7 May 2019
Experts Examine Multi-stakeholder Partnerships’ Challenges, Potential
Photo by IISD | Lynn Wagner
story highlights

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs organized an expert group meeting to discuss SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals) in preparation for the July 2019 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

Participants discussed evaluation of multi-stakeholder partnerships for the SDGs, accountability for partners, incentives to bring partners together, sharing knowledge, and challenges related to data.

The moderator suggested holding a discussion on the margins of the July 2019 HLPF on how to drive partnerships.

12 April 2019: The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) organized an expert group meeting to discuss SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals) in preparation for the July 2019 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). Discussions highlighted a dilemma in which some partners may look for financial profit from partnerships, and thus lack motivation to engage in vulnerable settings where resources are most needed.

SDG 17 contains 19 targets addressing finance, technology, capacity-building, trade and systemic issues, which include policy and institutional coherence, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and data, monitoring and accountability. Progress on the targets of SDG 17 is reviewed during the HLPF each year along with a set of other selected SDGs. The other Goals being reviewed at the July 2019 HLPF are: SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), SDG 13 (climate action), and SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). The expert group meeting held on 12 April 2019, in New York, US, focused on the role of multi-stakeholder partnerships in realizing these SDGs.

In introductory remarks, one participant recalled that at the UN Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) 2019 Partnership Forum, which took place the previous day, speakers said well-designed, nurtured and transparent partnerships “do not come out of thin air” but require skills in partnership design and partnership building. Partnerships also require accountability, but institutions are not in place to facilitate accountability for partnerships. Forum discussions also highlighted a need for the UN to support matchmaking and convene partnerships. Until now, it has not been “in the UN’s DNA” to partner with the private sector, partly due to risk aversion; thus, country-level partnerships with the private sector are lacking. However, participants at the Forum said, UN reforms provide an opportunity to develop a system-wide approach to partnerships and make the UN “fit for partnering.”

At the EGM, participants discussed evaluation of multi-stakeholder partnerships for the SDGs. A researcher suggested that partnerships can be evaluated by looking at:

  • Whether a partnership’s outputs align with the SDGs;
  • Inputs to the partnership, such as the required resources for the budget, an office, secretariat, data and technology, and skills to represent themselves; and
  • Leadership approaches, such as how stakeholder inputs are coordinated.

He said there is no point in creating poorly managed, poorly financed partnerships, but there is also no point in resourcing a partnership if it is not well aligned to the transformations needed to achieve the SDGs. He stressed the need for better knowledge of the types of partnerships needed for these transformations.

Another participant expressed concern that a focus on accountability could lead to a top-down rather than bottom-up framing for a partnership. One speaker cautioned against requiring high-level layers of organization. She stressed the need to focus on realities on the ground and to build space for listening and dialogue.

The moderator observed a possible tension between providing a framework and criteria for participation in partnerships, on one hand, and avoiding discouragement for partnerships, on the other hand. He asked how a platform could facilitate rather than regulate partnerships, allowing them flexibility while also demonstrating that they are contributing.

Participants also discussed different incentives bringing partners together for the SDGs. One said some businesses are motivated to align with the Global Goals because of marketing, but they are not interested in changing lifestyles and systems. Another added that effective partnerships are usually those that arise from a clear purpose and political reason.

Expressing a similar message, a participant from the scientific community said a sense of common purpose is key to his partnership’s success, and that in his example this purpose came from leadership at the highest levels. He said that “doing it for appearances goes nowhere,” and each actor’s commitment to sustainability must be authentic. To balance out this “top-down” ideological commitment, he suggested allowing a grassroots approach to organizing the work, so groups can come together in their own way.

Another participant shared lessons learned from a sector-specific partnership initiative. He said that coalitions are essential for shifting from talking to action. However, “broad meetings won’t do anything,” so a coalition must have a strong focus. He also observed that the UN has been “good at launching” but less effective at keeping partnerships dynamic and incentivizing their growth, including through reporting and sharing best practices. In this regard, he noted that recognition and celebration can help motivate partners. Finally, he said partnerships need human resources, facilitators, and “back office” functions to achieve results.

