Why Businesses Should Consider Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships to Achieve the SDGs

"We don’t have plan B because there is no planet B."
-- former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 global developmental goals known officially as The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs are built upon the principles agreed upon in “The Future We Want,” a non-binding document released by the United Nations (UN) after the 2012 Rio+20 Conference held in Brazil. Each goal has its own set of measurable targets to be met by 2030. They cover a wide area of developmental issues including climate change, health and education, sustainable cities, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and others.

This initiative follows the success of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were launched in 2000 with targets to be met by 2015. Many of the areas targeted for improvement—world hunger, gender parity, primary school enrollment and access to clean water, among others—saw improvement. Despite progress in these areas, however, many of the actual numerical targets were not met.

The missed targets could imply one of two things: either the goals were unrealistic and too ambitious, or we could have done better. Given that many of the targets were missed by only a narrow margin, the latter is more likely.

The SDGs 2030 were shaped by this post-2015 scenario in which the world almost achieved its developmental goals. The SDGs are a set of goals even more ambitious than the first. If the world failed to achieve the MDGs, what reason is there to think that the SDGs can be met? What new or improved approach are we banking on to lead to more successful results?

The answer: multi-stakeholder partnerships. There have been significant efforts since the launch of the SDGs to encourage the private sector to take a more active role in partnering with civil society and the public sector towards achieving these goals. Resources from business organizations can help the cause.

Why should businesses be interested?

A Tale of Two Types of Stakeholders

The world of business is very different from the world of government and civil society. Governments exist to promote the public good and fulfill their social contract with the public. Civil society exists in the same space but acts as a counter-balance to government. Both government and civil society can be said to share the same core goal of promoting the public good. The primary goal of businesses, on the other hand, is profit.

Over the long term, businesses cannot sustain and improve themselves if they are not profitable. There are many businesses that are ethical, responsible, and work toward a positive impact on society and the environment, but businesses need to be profitable as well.

The success of a partnership between two sectors with very different priorities is contingent upon both entities realizing positive results from that partnership. These incentives are the drivers behind multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Drivers of Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

For the public sector, the failure to meet some of the MDGs may have led to a dissatisfaction with the scale, scope and speed of sustainable development efforts, leading policymakers to seek new forms of assistance.

Financial aid for developing countries as a percentage of developed countries’ national incomes has been decreasing, due in part to the global financial crisis of 2008. The US economy lost at least USD22 trillion to the crisis. Statistics from the OECD revealed that in 2011 – three years after the crisis – aid to developing countries dropped by almost 3 percent. While it has been agreed since the 1970s that there should be a 0.7% ODA/GNI target (i.e. overall development assistance over gross national income), the actual average ODA/GNI percentage in the 2010s is about 0.3% -- despite increased wealth for many developed countries. This means that there is actually a shortfall of financial aid. The upside to this scenario is that people have started thinking outside the box of traditional donation to alleviate poverty. Partnering with businesses is one such solution.

The drivers for businesses are just as strong. Because profit is a core imperative, anything that threatens or boosts profit on a significant scale matters; one such thing is reputation. Nearly 80% of CEOs that responded to the UN Global Compact CEO Study 2016 see brand, trust and reputation as driving action on sustainability. With the impacts of climate change becoming more obvious and pronounced, customers and stakeholders may lose their trust and withdraw support from brands that are not sustainable.

A driver that has a more direct impact than reputation is access to new markets. There is a $2.5 trillion development investment gap in pursuing the SDGs, which represents an opportunity for companies to be involved and support the achievement of SDG targets. The SDGs are creating new demand for products, services, infrastructure, consulting expertise, data technologies and a host of other things necessary to achieve the targets for the 2030 agenda. The SDGs represent an opportunity for businesses to increase their profits while having a positive impact in the world.

With opportunities come risks. The opportunity to invest does not translate to absolute certainty of success and profit. A third driver for multi-stakeholder partnerships is that they help mitigate risk. Governments can help companies in many ways, especially if they are partners. Governments can offer financial incentives, and create policies and enabling environments that encourage risk-taking and innovation.

Ways in Which Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships Help Achieve the SDGs

Multi-stakeholder partnerships can help achieve the SDGs:

  • Facilitate inter-stakeholder dialogue on sustainability issues – Multi-stakeholder partnerships can spur dialogue among various social sectors regarding the sustainability issues affecting them and how these can be addressed. When developing these partnerships, companies can cite the effects of certain sustainability issues on their businesses and what they can do about these. Other stakeholders can follow suit, resulting in advocacy and action.
  • Combine resources, manpower and institutional capacities from the public and private sectors – Multi-stakeholder partnerships bring together and leverage capabilities from various sources. Consequently, participants can complement each other’s capacities. Businesses, for example, can address funding gaps in governments’ sustainability projects by investing their resources. With more resources at their disposal, governments’ sustainability projects will be more effective.
  • Pave the way for innovative approaches to reaching the SDGs – Multi-stakeholder partnerships compile a wide range of perspectives and problem-solving skills. They encourage the creation of innovative approaches to reaching the SDGs. Businesses can lend their planning, budgeting and auditing practices to multi-stakeholder partnerships, resulting in access to new markets and more efficient use of resources. This ensures that the benefits of the SDGs will be felt by as many sectors as possible.
  • Facilitate inter-sector knowledge transfer – Multi-stakeholder partnerships enable the sharing of information about sustainability issues across various sectors. Businesses that participate in multi-stakeholder partnerships can use their products and services to promote awareness of certain sustainability issues. A company involved in a sustainability partnership, for instance, can make its products using recycled materials and put recycling instructions on the labels of its products. By doing so, the company is able to spread awareness of recycling among consumers.

Types of Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

Multi-stakeholder partnerships can be quite specific in scope, dealing only with a narrow set of problems through one or few projects. Or, they can deal with complex, long-term issues that will require an entire program, as opposed to a single project. There are three types of partnerships that businesses can consider engaging in.

  • Knowledge-sharing multi-stakeholder partnerships. Sometimes, solutions already exist. Someone has the right idea, another person has the expertise and another has the network to make things happen. The problem is that these people may not know one another. Separated as they are, they are pieces to the larger puzzle, and knowledge and information sharing can bring them together.
  • Service-providing multi-stakeholder partnerships. There is a significant development investment gap when it comes to achieving the SDGs. The money has to come from somewhere, and the products, services and expertise that will be required to pursue the SDGs have to be provided by someone. The person or company with the foresight and vision to position themselves can benefit greatly from serving as a partnering service or solutions provider to a government or public agency.
  • Standard-setting multi-stakeholder partnerships. Sometimes solutions do not directly address a market demand, but help create favorable conditions for that market. Multi-stakeholder partnerships can give businesses a voice in what rules should be created and upheld in order to create an enabling environment that is beneficial for all stakeholders.

A Call for Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

Multi-stakeholder partnerships are important in achieving the SDGs. Achieving the SDGs requires a significant amount of resources, manpower and institutional capacities. National governments and the United Nations cannot accomplish the SDGs by themselves.

Businesses have a role to play in achieving the 2030 agenda, ensuring that they do well and do good. Multi-stakeholder partnerships support brand reputation, create new markets and mitigate risk. Further, sustainability and development issues can undermine long-term profitability.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships enable businesses and governments to pool together resources and skills, enabling them to come up with better innovations to achieve the SDGs within a shorter timeframe. When the SDGs are achieved faster and more effectively, both businesses and governments can prosper.

ADEC Innovations is a leading provider of ESG solutions, with expertise in delivering fully-integrated consulting, software and data management services. We help governments and organizations improve performance by recognizing challenges and providing effective solutions.