Multistakeholder partnerships are the key to bringing together expertise and resources to achieve goals. Photo by: Mikael Ullén / World Water Week / CC BY-NC-ND 

The people at the table, in those high-level meetings to advance global development, are different than they used to be just a decade or so ago. There are more women, more young people — and more business leaders, illustrating the influence cross-sectoral partnerships have gained in reducing poverty and tackling social and environmental challenges around the world.

The private sector was represented on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, whose recommendations have laid the groundwork for a global framework expected to be signed in September. The framework itself, and its funding strategy, will include the role of the private sector and other nonstate actors.

“I think that without an all-encompassing approach toward the implementation of the post-2015 agenda, we will not be able to really fully succeed and implement the agenda,” said Martin Sajdik, the president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council. “You cannot only rely on state actors. Our economic life, our social life is not only determined by state actors, so if we want to have a development agenda that is for all countries of the world both developed and developing, we cannot ignore the fact that there are many more actors.”

This sentiment — no one can do it alone — has been en vogue lately, and underpinned a flurry of actions by bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations and nonprofits to better engage with the private sector and one another. It seems to be a new era of partnership, although the jury may still be out on its success.

When looking at the role of partnership in the next decade-and-a-half’s global agenda, look no further than Ban’s proposed sustainable development goals. Goal 17, for instance, calls for strengthening the “means of implementation to revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.”

The plan calls for multistakeholder partnerships that mobilize and share knowledge and expertise, technology and financial resources to achieve the goals and “encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.”

It may seem like a small reference in a document that calls for the eradication of poverty, an end to hunger and health care for all. But it does mark an evolution from how partnerships were addressed in the Millenium Development Goals.

MDG 8 was quite similar to the proposed goal 17, but the scope of engagement with the private sector — only pharmaceutical companies and technology are mentioned — and the language used — collaboration and not cross-sectoral partnerships — also indicate the shift that has taken place.

Partnerships may change as much in the next 15 years as they have since the launch of the MDGs in 2000. New and more varied partnerships will likely emerge — from public-private to private-private, from big to small, local to regional and global. Partners will increasingly collaborate more deeply, based on shared values and issues that are core to their business or operations rather than through philanthropic projects.

Engagement in the post-2015 process

Although some of them continue to call for more access and engagement, NGO and corporate leaders have been more involved in the process of crafting this international development framework.

For World Vision, which has been pushing for targets and implementation plans that specifically encourage and support cross-sectoral partnerships, providing input on the post-2015 agenda has been much easier than it was during the creation of the MDGs.

“This effort has been much different and more participatory,” said Chris Derksen-Hiebert, the nonprofit’s external relations director.

World Vision and other organizations have engaged with the high-level panel and a separate working group focused on sustainable development goals through written feedback as well as consultations in New York and around the world, apart from the increasingly regular interactions they have at U.N. headquarters and events around the globe. In contrast, they were not formally involved in setting the MDGs.

“Ultimately, we in the CSO community and World Vision understand this is a governmental process, that the ultimate decision will be taken by member states of the U.N. but our role is to influence those member states,” he said.

The process has not been perfect, Derksen-Hiebert acknowledged.

“We would like it to be even more open than it has been,” he said, adding: “But there have been many opportunities throughout for CSOs to engage directly and indirectly, formally and informally.”

Many corporate players have been involved in the ongoing process to craft a post-MDG agenda, perhaps most notably Unilever, whose CEO, Paul Polman, participated in Ban’s high-level panel. The U.N. Industrial Development Organization and U.N. Global Compact, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors, have held private sector consultations over the past year that resulted in recommendations. Among them, according to a consolidated report: developing government policies that drive corporate sustainability, mobilizing private sector finance, bolstering the role of small and midsize enterprises, enhancing partnerships and building trust through improved transparency and accountability.

Not all companies have been involved in this process, of course. In fact, many multinational corporations have been watching more or less from the sidelines.

Wal-Mart, for example, has not been as engaged as it could have been, in part because the company has found it harder to engage, to some extent because some U.N. agencies appear hesitant to partner with the megaretailer, said Sarah Thorn, the company’s senior director of federal government relations.

The United Nations could do more to engage the private sector and encourage partnerships, she said, such as hire relationship managers and establish a more centralized office of partnerships — something that donors like USAID, which established the U.S. Global Development Lab last year, have done.

Sajdik, ECOSOC’s president, said the United Nations is eager to more actively engage with business, especially through the U.N. Global Compact, a global initiative through which companies commit to aligning their operations and strategies with 10 universally accepted principles about human rights, labor, the environment and corruption in order to ensure that business is done in a way that benefits economies and societies.

Participation has grown rapidly, with more than 12,000 corporate participants and other stakeholders from more than 145 countries involved, a sign, according to Sajdik, that more companies see the importance of sustainability.

Still, he said, it’s a work in progress. Governments need to be better educated about the role of the private sector and there should be better parameters for partnership engagement, which will be one of ECOSOC’s main areas of focus in the first half of this year.

That engagement needs to happen at various levels — from the global to the regional to the national — and ECOSOC is gathering examples of structures that governments can use to bring together stakeholders at a national level, encourage information sharing through regional bodies and work to further integrate stakeholders in top-level political forums, Sajdik said.

Partnership strategies

As the post-2015 framework emerges, many development actors have been reassessing their work’s effectiveness, seeking new ways to boost impact through innovative partnerships and other means.

According to Thorn, there has been a massive transformation in the way the private sector approaches its role in development, for example.