On sharing knowledge, some participants expressed concern about the technical nature of many climate change documents. It was noted that partnerships cannot thrive with only “one to three languages of the global powers.” A participant observed that non-English, evidence-based research is plentiful, and it can be translated for much less expense than generating new research. The meeting moderator suggested producing “popular versions” of sustainability work, especially in the area of climate science. One practitioner stressed the need to share knowledge about issues that are not being discussed by governments, and ensure they are reflected at the HLPF.

How do we create opportunities to interest the private sector in forging partnerships in SIDS?

On linkages with the other SDGs under review at the July 2019 HLPF, participants highlighted:

  • SDG 4: This was one of the first SDGs for which a coordination mechanism was established, the Education 2030 Steering Committee. The Committee is currently working on indicator development and methodologies for measuring SDG 4.
  • SDG 8: The UN’s High-level Committee on Programmes (HLCP) has adopted 15 principles for investing in youth empowerment. A multi-stakeholder initiative on decent work uses an API tool to ensure that when it updates its own database, the update is also recorded on DESA’s partnership platform. In this initiative, partners are asked to provide their own indicators for measuring progress on their commitments.
  • SDG 10: Small island developing States (SIDS) provided an example of a particularly challenging context in which to forge partnerships. They are among the most vulnerable, left behind countries, but lack financing, it was noted. A participant reported that few SIDS-related partnerships include the private sector because of the inherent vulnerabilities in operating in SIDS. The question to be answered is, how do we create opportunities to interest the private sector in forging partnerships in SIDS?
  • SDG 13: Participants highlighted that “we are in an emergency” with regard to climate change, and the only actors with the adequate financing and other resources are governments and the private sector. Therefore, partnerships must engage with those actors. A DESA survey of partnerships found that the overwhelming majority of partnerships are made up of NGOs, and have little engagement with the private sector or governments. This is a problem for scaling finance, participants observed.

On SDG 16, an expert recalled that Goal 16 was politically contentious – indeed, the most difficult SDG on which to agree – during negotiations on the 2030 Agenda. He said multi-stakeholder approaches provided the key to success: efforts began with a focus on violence against children, because it was the only element that everyone agreed on. Another key to building agreement was to focus on solutions rather than advocacy about the seriousness of the problem, and to compile solutions from different sectors into a package for policy makers: then “you’re out of the silo.” Finally, engaging countries in piloting the proposed policies can help prove that change is possible.

In the area of anti-corruption work, it was stressed that women in vulnerable conditions must be included, and strategies to support this could include: remove the jargon around anti-corruption; raise experts’ awareness about local realities; and engage women leaders at the grassroots level.

This practitioner observed that corruption impedes local participation in realizing the SDGs: corruption is “in the way of all of them.” She said when local communities have knowledge to contribute, it must be heard and included at the municipal level, to ensure accountability.

The discussion pointed to another impediment to local government and community engagement: challenges related to data. A practitioner reported that “we have a huge issue around local data,” relating to weak disaggregation, limited access to data for local governments, and low capacity of local governments to collect data. In order for partnerships to be grounded and locally rooted, he said, progress must be made in this area. He reported that out of the 102 countries that presented VNRs between 2016-2018, only 45 consulted with local governments, and he said VNRs must include more local data.

On coordination between local and national levels of government, this speaker said 183 countries have national associations of cities and/or local governments, which act as brokers for gathering data and funnelling it up to the national level. However, many of these associations lack funding to fully play their role.

Another expert detailed the challenge of the lack of data to effectively monitor the SDGs, informing participants that most countries only have data to monitor 25-50% of SDG targets, and this applies even to the most advanced statistical systems. To help meet the data need, he said efforts are underway to bring data from civil society, academia and the private sector into official statistical systems.

This speaker also informed the group that efforts initiated through the World Data Forum are beginning to yield results, as more data is becoming available for SDG monitoring. He highlighted in particular:

  • The Collaborative on SDG Interoperability, which provides guidance on harmonizing data from different sectors/producers to monitor the SDGs; and
  • Esri, a mapping and location analysis platform, which is working with 30-40 governments around the world to create data platforms that provide georeferenced statistics on SDG issues, thus revealing “key pockets for leaving no one behind.”

Concluding the meeting, the moderator suggested holding a discussion on the margins of the July 2019 HLPF on how to drive partnerships. He also said stakeholders must consider the message on partnerships that should be included in the political declaration that will result from the HLPF Summit in September 2019.

DESA released an informal summary of the EGM. [SDG Knowledge Hub sources] [Informal summary]

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