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SDG 17: Transformative Partnerships?

21 Sep 2017

SDG 17: Transformative Partnerships?
This blog is published as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.

Partnerships are a central Means of Implementation (MOI) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, according to Targets 16 and 17 of SDG 17. This emphasis on partnerships points to the need to effectively harness additional resources, while at the same time highlighting the aim of ‘leaving no one behind’. Partnerships have been around for quite a while and nowadays comprise a wide array of different forms of collaboration which are not always effective and inclusive, and hence transformative. Stronger alignment of different approaches is needed for partnerships to bring about the progressive change that the 2030 Agenda requires.

The transformative potential of partnerships

The term ‘partnership’ entails a broad range of forms of collaboration. So-called public-private partnerships (PPP) have a long history of being seen as an effective means to harness investment but continue to receive critique for their lack of inclusiveness. The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) coined a broader understanding of partnerships as multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSP). MSPs are known as innovative governance instruments, for example for standard-setting in different countries, regions, industries, and sectors. While MSPs often entail complex and laborious governance structures and processes, they are lauded for being catalysts for the kind of inclusive and transformative development that the 2030 Agenda requires.

Despite their potential, previous research has demonstrated that in practice partnerships frequently fail to live up to their promise. This has also to do with the fact that different partnership approaches follow different objectives and need to be governed by different frameworks. As of now, these often fail to provide the support and guidance that helps partnerships to meet the parallel objectives of the 2030 Agenda to further effective and inclusive implementation. The minimum social and environmental safeguards for PPPs still come second to the extensive provisions that govern financial risks. The inclusive but complex and tedious governance structures and processes of MSPs frequently fail to replicate at country and project level. To overcome these challenges, new comprehensive frameworks are needed to support and guide a new partnership approach to the implementation of the SDGs.

Frameworks for partnership support and guidance

Experience shows that such frameworks can in fact improve partnerships. For example, portfolio analyses of donor-led partnership programs and facilities show that when funding criteria incorporate standards, such as principles of aid effectiveness, these can strengthen the effectiveness and inclusiveness of the partnership by steering resource allocations to PPPs in least developed countries. The UN has launched the Partnerships for SDGs Online Platform to provide guidance and track resource allocations and partnership engagement with the SDGs. Yet this year’s annual Partnership Exchange meeting during the HLPF 2017 has shown that the Platform is far from providing a coherent and principle-based support and reporting framework for partnerships. Furthermore provisions that align partnerships’ contributions to member states’ SDG implementation as accounted for in the voluntary national reviews (VNR) could foster more coherent action.

Contextualizing without compromising

In this regard, the focus of the 2030 Agenda on national-level implementation presents opportunities and challenges. The need for investment to achieve the SDGs is likely to continue to fuel interest in PPPs. At the same time, many countries lack the necessary regulative frameworks to ensure effective PPPs and some countries are imposing increasingly restrictive policies on civil society and marginalized groups. This underlines the need to ensure that these stakeholder groups are not ‘left behind’ but also raises the question whether governments’ and others’ investment interests are being met with equally strong efforts to ensure inclusiveness. So far, country-level partnership platforms that link SDG investment with inclusive multi-stakeholder processes have been piloted in only a few countries.

New partnership frameworks need to not only take into account these local realities but also help partnerships to transform them. The goal of new frameworks for partnerships cannot be a one-size fits all blueprint and standards regarding inclusiveness imposed on all partnerships, not least because of the parallel need for contextualization. New frameworks that exhibit only minimal alignments, however, will not suffice to unleash the transformative potential of partnerships.

After more than two decades of experience with different partnership approaches, in diverse contexts and for various development objectives, the potentials and limitations of partnerships are widely known. A strategic use of partnerships as a transformative MOI requires new frameworks. These should reflect the political will and vision, shared by all actors in partnerships, that only if partnerships are inclusive and effective, can they become the right MOI for the 2030 Agenda.

Anne Ellersiek is a Research Fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) in Berlin, Germany, working in the Collaborative Research Center D1: Partnerships for Sustainable Development.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.