A New Approach to Partnerships for SDG Transformations


First published in Sustainability 10 September 201911, 4947. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11184947

The following is an extract. The full version can be accessed below.

Recent scientific reports highlight the urgent need for transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and long-term sustainability.

This paper presents a new approach to partnerships that focuses on their role in transformations, the types of partnerships that may be needed and their enabling environment. It introduces transformation effectiveness as a criterion to evaluate a portfolio of partnerships and pathways as a tool to frame discussion of required partnerships. Guided by energy decarbonization and using a simple model of partnership formation, I highlight a (potential) mismatch between the types of partnerships required for transformation and the partnership types arising under the currently dominant voluntary approach. The model suggests the bottom-up approach can deliver some, but not all, of the partnerships needed. Five specific problems are identified—compensation for losers, partnering capacity, short-time horizons, inadequate coordination mechanisms and misaligned incentives. The paper then outlines some policy tools—transfers, regulation, public investment—governments could use to strengthen the bottom-up framework and orchestrate missing partnerships.

The conclusion addresses two problems specific to the transformation approach: how to identify more systematically the partnerships needed (identification problem) and how to implement them (implementation problem); and outlines some ways to deal with these—science, deliberation, international leadership coalitions and frameworks/monitoring systems for transition partnerships.

This is an extract. References and citations may be found in the full version below

Concluding Discussion and Steps Forward

Increasingly, it is recognized that better frameworks are needed for partnerships. There is a consensus that current frameworks are fragmented and rudimentary. Partnership governance, often defined as meta-governance in the literature, refers to the “strategic steering and coordination of the partnership system”. A tension in this literature exists over whether a bottom-up or top-down approach is more appropriate for partnerships (see Beisheim and Simon for a recent review of this debate).

This paper identified five specific problems with the bottom-up approach: compensation for losers, partnering capacity, short-time horizons, insufficient coordination mechanisms and misaligned incentives. It was shown these problems can lead to a mismatch between the portfolio of bottom-up partnerships and the types of partnerships required for transformation, i.e., the bottom-up approach is not transformation effective. This finding suggests the bottom-up approach will deliver some, but not all, of the partnerships needed, and to achieve transformation, the approach must be complemented by a top-down approach that aims to assemble the remaining partnerships.

Policy tools governments could, in principle, use to alleviate each problem were outlined: transfers, public investment, regulation. It was suggested, given the scale of transformation required, governments may be best placed to act as (chief) orchestrator, compared to, for example, UN agencies, donor governments, or professional orchestrators, whose resources and decision tools may not suffice for orchestrating transformation. The extent to which government can improve the bottom-up framework is, of course, debatable, e.g., several difficulties with compensating transfers have been recognized, such as distortionary costs, weak commitment power, short-term budgetary constraints. In addition, critical approaches have raised concerns about the ability of mainstream policy measures or tweaks to the system to adequately address transformations for achieving sustainability.

There are two main problems specific to delivering missing transition partnerships. First, there is an identification problem. On the one hand, there needs to be wide agreement on the transition pathway or roadmap. Apart from energy decarbonization, in many areas, we are not clear what such a pathway/roadmap might look like. On the other hand, it is important to know what the correct portfolio of partnerships is for achieving this pathway. This is a difficult task and given the long-time scales involved, difficult to determine in advance.

Science could play a key role in furthering understanding of transformative pathways and partnerships needed for transformation. There is a considerable amount of research on transition pathways; however, there is little work on the partnerships required to achieve such pathways. Drawing on Hummel et al., this work could embrace trans-disciplinary approaches that link scientific research with partnership recommendations to address concrete transition problems. The top universities, researchers and international institutions could take leadership on this problem and focus on bottleneck problems in transitions and recommendations about keystone partnerships to address them.

Deliberative processes among diverse actors may be crucially important to facilitate a comprehensive and inclusive identification of partnerships for transformations and to provide support and legitimacy for implementing them. Participatory processes are experiencing a surge of popularity based on growing evidence on the capacity of diverse actors to make sound judgements in well-designed deliberative systems. The Open Working Group (OWG) that negotiated the SDGs highlights how a well-designed intergovernmental deliberative process involving delegates and UN staff informed by stakeholders and expert inputs can deliver a comprehensive plan for action. Second, there is the implementation problem. Transformations such as decarbonizing the world energy system cannot be effectively solved at national-level, international cooperation and a multi-level approach are required.

However, the current geopolitical climate is not conducive to global cooperation in many areas, e.g., energy, environment, trade, migration, nuclear non-proliferation. The case of decarbonization shows that several countries are captured by their government’s fossil fuel interests, and it is questionable to what extent those governments could align themselves to transformation. On the other hand, even if we have the correct set of partnerships, much work remains to be done on ensuring their internal effectiveness, i.e., their ability to deliver on stated objectives.

The analysis of this paper suggests that implementation of missing partnerships should be government-led and involve stakeholders—states, civil society organizations and private sector entities—identified as relevant for transition partnerships. Policies—transfer payments, regulation and public investment—are likely needed to ensure the participation of key stakeholders and to address coordination and time-horizon problems. Overall, such an approach is well-aligned with the 2030 Agenda’s Resolutions on Global Partnerships: led by governments that

“bring together governments, civil society, the private sector, the UN system and other actors” to “encourage and promote (more) effective . . . partnerships”.

