The realities of achieving effective SDG partnerships

A hand shake. The United Nations is vowing to "revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development" as it solidifies the 17 proposed sustainable development goals and 169 indicators. But what does this partnership really look like? Photo by: Laura Glover

Seventy years ago the United Nations was born. Today the organization’s leaders aren’t just looking back, they’re looking forward, and as they do, they are charting a new path for global development. They see more and more partnerships ahead.

U.N. delegates promised to “develop a global partnership for development” in 2000 when they agreed on the Millennium Development Goals. They are set to expand on that agenda in September when they meet in New York to discuss the 17 proposed sustainable development goals. They have refocused, vowing to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.”

For this round of global goal setting, the business community’s role has received much greater attention.

“If you want to achieve anything of a systemic and global nature, you have to bring in all of these different entities and, above all, industry,” Kazuki Kitaoka, head of strategic planning and coordination at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, told Devex.

“Industry is driving a lot of the labor and human rights issues, negatively and positively. And industry can be a real solution for the kind of growth that we need to achieve any of these kinds of goals,” he added.

U.N. officials conducted the largest consultation program in their history to come up with the SDGs. They launched the My World survey online to give people worldwide a voice in what ought to be included. They invited representatives of business to participate in the open working group that drafted the goals. They invited business leaders to Addis Ababa this month for the third International Conference on Financing for Development. But some in the private sector say their voices do not stand out among all the stakeholders who took part in the process, including representatives of children and youth, indigenous peoples, and farmers.

“Given what business has at its disposal from the standpoint of experience and resources, can you build something into the architecture that would give business a little bit more of a recognized channel to weigh in?” asked Norine Kennedy, vice president of strategic international engagement, energy and environment at the U.S. Council for International Business. Other stakeholders need to be heard, Kennedy acknowledged, but she noted the people she represents deserve a forum that is proportionate to what they bring to development.

Business leaders say they need more of a voice at the national level too. They say many national governments need to do more to foster investment. That includes creating enabling environments — property rights, legal rights, political stability — basics, they say, that are not so basic in some countries. They cite SDG 16, to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” The authors of the MDGs did not include such a notion.

Advocates for business point to the U.S. for examples of the kind of institutions they would like to see elsewhere. Officials at the Department of State provide an entry point for collaboration between the public and private sectors and civil society through the Secretary's Office of Global Partnerships. The U.S. Agency for International Development works with corporations, foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and other groups on projects in developing countries through the Global Development Alliance. Others who would like to contribute say they need those interfaces so that when they land in a country they can find the door in.

Business groups say they, too, have a responsibility to foster better working relationships. The USCIB hosted a meeting in June with U.N. officials and representatives of 20 member states to discuss official development assistance, public-private partnerships, blended finance, and other topics. They wanted to demystify some of those terms and come to a common understanding of the issues.

Some business leaders are still trying to understand the concept of sustainability, too, and how to integrate it into their business models. They look down the list of 17 goals and 169 targets and get confused by the complexity. But those who have committed themselves to the process say choosing goals that align with one’s mission is not that difficult.

“If you go a little bit deeper, and it doesn’t take you long to do that, you will find every single company, every single private sector entity, every single NGO, you will find that there are areas in there, and just a few, where you can make a valuable impact,” Walter van Kuijen, head of public and government affairs at the Dutch technology company Philips, told Devex.

But those working on the ground in developing countries warn others to be careful when choosing and to take a holistic approach. They say partners need to educate themselves and be aware of all the goals.

“Sustainable development requires working together towards a shared goal as well as individual sector-specific goals,” said Lynne Gaffikin who works as a technical advisor helping to strengthen health systems in Botswana through the Global Health Fellows Program II, which is implemented by the Public Health Institute and funded by USAID. She says people need to avoid slipping into a “laser focus” on the individual aims of their programs.

“Partnerships, especially ones that cut across domains or sectors, can help avoid this slippage,” she added.

Members of a U.N. working group still have to figure out how to measure what works, and what doesn’t. They are examining 169 proposed indicators to mark progress on the SDGs. That exercise will continue through next March. But even now, people inside the U.N., and outside of it, maintain partnerships will be the key to getting things done.

Sustaining Development is a three-month online series exploring the post-2015 development agenda hosted by Devex in partnership with Chevron, FXB, Global Health Fellows Program II, Philips, Pfizer, UNIDO, U.N. Volunteers and the U.S. Council for International Business. We will look at the practical steps needed to move the sustainable development goals from concept to reality. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #SustainDev.

About the author

  • Matthew Pace

    Matthew Pace has told thousands of stories in a career that has taken him to places he never expected to get to. He has reported on and produced stories for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Montreal and Washington, D.C. He has filed stories from Congo and Rwanda. And he served as senior editor of the English language TV network of Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK. He has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and an MBA from Columbia Business School.