13 July 2018: The annual Partnership Exchange, held in the margins of the 2018 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), fostered understanding on the set-up and management of effective multi-stakeholder partnerships. Jointly organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), UN Office for Partnerships (UNOP) and UN Global Compact, the day-long event shared best practices, and outlined how partnerships can contribute to the SDGs.

The morning agenda featured two parallel sessions: one on building institutions and platforms that are fit for partnering, and the other focusing on maximizing impact of partnerships at the national level. The former session also served to launch the guidebook, ‘Maximizing the Value of Partnerships for the SDGs,’ authored by DESA and The Partnering Initiative (TPI).

Managing people is key to maximizing value.

Moderating the discussion on building institutions and platforms, Darian Stibbe, TPI Executive Director, noted that the exchange was viewing partnerships in a broad sense, as vehicles for development rather than formal public-private partnerships (PPPs). Panelists in the session highlighted qualities that make organizations fit for partnership, which, Stibbe recognized, can be a challenge, given sectors’ differing values, terminologies, approaches and management styles. These qualities include humility, embracing partners’ diversity, cultural competency, being able to speak the same language across sectors, and converging around a shared vision that manages expectations while building trust. After overcoming these challenges and building a “pro-partnering culture,” discussants emphasized that partnerships’ contributions to society are greater than the sum of their parts.

The first parallel session also identified internal changes that organizations can undertake in order to become fit for partnering. Steps include, but are not limited to: establishing a partnership strategy that puts the SDGs at the core; dedicating human and financial resources to working on partnerships; standardizing common procedures; streamlining bureaucracies to reduce transaction costs; and monitoring to generate evidence that partnerships work. Panelists also underscored the importance of working with local organizations and being partnership brokers, especially when working at the community level. Kate Brown, Global Island Partnership (GLISPA), noted the appropriate level may span multiple levels of governance or country typologies, as GLISPA collaborates with all islands to enable learning, including small island developing States (SIDS), territories and sub-national entities such as Hawaii, US.

At the UN level, participants flagged the need to make entry points for collaboration clearer, but noted that platforms are not only UN-led and can be government-run, housed within universities or driven by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, participants agreed that country ownership remains key, and that dialogues can be made more effective by leveraging high-profile individuals to bring diverse groups of people together. Participants highlighted that convergence and collaboration across stakeholders remain vital, especially when seeking to partner with the private sector or mobilize blended sources of finance. Similarly, participants noted the “need to have a need to have a partnership” as making it easier to build trust, align actors, and identify the skill sets needed to navigate political environments and fragmented market spaces.

Common themes from the second parallel session, moderated by Simona Marinescu, UN Development Programme (UNDP), include the need to see partnerships as a “people business,” where managing people is key to success in maximizing value. Similar to the first session, soft skills emerged as paramount to success. Participants also flagged the importance of ensuring that monitoring is factored into results planning, while keeping expectations realistic. A summary statement reviewing what governments can do to support partnerships urged donors not to “trade quality or continuity for quick wins.” We tend to rush, the statement noted, but maximizing returns requires careful planning, an understanding of culture and behavior, and standards to build trust.

Bringing the morning’s lessons together, the afternoon sessions opened with remarks by Marie Chatardová, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, and UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.

Delivering the keynote address, Mohammed called for the scaling of solutions so that partnerships reach “not millions, but billions of people.” Highlighting that migration and other global issues cut across borders, she reminded participants that means of implementation such as technology also transcend national systems, urging the audience to move beyond pilots. Mohammed underscored that aligning financial systems, without “letting official development assistance (ODA) off the hook,” to inclusively grow economies is critical, and that “it’s not about handouts, but about handshakes.” She also emphasized the importance of working with stakeholders to ensure that civil society is on the same page as governments, quoting Mother Teresa to articulate each partner’s value-add: “you can do what I cannot do, and I can do what you cannot do, but together, we can do great things.”

Moderating the afternoon panel on building the enabling system to maximize partnerships, Kaveh Zahedi, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), opened by recalling an element of partnerships identified by the morning panels: risk taking. New paradigms are needed, he and others noted, where nonprofits and the UN system take more risks, and private sector actors move beyond philanthropy to align their business models with the SDGs. Building a clear vision and an enabling system that moves beyond the current development paradigm, panelists stated, requires a bottom-up approach that identifies priority areas jointly with businesses, sets out a vision that is measured through established key performance indicators (KPIs), and incorporates established principles, such as those of the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation, to deliver on the SDGs. Through these measures, Zahedi noted in his recap of the discussion, society can benefit from partnerships for impacts, rather than simply for the sake of partnership.

The event’s Partnership Showcase featured presentations of 15 multi-stakeholder initiatives that contribute to the SDGs under review at this year’s HLPF. Among others presented, partnerships include efforts to reduce electronic waste, enhance learning networks on the water-energy nexus, enable developing countries to benefit from e-commerce, improve water security for the community surrounding an apparel manufacturing facility, and develop a certification scheme for biodiversity.

Closing remarks by Lise Kingo, UN Global Compact, recognized the momentum created by partnerships, but reemphasized the need to do more, scale up, and measure partnerships’ and companies’ impacts. [Partnership Exchange] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]