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How Partnerships Can Turbo Charge Progress on the SDGs

In 2015, the world adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end inequities such as poverty, hunger, illiteracy, energy access and gender bias by 2030. Ending these inequities is urgent: an estimated 250 million people will suffer from acute hunger by the end of 2020; more than 1.6 billion children and youth in 190 countries – the majority in low-income countries – do not have adequate educational opportunities; and women are experiencing a disproportionately higher level of job losses than men due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop is the ever-increasing threat to life, livelihoods and the planet from climate change.

These serious and significant challenges require collaboration and collective action among governments, businesses and civil society organizations. Such transformative action is particularly essential now. The global recession from the COVID-19 pandemic will make it even more difficult to achieve these goals, but also provides a renewed mandate to tackle them. Maintaining the status quo and achieving incremental change will not sufficiently meet these challenges.

The world needs transformative change led by multistakeholder partnerships. In recent years, many partnerships formed specifically to address global challenges, leading to literally thousands of multistakeholder partnerships worldwide. Identifying partnerships on a transformative pathway and accelerating their progress offers the best opportunity to effectively meet these challenges and accelerate substantial change.

WRI’s new report, A Time for Transformative Partnerships: How Multistakeholder Partnerships can Accelerate the UN Sustainable Development Goals identifies the three qualities of transformation that should guide multistakeholder partnerships; the unique contributions of government, business and civil society sectors; and four key success factors for high-performing partnerships. By considering all of these, partnerships can set themselves up on pathway for true transformative change.

Three Main Characteristics of Transformation

Partnerships operate within a system, which are elements and interconnections with a function or purpose. For example, the food system includes seed companies, farmers, livestock, grocery stores and consumers purchasing the food. The report identifies three main characteristics for transformation within such systems:

  1. Transformation is systemic. It occurs when changes or shifts to a system set it on a new development path. For example, people in many sub-Saharan African villages now rely on solar-powered microgrids for electricity to cook, rather than wood burning. These grids are cost-effective and provide power to rural communities that are not connected to urban or national grids. Such individuals have successfully shifted from an unsustainable to sustainable way of securing power, illustrating the systemic nature of change.
  2. Transformation is long-term and sustained. Transitions are not immediate; they take time and patience. Once transformative changes do occur, they can happen relatively quickly and last over the long term due to their self-reinforcing nature. 
  3. Transformation disrupts the status quo. For example, moving from fossil fuel-generated electricity to renewable energy disrupts the current energy landscape because harvesting and converting the sun and wind is an entirely different way of generating electricity compared to extracting and combusting fossil fuels.

These three characteristics can help partnerships understand the overall objective of their transformative journey. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is a transformative partnership that exemplifies these characteristics. Founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Bank, the partnership brings together private sector vaccine manufacturers, local governments and civil society organizations to provide equitable access to vaccines in emerging countries.

By pooling vaccine demand, Gavi disrupted the status quo through removing commercial risks that typically prevent vaccine manufacturers from serving low-income countries. The partnership takes a systemic approach, addressing issues throughout the vaccine lifecycle that contribute to low vaccination rates. Gavi also works with countries to strengthen local healthcare systems and engages local communities to accelerate vaccine access. The partnership expects market-shaping activities to last long-term, as nearly all countries that formerly received support from Gavi continue to purchase vaccines at the same price negotiated by the partnership.

Maximizing the Contributions of All Stakeholders

Successful partnerships understand what each stakeholder brings to the table and how to leverage these strengths to align on a unified vision. For example, governments enable change through policies and support, while businesses often bring technology and innovation to allow for scaling a partnership. Civil society organizations play important roles in providing credibility, knowledge and community access. Understanding these different contributions can help partnerships leverage each other’s skill sets and define partnership roles and responsibilities.

