Not Just a Case for Business: SDG Partnerships with Accountability, Oversight and Profit
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Recent guest articles by authors from BSR, the Rotterdam School of Management, CIVICUS and the Global Policy Forum present a range of perspectives about the private sector’s role in advancing the Global Goals.

Meanwhile, the UN is working to establish guidance for partnerships to help implement the 2030 Agenda.

This brief reviews the underlying arguments in our commentaries and relevant UN reform efforts underway.

Recent guest articles on the SDG Knowledge Hub present a range of perspectives about the private sector’s role in advancing the Global Goals. Some commentators focus on business’ potential for driving SDG implementation and provide specific advice for realizing it. Others express concern about the shifting relationship between governments and the private sector, and about the nature of business’ engagement at the UN. Meanwhile, the UN is working to establish guidance for partnerships to help implement the 2030 Agenda. This brief reviews the underlying arguments in our featured commentaries and relevant UN reform efforts that are underway.

Making Corporate Engagement Constructive

Business can be “a driving force behind collaboration towards the SDGs,” write Sara Enright and Dominic Kotas of BSR. They also stress an inverse point: the SDGs underpin business success. To this end – with a vision that goes beyond corporate engagement in sustainability as charity or social responsibility – BSR identifies five factors in ensuring that collaborations with private sector partners are effective for SDGs advancement: a compelling, common purpose; the right partners in the right roles; good governance; the design of an organization; and accountability.

Investigating whether multi-stakeholder partnerships can raise businesses’ SDG ambitions, two scholars at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, reworked the official list of 169 SDG targets into a set of 59 with particular relevance for corporate engagement. Among these targets, some are aimed at “avoiding harm,” while others focus on “doing good.” The researchers find that companies that are getting involved in the SDGs have engaged largely in the former: the targets that help them to avoid harm. Businesses also tend to choose the targets that can be advanced through internal action within their own companies, rather than calling for external changes. Authors Jan Anton van Zanten and Rob van Tulder suggest partnerships as a remedy. Like BSR, they also note the business gains to be reaped from the Goals, citing the Business Commission for Sustainable Development’s estimate of US$12 trillion in business opportunities annually.

Ensuring Oversight and Accountability for Partners

Partnership as a two-sided coin was on the minds of participants at an HLPF side event in July 2018. ‘Partnership or Business Case?’, convened by the Permanent Missions of Germany and Uruguay, fostered a discussion of whether privatizing public goods and services contributes to better SDG implementation. Sandra Vermuyten, Major Group of Workers and Trade Unions, cited evidence from the prison industry and refugee centers in which privatization has led to reduced service provision or outcomes. Shanta Lall Mulmi, Resource Centre for Primary Health Care (RECPHEC), said partnerships must put people at the center.

A guest article by Barbara Adams of Global Policy Forum elaborates on one dynamic behind such concerns. Noting that the UN Office for Partnerships and the UN Global Compact Office are expected to undergo “repositioning and strengthening,” yet are oriented towards “a clear single stakeholder – business,” Adams stresses that neither has a track record of engaging civil society organizations (CSOs) nor the credibility to do so. In addition, she writes that the Compact lacks mechanisms for “robust oversight and vetting of partners in line with UN standards.”

Accountability is an urgent need in CIVICUS’ view, as well. “Governments and the UN seem intent on increasing the private sector’s involvement in SDGs,” writes Lyndal Rowlands, and have invited business representatives to present their achievements at the HLPF “with little to no scrutiny.” By contrast, she reports that civil society participants at the 2018 HLPF experienced “restricted involvement” due to several “bad habits” of the Forum. Rowlands suggests the need to hold the private sector “to account for its contributions to rising inequalities, environmental degradation, unsustainable consumption and more.”

Reforms Underway at the UN

The range of views reflected here takes place as the UN Secretary-General is advancing several work streams on a “system-wide approach to partnerships for the 2030 Agenda,” laid out in his December 2017 report on repositioning the UN development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda. In seeming acknowledgement of some of the above critiques, Guterres writes that the lack of a system-wide approach in the area of partnerships “sometimes leads to contradictory decision-making across entities, undermining the integrity and increasing the vulnerability of the Organization.” He also calls for increased transparency and accountability regarding the UN development system’s various partnerships.

The six work streams, aimed to be completed by the end of 2019, are:

  1. Agree on “system-wide approach” to partnership, with a focus on supporting governments as they mobilize the means of implementation for the SDGs
  2. Strengthen “system-wide integrity, due diligence and risk management,” regarding private sector entities and other non-state actors;
  3. Improve governance of the UN Global Compact;
  4. “Firmly” establish the UN Office for Partnerships as the UN’s “global gateway” for partnerships, beginning with a review of current operations, and resulting in more effective partner engagement of public and private sector stakeholders, including civil society organizations, with the UN development system;
  5. Refresh the system-wide compact with international financial institutions such as the World Bank regarding “high-impact actions” for SDG implementation; and
  6. Invigorate the UN’s support for South-South cooperation.

Meanwhile, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) is preparing a guidebook on partnerships for the SDG. In addition to providing a process for gaining from partnerships, the guide includes a framework for defining “Collaborative Advantage” and the extra value added by working in partnership. (Read more about the launch of ‘Maximizing the impact of partnerships for the SDGs: A practical guide to partnership value creation.’)

Since the start of the 2030 Agenda and the HLPF, business representatives have stressed the need for clear avenues for engagement with the UN, while civil society has sounded alarm bells about such relationships. The reform initiatives underway provide several paths through which avenues for engagement can be strengthened, while also addressing some of the risks. Each work stream should be carefully watched to ensure that it meets the ambition of increasing oversight, diligence, transparency and accountability. If this succeeds, the businesses’ interest in driving the 2030 Agenda may be able to do what its proponents say: unite profit, prosperity and broader purpose.

Additional reading:

  • Governments’ collaboration with the private sector is discussed in the SDG Knowledge Weekly on 30 July and 6 August.
  • Ongoing coverage of UN reform efforts is available here.

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