To overcome the geopolitical climate, one approach could focus on building a coalition of governments and stakeholders, willing or already leading on the SDGs, to implement a multi-level framework for (missing) transformative partnerships. The framework could cover policies, infrastructure, platforms, deliberative procedures, etc., aimed at identifying and implementing transformative partnerships. Lessons can be learnt from existing frameworks, e.g., Kenya SDG Partnership Platform, SIDS Partnership Framework, Ghana Civil Society Organization (CSO) Partnerships Platform, etc. The framework should aim to cover the six SDG transformations and to identify and implement the missing transformative partnerships by transformation. The approach could work first with energy decarbonization, where there is already a mass of countries and actors working together on decarbonization. Later, the framework could be extended to other areas where transformations are required.

To encourage effectiveness, a transparent, accountable and participatory monitoring system could be developed to provide information on these partnerships and their performance. Many recommended practices can be applied to monitor transformative partnerships, e.g., online registries, strict registration criteria, detailed regular reporting, delisting of non-performing partnerships, etc. (cf. Beisheim and Simon for a summary of these recommendations). Furthermore, there could be a rating and reward system and a website tracking keystone transformation partnerships. Indeed, a stronger monitoring system seems more appropriate for missing transformative partnerships than for bottom-up partnerships where grassroots organizations and NGOs may lack resources for reporting.

Decarbonization is expected to yield many co-benefits, e.g., lower air pollution, improved health, new jobs and industries, improved energy access and energy security, lower energy poverty, reduced biodiversity loss, etc. Different co-benefits appeal to different countries and stakeholders. After several months observing informal inter-governmental negotiations on political declarations for sustainable development, it is relatively clear some countries see external development and climate mitigation as an internal security issue. For others, severe local air pollution provides a strong motivation to decarbonize. For others, reliance on fossil fuel imports significantly reduces their budgets for development investments. Others are motivated by the SDGs because of their founding role in developing them. In other countries, the renewable energy sector is becoming a significant private interest group. These differences provide a basis for building a coalition of governments.

Better partnership frameworks can help to harness the MoI for transformation and achieve an approach that integrates different resources, interests, responsibilities and perspectives. The shift to voluntary agreements and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) was an important recognition of the failure of binding global agreements on emissions. Energy decarbonization is focused on changing the world’s energy system. Such transformations also need innovations in the social, economic, environmental and political systems underlying development. The process of innovation itself does not require a global agreement to achieve it. Instead, it requires leadership and diffusion.

Further scientific research on the internal success conditions of partnerships is also needed. The more stakeholders that participate in a partnership, often the greater the potential for failing. While there is much research on internal effectiveness, there are still many practical issues to address. For example, what activities maximize stakeholder engagement, learning and knowledge exchanges, what feedback mechanisms improve activities and uncover problems, how will conflicts be resolved and an equal distribution of power ensured, how will science-based tools be combined with stakeholder perspectives, how can proposals be assessed in an integrated way, what is the appropriate level, national or regional, to implement partnerships, what are appropriate decision-making mechanisms. There is the question of to what extent the approach should be embedded in the UN.

On the one hand, the UN could act as a neutral convener and has substantially more experience facilitating deliberative processes and working with partnerships/partnership frameworks than national governments. If an intergovernmental process is initiated, member states involved generally have a vested interest in delivering an outcome. However, this outcome can differ in important ways from what was envisaged at the outset.

On the other hand, initiatives such as C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition and Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land and Energy (FABLE) initiative highlight how a bottom-up approach operating outside UN intergovernmental processes could be used to build a global network of governments and stakeholders. Although such coalitions have some way to go to achieving their objectives, an important issue is whether a similar initiative for transformation partnerships could succeed in obtaining the participation and buy-in of governments.

More work on the details of the strategy is required. However, the broad elements outlined here should be kept in mind. The basic idea is to get a critical mass of government officials, ministers, delegates, negotiators, stakeholder groups, and their representatives, as well as scientists and experts and technical staff, working together on identifying and implementing keystone partnerships for achieving transformative transitions. In short, the future of the planet and the well-being of future generations may depend on it.

David Horan
Dr David Horan
Marie Curie IRC Caroline fellow at | + posts

Dr David Horan is a Marie Curie IRC Caroline fellow at UCD's School of Politics and International Relations. He was Visiting Researcher at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network in New York. His specialisms are in sustainable development, the UN 2030 Agenda, SDG data and indices, multi-stakeholder partnerships and the environmental SDGs. He is particularly interested in the role of the state, international organizations, and transnational cooperation and collaboration in enabling urgently needed transitions to sustainability. David has published on problems with bottom-up frameworks for partnerships, policies to support orchestration, portfolio approaches to partnerships, the role of economic compensation in governance reforms, composite indices for integrated SDG assessments, and data-based tools for coherent policymaking and effective partnerships. He has been conducting a qualitative database study of 500 environmental partnerships in the SIDS database for climate action (SDG13), sustainable oceans (SDG14) and biodiversity protection (SDG15) to further understand partnership frameworks. David has considerable experience in UN engagements on sustainable development. He was invited to speak at the UN Expert Group Meeting on SDG17 Partnerships for the Goals in 2019 and the UN Sustainable Development Transformations Forums 2020-21. He is a member of the UN Friends of Governance for Sustainable Development, Advisor to Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, Research Associate of UN SDSN, and participant in Ireland’s National SDG Stakeholder Forum.

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