TRANSFORM is a five-year partnership program between Unilever, the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Ernst & Young that supports innovative social enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia through grant funding and bespoke business support. TRANSFORM aims to enable these enterprises to develop scalable market-based solutions that improve the health, environment, livelihoods and well-being of the lowest-income households. The partnership also supported over 45 projects in 11 countries, impacting the lives of nearly a million beneficiaries. This includes ten projects with businesses that are providing clean and affordable energy to low-income households, unlocking opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and Myanmar.

Partnership Success Factors

The report surveyed 41 multi-stakeholder partnerships working on SDGs in lower income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to identify the most important success factors for partnerships with transformation potential. Each of these partnerships received support or recognition from P4G, the Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 initiative, which WRI hosts. Out of 14 commonly reported partnership success factors, these four success factors (illustrated by the highlighted partnerships) are most common among partnerships with high transformative potential:

  1. Clear articulation of the system of interest.

Partnerships with high transformation potential are better able to develop a strong understanding of the system they want to influence and in which they operate, as well as the conditions — such as policies or relationships — that must shift to move the needle on the problem.

The IIX Women's Livelihood Bond SeriesTM (WLB Series) aims to transform the global financial system by mobilizing capital for women’s empowerment through innovative financial instruments. The partnership recognized the importance of developing a holistic understanding of its system from the start and focused on a specific subset of countries in the Asia-Pacific region. This enabled the partnership to create clear boundaries for its activities while ensuring it added value to each market.

WLB Series targets specific sectors like clean energy and sustainable agriculture. The WLB Series successfully closed an $8.5 million and $12 million issuance, demonstrating the scalability, replicability and overall power of investing in women’s empowerment.

  1. Jointly agreed upon transformation vision, intermediate goals and activities.

Partnerships with higher transformation potential tend to excel at establishing a joint transformation vision and intermediate goals that align with the transformation characteristics, a strong systems understanding and the SDGs.

Africa GreenCo aims to increase private-sector investment in clean energy in sub-Saharan Africa by acting as a creditworthy intermediary to reduce risk and create a more dynamic power market in the region. The partnership aligned stakeholders across the power systems — from developers and investors to national governments — to define and align on a partnership vision and goals. Through an iterative and participatory process, Africa GreenCo developed a master vision and goals document that captures the partnership strategy. Updating this document regularly enables partnership stakeholders to stay focused through changing market conditions.

  1. Strong monitoring, evaluation, learning and reporting (MELR) mechanisms with systems thinking.

Partnerships with high transformation potential tend to have a robust performance tracking system in place that incorporates systems thinking into MELR. Systems thinking involves adopting practices to help partnerships understand their influence on system conditions and their contribution to transformation.

Courtauld Commitment 2025 ​is a multistakeholder partnership recognized for its MELR process and success in measurably reducing food loss and waste in the United Kingdom by 20% since 2015. Convening stakeholder Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) provides member companies with clear data collection and reporting protocols, as well as two dedicated analysts who focus on cleaning, validating and aggregating data. An external auditor or peer reviewer then verifies progress against the partnership’s targets.

  1. Capacity to engage external stakeholders.

Partnerships with high transformation potential are effective at tackling existing power structures and revising them by engaging champions (both internally and externally) and frontline communities to advocate for change. These stakeholders can include investors, community groups, governmental organizations, nonprofits, associations and academic institutions.

Energise Africa​, an impact investing platform by Ethex and Lendahand, gained support from stakeholder networks, investors and other CSOs to provide affordable finance to solar businesses in sub-Saharan Africa. The partnership cultivated relationships with grassroots CSOs, collaborating on events and enabling Energise Africa to connect with new investor groups. Once people invested with Energise Africa, the partnership’s repeat investment rate is above 90%, and currently serves nearly half a million people.

Collaborating to Drive Successful Transformation

The United Nation dubbed this the “Decade of Action,” devoted to realizing the promise of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. Meeting the SDGs and taking decisive action on climate change requires a renewed commitment and investment in creating transformative change. Multistakeholders partnerships are ideally positioned to drive such change, but only if they rise to the challenge of getting on a transformational pathway.

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