen et al. 2012; Margerum and Robinson 2015; McAllister and Taylor 2015; Mirvis and Worley 2013; Nelson 2017; Vellema and van Wijk 2015; Worley and Mirvis 2013). The United Nations (n.d.) notes this as a key target of their 17th sustainable development goal, acknowledging that inclusive global partnerships have the distinct ability to revitalize the independent national plans for sustainability of participating countries.
Constructive approach. Inclusive partnerships afford businesses and organizations opportunities to play a new and active role in addressing global challenges (Bitzer and Glasbergen 2015; Blowfield and Dolan 2014; London and Anupindi 2011; Mirvis and Worley 2013). By sharing expertise and experience, organizations are able to creatively address problems in new and innovative ways with the help of other stakeholders.
Varied input. The ability to integrate multiple perspectives and discourses based on membership, specifically giving voice to smaller stakeholders with minimal resources who would otherwise not be involved in the conversation or action, is a key benefit afforded to inclusive partnerships (Alexander et al. 2003; Bitzer and Glasbergen 2015; Perez-Aleman and Sandilands 2008; Wang 2013). These arrangements acknowledge that in partnerships, resources extend beyond facilities and products to knowledge and information, thus providing smaller organizations the opportunity to play crucial roles alongside larger, more resourceful organizations (Margerum and Robinson 2015; McAllister and Taylor 2015; Mirvis and Worley 2013; Moore-Cherry et al. 2016; Worley and Mirvis 2013).
Strengthening of assets. Inclusive partnerships contribute to the strengthening of assets, including human, financial, natural, social, and physical capital. Members are able to enjoy cost savings due to resource sharing while also improving the quality of their individual services and engagement with the community as they team with similarly minded and focused agencies and organizations (Bitzer et al. 2013; Worley and Mirvis 2013). The United Nations (n.d.) specifically notes benefits in regard to the enhancement of domestic resource mobilization, trade opportunities, and technology for partnership members in their 17th sustainable development goal.
Associational value. Partnership members have the benefit of increasing their credibility and reputation via their networking with other stakeholders within the partnership (Austin 2010; Austin and Seitanidi 2012; Worley and Mirvis 2013). As members have their own individual networks and associated value propositions, by coming together in an organized collaboration, these associations reflect on the other partnership members as well.
Inclusive partnerships serve as a method for convening the diverse actions of varied actors to create linkages between sectors and goals while also accelerating and scaling development (Nelson 2017). It follows that member organizations are able to increase their visibility and public profiles while simultaneously expanding their impact through shared resources and accountability.
Challenges of Inclusive Partnerships for Sustainability
The literature surrounding the study of inclusive partnerships also provides arguments as to why these arrangements often struggle to accomplish their goals. While none of the argued challenges below are inherently present within all-inclusive partnerships, there is value to understanding the uncertainties and possible limitations of operating within an inclusive partnership model for change.
Power relations. With the inclusion of stakeholders from different sectors and of different sizes and capacities, there is potential for unequal power relations to develop, especially in regard to access and influence (Bitzer and Glasbergen 2015; Kark et al. 2015; McAllister and Taylor 2015; Moore-Cherry et al. 2016). In addition, managing leadership breadth and depth while being mindful of partner capacity and privilege is also a challenge in these arrangements (Alexander et al. 2003). It is easy for these partnerships to mirror the standard power structures of society, so members must be cognizant of stakeholder representation throughout the duration of the arrangement to ensure that each member has the ability to contribute and voice concerns (Margerum 2014; Wang 2013).
Measuring success. The ambiguous and complex nature of the social problems addressed by inclusive partnerships often leaves stakeholders and external individuals unclear of the true impact of the partnership on sustainable change, as variables are complicated and social progress is often slow-moving (Biermann et al. 2017; Bitzer and Glasbergen 2015).
Integration. With multiple partners comes multiple opinions and priorities. A challenge in multi-stakeholder partnerships is effectively guiding behavior and progress in order to integrate a shared vision and principle for the long-term sustainable development goals that plays to all members’ strengths while acknowledging independent goals and resources (Biermann et al. 2017).
Cultural differences. As inclusive partnerships engage a broad spectrum of organizations and individuals, cultural disputes arise pertaining to differences in time horizons, risk orientations, decision-making styles, preferences, and operational rules. Without trust, as well as collaborative processes and procedures, these differences can create substantial barriers to success (Alexander et al. 1998, 2003; Kalkanci et al. 2018; Margerum 2014; Margerum and Robinson 2015; Sink 1996; Weiner et al. 2000).
