Towards a Portfolio Approach: Partnerships for Sustainable Transformations

Sketch of a diagram

This perspective article examines the role that partnerships can play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It elucidates a portfolio approach to partnerships that could align well with achieving a sustainable transformation. It outlines recommendations on how this approach may be operationalized in research, policy, and practice. Much remains to be done on a portfolio approach. Practice and sharing of good practice should be guiding principles to facilitate peer-to-peer learning. It is also important to address power imbalances, conflicting interests, and limited representation in partnerships.

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

Sustainable Transformations

The COVID-19 crisis and its impact in low and middle-income countries has highlighted the importance of the UN Secretary General’s call for a Decade of Action on the Sustainable Development (SDGs) centered around an inclusive multilateralism (Klingebiel & Gonsior, 2020; Sachs et al., 2021; UN, 2019a, 2021; UN SG Report, 2021). To facilitate such an approach, the UN Development Reforms have aligned the development sector with the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. At the core of the reforms is the Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (SDCF) which seeks to improve coordination within the broader multilateral system and to better align multilateral efforts with National Development Plans (UN, 2019b).

To make meaningful progress on the SDGs, the SDCF will need to support sustainable transformations in a range of systems: health, education, agriculture and land-use, energy and industry, urban infrastructure, and digital revolution (Sachs, 2019, Sachs et al., 2019; TWI, 20502018; UN GSDR, 2019). However, questions remain on how cooperation frameworks such as this can best support systems transformations of this kind (Chan et al., 2021; Klingebiel & Gonsior, 2020). First, the transformations need to be designed for, adapted to regional and national contexts, and reflected in National Development Plans (Sachs et al., 2019). Ultimately, each country must choose its own path. Consequently, cooperation frameworks should seek to complement state-centered approaches to transformation. Second, no country can single-handedly deliver all the transformations. Transnational cooperation mechanisms are needed to harness resources and capabilities from diverse sources such as sustainable finance, technology and know-how, policy expertise and data, and other capacities (Akram, 2021). Third, achieving specific transformations, such as energy decarbonization, sustainable agriculture or digital transformation (Sachs et al., 2019; UN GSDR, 2019), require a broad range of responses from different sectors and levels of society, yet, societies lack many of the appropriate institutions, policies and societal responses to effectively mobilize multisectoral approaches to transformation and engage an array of stakeholders as equal partners (Beck et al., 2021; Devaney & Torney, 2018).

In particular, partnerships that bring together global, regional, national and local actors from multiple sectors of society appear necessary to realize these transformations. Owing to the geographic concentration of knowledge, finance, innovation, and production, and the need to develop and diffuse sustainable technologies, institutions, and practices globally (Ciarli et al., 2021; Malecki, 2021; TWI 20502019; Walsh et al., 2020) and to engage local communities and stakeholders in the process of transformation (Elstub et al., 2021; TWI 20502020), this perspective article proposes constructing coherent portfolios of partnerships for each country and ways to operationalize a portfolio approach to sustainable transformations in the context of the recent UN reforms in the multilateral development system.

This is an extract from the full version first published on 13 December 2021 in

Global Policy published by Durham University and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


When considering a partnership’s role in sustainable transformation, a portfolio approach is essential. UN discussions tend to focus on best practices in individual partnerships, examples of successful partnerships, and their challenges. Although these micro-level discussions are important and much research is devoted to them (e.g., Leise & Beisheim, 2011; Mummery, 2021), the macro portfolio level urgently requires attention.

In particular, research, policy, and practice should consider what portfolios of partnerships can deliver sustainable transformations. Roadmaps are useful tools to discern the types of partnerships needed. Linkages are a way to identify relevant actors to engage in these partnerships.

Supportive infrastructures and policy frameworks are also needed to facilitate a portfolio approach. Thus far, platforms to support partnerships are weakly institutionalized (Backstrand, 2006; Beisheim & Simon, 2018), and not systematic or well-developed from a portfolio perspective. Infrastructures to support SMEs, entrepreneurship and funding research are available in many countries. Similar scaffolding is required for sustainability partnerships.

Much remains to be done on a portfolio approach. Practice and sharing of good practice should be guiding principles to facilitate peer-to-peer learning. It is also important to address power imbalances, conflicting interests, and limited representation in partnerships. The study by Westerwinter (2021) provides a stark reminder that current patterns of participation are fragmented and lack representation from many stakeholder groups, especially from national and local levels.

To achieve what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls ‘inclusive and networked multilateralism’, and global sustainability transformations (Beisheim & Fritzsche, 2021; UN GSDR, 2019), these problems of partnerships should be put front and centre, and ways found to address them.

David Horan
Dr David Horan
Marie Curie IRC Caroline fellow at University College Dublin, School of Politics and International Relations | + 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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