U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Photo by: European Union 2015 / European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

After about two years of consideration and debate, the proposed United Nations partnership facility — which never managed to garner the support it needed despite being one of the secretary-general’s priorities — is now a thing of the past.

In contrast to the initial announcement, which came in the form of a 2013 speech from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the withdrawal of the announcement from the General Assembly happened quietly.

The assembly had considered the proposal at several sessions without reaching an agreement. An inability to get the necessary budget approvals and challenges from member states seem to have derailed progress on the facility, which was designed to “capture the full potential for partnership” and help scale partnerships — both globally and at the country level — across the U.N. system.

“The facility would add value by strategically and systemically filling in gaps,” while U.N. agencies and programs would still conduct the majority of partnerships, Ban said in his 2013 speech. “The facility would support partnership work across all external partners, all substantive mandates and all U.N. entities, allowing us to transcend the capabilities and agendas of any single member state, entity, institution or partner.”  

The U.N. Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions saw merit in the proposal but recommended that any associated costs be absorbed by existing resources. The committee also stressed the need for greater oversight of partnership activities, recommended further review and emphasized the continued independence of existing partnership structures, according to a statement by the advisory in October 2013.

The proposal was most recently discussed during the last session in March, but negotiations were stalled due to ongoing differences among member states and a lack of consensus about how to establish the facility, Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the secretary-general told Devex in an email.

As a result, and “having taken careful heed of the positions of member states,” the secretary-general requested that they halt consideration of the proposal and instead enable further considerations on how best to achieve the objectives for which a partnership facility had been proposed,” Dujarric wrote.

While the facility hasn’t found support in the General Assembly, some outside the U.N. — including potential partners — see a need for stronger coordinating capacity and platforms for partnerships.

Among those are companies, including Wal-Mart, looking for the U.N. to do more to engage the private sector and encourage partnerships.

If U.N. agencies hired relationship managers and established a more centralized office of partnerships, they could go a long way in building relationships and collaborating on key development challenges, Sarah Thorn, Wal-Mart’s senior director of federal government relations, has told Devex.

As part of a working session at the Shared Value Leadership Summit earlier this month, a group of NGO and business leaders echoed that need as they identified key challenges and solutions in collaboration across sectors. Platforms focused on specific themes, sectors or geographies that include all possible actors have the greatest potential for success, suggested participants. Many existing platforms lack scale or coordination, which limits their ability to both act as a partnership broker and serve as a source for information sharing.

Without a central coordinating capacity, responsibility for better alignment of partnership practices may fall to other agencies to fill the gaps, like the U.N. Global Compact, which has taken a lot of credit for opening doors to the private sector and has served as a catalyst for the U.N. system around private sector engagement.  

The U.N.’s private sector focal point meeting may also play a role. In the past it has been a small gathering of U.N. employees, but the next meeting should have more than 100 senior practitioners who head private sector engagement at various U.N. agencies, said Georg Kell, executive director of Global Compact.

Kell didn’t comment directly whether he believes the U.N. needs a separate partnerships facility, but he does believe there is a need for continued evolution and clear policies at headquarters.

“I think there is an urgent need for updating the U.N.’s business guidelines, we’re actually working on [that], to ensure there is a minimum notion of coherence,” he said.

It’s difficult for any central entity to control what the various U.N. agencies do because of its decentralized nature, he said, adding that what can be done is to provide thought leadership and set good examples through collaboration.

Greater coordination can also prevent a situation where corporations can go “shopping” to get the cheapest deal out of U.N. organizations, which results in the public not getting the maximum benefit. In order to get the best alignment with the private sector there has to be scale, so the U.N. headquarters focus should be on scale, not individual deals, Kell said.

“We have to talk about systemic change, we have to talk about the bigger policy changes that are necessary to move the needle, otherwise we’re just doing our little projects here and there and any consultancy could do that,” he said.

The U.N. doesn’t appear to be the only organization making slow progress towards partnership platforms. Last year, U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening announced that the U.K. would help convene “development cooperation hubs” where private companies, governments, international organizations and civil society organizations can collaborate on joint development projects.

There has been little progress on those hubs over the past year though, in part due to restructuring, reorganization and reprioritization within the U.K. Department for International Development and a lack of internal capacity, according to a senior official.

The question that remains is whether the lack of traction for these partnership platforms is an indication of how member states or donor agencies will make decisions as the conversation around the implementation of the sustainable development goals unfolds.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.