Multi-stakeholder partnerships: why they matter and how to get them right
To tackle poverty, climate change and other global challenges, governments, businesses and civil society need to work together. Yet it is often challenging to cooperate effectively in multi-stakeholder partnerships. What are the lessons learned for making multi-stakeholder partnerships work?
By Susanne Salz
If humanity is to implement the 2030 Agenda and reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), many stakeholders have to take action. It is widely agreed that national governments as well as businesses and civil society organizations (CSOs) are important actors in making the necessary transformative change happen. That creates a large, heterogeneous group with great potential for impact based on diverse resources, skills and experiences. Yet there is little attention, clarity or consensus on the roles of the different stakeholders or about how they can best work together.
What can different stakeholders contribute to the SDGs and why would they do it?
National governments continue to carry the primary responsibility for the welfare of their citizens, the economy and the planet. Therefore, it is clear that national governments will continue to be central actors in working towards the SDGs.
Business is increasingly realizing that their long-term success no longer depends solely on economic success, but also on their performance in social and environmental aspects. Frontrunners, business networks and movement towards ideas such as the B Corporations are making headway in promoting the fact that business can be good for profit as well as for people and planet.
Civil society is organized locally, nationally and globally and fulfills key functions in all thematic SDG areas. Civil society holds expertise and experience crucial for SDG implementation as well as being a driver of change.
Additional important stakeholders include academia, local governments and international organizations.
All these stakeholders are making decisions on a daily basis, which influence the course of the world and humanity’s ability to reach the SDGs – or not to reach them. By cooperating effectively, synergetic effects will enable maximum impact and thus make achieving the SDGs more likely. In addition, multi-stakeholder cooperation is an opportunity to convince further stakeholders from all backgrounds of the need to take the 2030 Agenda into account.
What is a multi-stakeholder partnership?
Although the term multi-stakeholder partnership (MSP) is used in the 2030 Agenda, no commonly agreed definition or quality control exists. The current effort of the MSP Charter aims to help fill that gap.
The German platform Partnerships2030 defines multi-stakeholder partnerships as a form of collaboration with the following four characteristics:
1. Stakeholders from at least three different sectors (public sector, private sector, civil society, academia), …
2. …work together as equals…
3. …through an organized and long-term engagement…
4. …in order to contribute to the common good.
The following examples illustrate this definition.
The German Initiative on Sustainable Cocoa (GISCO) is a joint initiative of the German Federal Government, represented by the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), the German sweets and confectionary industry, the German retail grocery trade, and civil society. Jointly, the multi-stakeholder partnership aims to improve the livelihood of cocoa farmers and their families as well as to increase the proportion of sustainably produced cocoa. To achieve these objectives, the members of GISCO closely liaise with the governments of cocoa producing countries. The initiative started in 2012 based on impetus from business and currently has about 70 members. One of the results has been that 57 % of cocoa in sweets and confectionery produced by GISCO members in Germany in 2016 is sustainably produced and 91 projects are being implemented in 32 producing countries. GISCO has added value by dialogue and joint action resulting in an impact on the sector.
The Alliance for Integrity is a business-driven, multi-stakeholder initiative seeking to promote transparency and integrity in the economic system. To achieve this goal, it fosters collective action of all relevant actors from the private sector, the public sector and civil society. It offers peer-to-peer learning, public-private dialogue, awareness raising and exchange of knowledge as well as compliance training and a train-the-trainers program. Corruption is clearly an important issue and equally obviously one which can only be tackled by the cooperation of different stakeholders.
These and many more examples illustrate the kinds of issues for which multi-stakeholder-partnerships promise better progress than unilateral actions. However, such partnerships tend to be time- and resource-intensive due to the inherent difficulties in coordination among stakeholders. Therefore, it is worthwhile only when different stakeholders have an interest in the issue, which they can better reach by cooperating.
From a governmental and societal perspective, multi-stakeholder partnerships need to be considered alongside and in comparison to regulation. There is no comprehensive study yet on this comparison in different thematic and geographical contexts.
How can multi-stakeholder partnerships succeed?
In the pertinent UN database there are 3970 partnerships/commitments (as of 22 October 2018). It is a safe bet that of the 3970, not that many are active, let alone truly succeeding. The MSP Charter aims to articulate some key principles around MSPs as one step towards more success and impact.
From analysing over 40 MSPs with German participation, Partnerships2030 has distilled six success factors for MSPs:
- Context: understanding the global context and being aware of the meta-governance as a common framework;
- Common strategy & future planning: jointly developing clear objectives, developing common leadership and responsibility and ensuring high-level support;
- Cooperation management: involving relevant partners, establishing a common ‘language’ and a respectful communication style;
- Process management: focusing on implementation and results, ascribing clear roles and setting a transparent communication strategy;
- Steering & Resources: establishing a neutral project secretariat, developing inclusive and transparent decision-making and steering structures and ensuring sustainable resource mobilization;
- Monitoring, evaluation and learning: introducing process and results-orientated monitoring, evaluation and reporting as well as learning processes and capacity development.
Hopefully, such efforts and existing tools and guidance will help MSPs to reach their full potential.
From MSPs to global governance
This angle on multi-stakeholder partnerships is focused on implementation rather than policymaking. There is a related debate about more fully including non-state stakeholders in policy debates at global level. The New Shape Prize by the Global Challenges Foundation sought innovative ideas for global governance. In many entries to the competition, the issue of better inclusion of non-state actors figured prominently. Yet of the $5 million prize money, in the end only $1.8 million were awarded, which shows how difficult it is to design effective multi-stakeholder global governance. Perhaps experiences with multi-stakeholder partnerships focused on implementation will have the additional benefit of providing experiences and shifting mindsets. This would also be beneficial for developing effective multi-stakeholder global governance models.
Partnerships are crucial for reaching the SDGs, because the global community needs to act coherently and create synergies. But let’s not start inactive or "zombie" partnerships which aren’t actually alive with action and joint purpose. Let’s not start partnerships because the term and idea is currently fashionable in some circles. Let’s create and work in multi-stakeholder partnerships only in those cases where it actually makes sense to do so: when diverse stakeholders have an interest in the issue and can only tackle it together. In these cases, let us indeed use multi-stakeholder partnerships to make strides towards the SDGs – because only together do we stand a chance of achieving them.
Susanne Salz wrote this article in her private capacity. The article does not necessarily reflect the views of Partnerships2030 or GIZ. Susanne and the whole Partnerships2030 team is happy to advise and discuss on all issues around multi-stakeholder partnerships for the 2030 Agenda, as well as providing links to (resources by) experienced practitioners and experts.
Susanne Salz’s key areas of expertise and interest are sustainable development and global governance. She is working as Advisor on multi-stakeholder-partnerships at GIZ. Previously, Susanne started the United Actors, an innovative start-up in the global governance scene, worked at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Action Campaign, at the Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP), ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, the OECD and UN Volunteers. In 2012, Susanne managed the involvement of local governments in the UN Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development on behalf of ICLEI. In her free time Susanne enjoys rowing and competes in 100km rowing races on the Rhine.