UN’s Preferred Partner? Not the Public Sector
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Partnerships are one of the key elements in the Secretary-General’s reform proposals.

In the SDGs' target on partnerships, the only agreed measure of success is the “amount of United States dollars committed to a) public-private partnerships and b) civil society partnerships” (indicator 17.17.1).

The existing mechanisms for partnership engagement favor one set of criteria – money – leaving only one possible preferred partner: big business.

The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will hold its annual Partnerships Forum on 4 April, on the theme of ‘Partnering for resilient and inclusive societies: contributions of the private sector.’ Any consideration of the private sector’s hoped-for “contributions” should proceed with caution, if we are to truly move towards inclusive societies.

Partnerships are one of the key elements in the Secretary-General’s reform proposals outlined in the December 2017 report, ‘Repositioning the United Nations development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda: our promise for dignity, prosperity and peace on a healthy planet’ (A/72/684). He notes that partnerships are “uniquely placed to offer the platforms needed for all actors to come together, build trust and mobilize their respective assets to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.” The report outlines six partnership-focused workstreams1, and proposes concrete measures for improving UN partnership engagements, including mechanisms to ensure increased transparency and accountability.

What the reform package lacks, however, is a clear differentiation among types of partners, their goals, their interests and their business models, and the related criteria needed to determine eligibility, potential expulsion and assessment of progress. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) show the same myopia. The 17th SDG, which addresses partnerships for the Goals, includes target 17.17: “Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.”

In the target on partnerships, the only agreed measure of success is the “amount of United States dollars committed to a) public-private partnerships and b) civil society partnerships” (indicator 17.17.1). This use of US dollar count to measure partnerships’ effectiveness is seen also in the recently adopted Common Chapter of the UNDP/UNICEF/UN WOMEN/UNFPA Strategic Plan. It commits to “…enhance multi-stakeholder partnerships” and “intensify collaboration through multi-stakeholder partnerships at national, regional and global levels, and assist in improving mutual accountability for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in such partnerships” as measured by the “(a) percentage of total resources from contributions by donors other than the top 15; and (b) percentage share of total funding coming from private sector partners.”

This measure of partnership betrays the UN’s choice of preferred partner. The existing mechanisms for partnership engagement favor one set of criteria – money – leaving only one possible preferred partner: big business.

This orientation is amplified by the Secretary-General’s recent proposals to re-position and strengthen the UN Office for Partnerships (established in 1998) and the UN Global Compact Office (established in 2000). Focusing on these offices, both of which are oriented towards a clear single stakeholder – business, would further entrench business as the UN’s preferred partner. The pressure to use existing entities is understandable. However, neither the Global Compact nor the UN Office of Partnerships has a track record nor credibility as a gateway for multiple stakeholders, and certainly not with civil society organizations. The Global Compact’s ten principles for members predate the 2030 Agenda, are inadequate for a complex and integrated sustainable development agenda and lack any rigorous impact assessment. Nor do they call for robust oversight and vetting of partners in line with UN standards.

Another element of the Secretary-General’s proposal is to establish a “pool of partner-ready companies.” But no arrangements are laid out to account for changes in a potential partner’s practices, performance and impacts. Once agreed criteria are in place and an initial vetting has been made, how often is it reviewed and updated? Moreover, how are evaluations conducted and recorded in a way that reflects the “readiness” of a partner and partnership, according to its capacities to contribute to specific SDG outcomes?

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are natural allies of the UN. Their priorities are geared towards the intended beneficiaries of partnerships, and they largely support fair and progressive taxation as the primary way of leveraging resources to implement the SDGs, and as such would expect UN principles for partnerships to exclude individuals or companies involved in tax avoidance or evasion or as channels of illicit financial flows.

Ensuring that no one is left behind and that we reach the furthest behind first cannot be done by relying on self-selected partners or partnership organizations. More important is democratic governance and the provision of essential public services. With this in mind, CSOs generally prefer the approach of the UN Guidelines on Business and Human Rights or the outcome of the UN Human Rights Council’s open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights.

Rather than being a source of financial resources, some CSOs are committed to working for an enabling environment that does not further disadvantage the already disadvantaged, supports governments to provide essential public services, and holds them accountable to their unique responsibilities regarding public resources, fiscal policy and security. The “business model” of public interest organizations is a commitment to human rights, to addressing inequalities (income and non-income), ensuring a sustainable planet, and for application at all levels and in all countries.

There is strong interest and support for the Secretary-General’s reform proposals for system-wide capacity to implement the 2030 Agenda, from re-imagining the UN country presence to a new funding compact. Any partnership recommendations should show the same level of ambition and risk and present a vision that improves vastly over business as usual.

 

1 “Repositioning the United Nations development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda: our promise for dignity, prosperity and peace on a healthy planet” (A/72/684), paragraphs 130-143. Workstreams include: 1) launching a process within UNDG, supported by DESA and UNGC, to agree on a system-wide approach to partnerships, with RC offices as country-level hubs; 2) strengthening system-wide integrity, due diligence and risk management; 3) improving governance of the UN Global Compact at the global level, as well as impact and oversight of Local Networks; 4) establishing UNOP as the UN’s global gateway for partnerships; 5) strengthening the UN’s relationships with IFIs; and 6) revitalizing support to South-South cooperation.


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