“We partner in a variety of different ways and leverage different assets of the corporation depending on the goal,” she said of Wal-Mart. “What we’re going to try to do going forward is look at how it all goes together, look at the suite of issues and see how they interrelate.”

That approach has grown in part through experience; Wal-Mart officials have concluded that context is crucial to tackling complex challenges. For instance, sourcing from smallholder farmers can’t work over the long run if gender issues aren’t addressed, Thorn suggested.

The company is exploring more organic, locally generated partnerships and different types of collaboration, including sharing knowledge, she said.

At USAID and a growing number of other donors, partnerships have become a staple.

“I think it is the future of how we attain sustainable development results,” said Ricardo Michel, director of the Center for Transformational Partnerships at the U.S. Global Development Lab. “The agency is recognizing this. It actually really made a commitment in terms of a strong foothold in elevating science, technology, innovation and partnerships in transforming development.”

Moving forward, the concept of partnership is likely to broaden, he said. While historically, when thinking about partnership — especially public-private partnerships — the focus has been on multinationals, USAID now emphasizes the role of the local private sector, he said. Michel predicts a shift toward a model for collective action that allows individual partners or coalitions of partners, as part of a multistakeholder initiative, to tackle specific parts of a challenge, as has been the case with the Better than Cash Alliance.

Meanwhile, consensus seems to be growing on some of the factors needed for partnerships to succeed, including aligned agendas, shared objectives, common language, matching timelines and strong leadership throughout the organizations.

Independent brokers can play a facilitator role to ensure partnerships are managed well and achieve their targets, said Caroline Quijada, a principal associate at Abt Associates and deputy director of the Strengthening Health Outcomes through the Private Sector program.

Partnerships aren’t a panacea, though, Quijada suggested. Simpler, cheaper approaches may be available.

“It’s important to make sure you’re not designing a PPP for the sake of designing a

PPP,” she noted.

Where work still needs to be done

As partnerships evolve, new challenges arise, including how to evaluate them, how to ensure accountability and — with the emergence of the post-2015 agenda — how to deploy them most effectively.

The question of how new and existing partnerships are being monitored and assessed is critical, said Mike Godfrey, a principal associate in agriculture and food security at Abt Associates.

“Are we doing the stocktaking along the way to see if these are delivering on what they have promised?” he said.

Monitoring and evaluation has evolved considerably for development assistance and is now considerably more sophisticated than just a few years ago. Still, existing metrics are not always agile enough or appropriate for measuring partnerships.

Guidance, perhaps from the United Nations, about minimum requirements or benchmarks could be useful in monitoring and evaluating results. The measurement of partnerships should be “as hard-nosed as we would be with an old-style development project.”

It is unlikely that industry will converge around a comprehensive set of indicators by the time the post-MDG agenda is finalized, Sajdik suggested. Realistically, he added, indicators will be put in place during the implementation phase.

And even then, development partners will have to choose to commit and follow those recommendations.

“We have to be realists,” Sajdik said. “All of this can only be done, from my point of view, on a voluntary basis.”

He’s optimistic, though, that business will get on board, especially if state actors are more open, accountable and credible.

Wishful thinking, perhaps? Thorn, the Wal-Mart official, said that while it is important to look at project outcomes, the type of evaluation required by many traditional foreign aid donors can be “ridiculously expensive and difficult.”

What sometimes matters more than metrics is what was learned through a project, she said.

There are other challenges as well, among them the need to manage expectations about partnerships, translate goals into actions and avoid tensions between cross-sector players.

Those tensions persist, especially as long as civil society players remain skeptical of the private sector’s social and environmental track record, said Paul Ladd, head of the U.N. Development Program’s team on the post-2015 development agenda.

Derksen-Hiebert of World Vision illustrated the point when he called on businesses to not only partner and fund but also ensure that their practices, especially how they pay taxes in developing countries, are supporting the achievement of international development goals.

2015 will provide some answers about the future of development: There’ll be at least eight U.N. member state negotiations, followed by a July conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on post-2015 development financing, the ratification of the global framework in September and, if all goes well, a climate deal to succeed the Kyoto Protocol in December.

Development officials and advocates will do their best to take the conversation out of the political, New York-centric atmosphere, where most of it has been held to date, and into communities around the world.

“This is really the year where the rubber hits the road,” Hiebert said.

It won’t be easy. The SDG working group discussions have already given a preview of what may be the most contentious issues — peace and conflict, governance, and climate change chief among them.

Perhaps as part of the intergovernmental process, governments, which have typically lagged behind nonstate actors in exploring partnership options to achieve specific development targets, will begin to do so, Ladd said. There needs to be a more informed discussion about partnerships, especially for those governments that have been more skeptical about PPPs.

“It’s been quite patchy and shallow” so far, he said.

To reassure partnership skeptics, cross-sectoral partnerships need to be defined more clearly, providing greater accountability and eliminating some of the publicity-driven announcements of the past, which passed as collaboration.

While post-MDG framework negotiations have largely moved behind closed doors at U.N. member states, there will still be some opportunities for business and civil society to influence the agenda, most notably at the financing conference in Addis. In September, nonstate actors will be at the table as the deal is finalized, though they will have “slightly less voice and traction” than state actors, Ladd said.

But business and civil society leaders are at the table, and traditional aid groups won’t be able to finance and achieve the ambitious development targets, including eradicating extreme poverty and ending hunger, without them. What they do with this growing influence and responsibility may well be the story of development in the next 15 years.

Devex, in partnership with Abt Associates, is examining lessons learned through partnership development, what scale means in the post-2015 agenda and how to create an enabling environment for partnerships in this special three-week series “Collaboration Post-2015: Where Can Partnerships Take Development?

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter 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.