Cost. Collaboration, specifically for complex problems that require communication and exchange across international boundaries, requires substantial resources in comparison to singular operations. These arrangements also require increased logistics as international programs demand significant transaction costs in order to implement large-scale planning, communication, and execution across global lines (Kark et al. 2015; Margerum and Robinson 2015; Trencher et al. 2014).
With these limitations in mind, it is evident that collaboration is a complex and often risky endeavor (Kark et al. 2015; Wang 2013). While challenges and limitations to partnerships exist, these examples should be viewed as tradeoffs rather than as hindrances, because regardless of the high transaction costs, collaboration has greater potential to manage multiple objectives for sustainable success (Margerum and Robinson 2015; McAllister and Taylor 2015; Mirvis and Worley 2013; Prager 2015; Trencher et al. 2014; Wang 2013).
Framework for Successful Inclusive Partnerships
Successful partnerships are not only hard to develop but are also challenging to sustain as the complexities of navigating the goals, challenges, and capacities of multiple stakeholders is difficult. However, based on academic and practitioner studies surrounding inclusive partnership development and maintenance, there are standard factors attributed to inclusive partnership success:
Shared purpose and understanding of context. Successful partnerships have an agenda for change led by organizational leaders who are able to motivate and mobilize others in the cause. These agendas must be mutually created by stakeholders based on consultation with the public and partner members, as well as by reviewing relevant data and evidence. Moreover, in successful arrangements, partners understand their roles and responsibilities in the strategic plan (Leffers and Mitchell 2010; Mirvis and Worley 2013; Nelson 2017; Worley and Mirvis 2013). Therefore, the United Nations (n.d.) urges partnership members to develop their collaborations on shared principles, values, vision, and goals in order to ensure the success and sustainability of the overall partnership.
Thorough process and operational orientation. In successful partnerships, members have developed well-resourced implementation plans based on the capacity, competency, and resources of members (Nelson 2017). This structure allows everyone to contribute while maintaining realistic expectations of individual members’ ability and accountability.
Trust-building loop. The process of trust development must be established incrementally over time. By doing so, successful partnerships create an environment where stakeholders have sustained confidence and commitment in the partnership and their fellow stakeholders (Wang 2013).
Mutual accountability for progress and governance. Mutually agreed upon performance tracking methods must be identified. In creating a framework for assessment, successful partnerships facilitate independent and group evaluation efforts with the flexibility and space to adapt and correct areas of concern as needed (Nelson 2017). The United Nations (n.d.) instructs partners to set clear directions, review, and monitor policies and procedures as well as incentive structures to verify that partnership members have a clear understanding of expectations and markers of success.
Cultural competency. Awareness of the intercultural differences present in inclusive partnerships with regard to experiences, concerns, priorities, and history is important in navigating projects and initiatives with diverse stakeholders (Kalkanci et al. 2018). To this end, successful partnerships have the ability to understand the cultural context in which their partnerships develop and exist, which allows participants to create tailored messaging and strategies to effectively communicate for change among themselves and society at large (Buell and Kalkanci 2017; Mirvis and Worley 2013).
- 6.Spectrum of participation. Successful partnerships allow stakeholders to participate fully in the stages described by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2 n.d.):
Empower. Identifying issues, solutions, and actions
Collaborate. Sharing in the decision-making process
Involve. Engaging in the planning process
Consult. Providing feedback on plans and issues
Inform. Receiving updates and announcements pertaining to progress and setbacks
By doing so, partnerships ensure that all members are represented and heard in every stage of the process, subsequently supporting the development of a holistic plan for action as well as a truly inclusive partnership.
Conflict resolution. Both formal and informal processes must exist to resolve differences in opinion and/or practice between members (Margerum 2014). The given challenges of partnerships, opinions, and capacities will vary. However, in order to be successful, partnerships must establish practices to navigate and address these challenges to achieve effective resolutions agreed upon by all stakeholders.
As our economy and the world at large continue to become more globally minded, the charge to increase collaboration will continue. In order for businesses and organizations to cope with the ever-changing markets and varying accessibility to resources while thriving in their given sectors and initiatives, participation in inclusive partnerships is necessary By engaging in inclusive partnerships, organization have the potential to not only increase their individual capacity but to also participate in the process of solving social and environmental problems (Wang 2013). Moreover, the charge of the United Nations (n.d.) to respond to the world’s issues of poverty, inequality, and climate change requires that actors from all countries – poor, rich, and middle-income – work together to promote global growth and development that is safe and effective for all members of society. While collaborating across sectors, countries, political spheres, and ideologies is challenging and often frustrating for participants, such partnerships afford opportunities to recognize a broader potential via the sharing of expertise and support while increasing the odds of sustainable and lasting global change.
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