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Multi-stakeholder partnerships in the post-2015 development agenda: Time to get down to earth?


Karaki, Karim, 2015, Multi-stakeholder partnerships in the post-2015 development agenda: Time to get down to earth?, ECDPM, 9 October 2015.

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The extremely ambitious 2030 Agenda requires the development community to act collectively, and commit adequate resources to tackle substantial and increasingly interrelated challenges: climate change, poverty, gender inequalities, and more. Acknowledging the complexity of addressing such issues, the development community underlined the need for collaboration between national or subnational governments, private sector actors and civil society actors. As a way to pull  together a set of complementary and reinforcing resources, capabilities and knowledge, inclusive multi-stakeholder partnerships will be a key instrument for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda.

As such, their role in advancing sustainable development is recognised both in the draft outcome document of the third conference on Financing for Development, and the SDGs Agenda, where two targets for multi-stakeholder partnerships are described under SDG 17.16 and 17.17: “mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technologies and financial resources to support the achievement of sustainable development goals”; and “encourage and promote effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships”.  The recent OECD Development and Co-operation Report (2015) demonstrates similar ambition and enthusiasm for multi-stakeholder partnerships, which are considered as “powerful drivers for development”. The year 2015 has therefore witnessed an agreement on the prominent role that multi-stakeholder partnerships will play in the development field in the next 15 years.

But are multi-stakeholder partnerships just “the next big idea supposed to change the world”? Over the last decade, they’ve raised expectations which may be hard to live up to.  A report based on analysis of 330 type II partnerships (defined as ‘collaborations between national or subnational governments, private sector actors and civil society actors who form voluntary transnational agreements in order to meet specific sustainable development goals’), concludes that “the overall picture (of multi-stakeholder partnerships) is rather sobering.”

There is therefore a gap between the policy and the practice that needs to be addressed. One key element of this policy-practice gap relates to the pressure on partnerships to show success (as noticed by Richard Northcote in the DCED Annual meeting, 2015).

Quick wins vs. transformative objectives

The growing expectations placed on multi-stakeholder partnerships have had two major consequences: first they raised high if not unrealistic expectations of their potential for sustainable development; and secondly they raised visibility, bringing with it reputational risk. As a result, engaging with multi-stakeholder partnerships can create a lot of pressure before even starting to implement.

Once in implementation phase, pressure to deliver results as soon as possible and possible failure to (fully) meet  expectations further create  pressure  both internally (inside the partnerships and the members’ organisations) and externally (external stakeholders, e.g. donors, local government).

This raises a dilemma: should partnerships adapt the scope and/or quality of their goal  focusing on quick wins and low-hanging fruits? Or should partnerships keep on focusing on their long term and transformative goal, which is originally their raison d’être – and learn from their experience and challenges encountered at the risk of harming their reputation? Or should nascent partnerships be hidden until meaningful results have been achieved? This is the suggestion of Richard Northcote from the BayerMaterialScience Group as a way to avoid such dilemmas.  Besides avoiding increased pressures, it could potentially discourage partnerships motivated purely by reputational gains, fostering those aiming at effectively learning and contributing to the SDGs. This also raises debates about  how to shift the focus of results accountability from communication purposes to organizational learning and transparency/legitimacy building?

Deconstructing the myth of multi-stakeholder partnerships

While research and public attention has been focusing on partnerships’  impacts, other dimensions of partnerships are relatively ignored such as their internal functioning and governance. So to make these debates more fruitful and address the gap between policy and practice, the debate must move from a theoretical to a more practical level, by studying e.g.

(i) partnership’s process and governance (which in 2014 was said to be terra incognita, (Beisheim)

(ii) its drivers and challenges

(iii) the influence of the institutional context on partnerships.

Understanding how multi-stakeholder partnerships really work will help drawing a better picture of not just what is desirable but what is feasible. Only such insights can help policy-makers and donors supporting, fostering and incentivising effective multi-stakeholder partnerships. This will be the focus of our forthcoming papers, which will present a literature review about multi-stakeholder partnerships and their subsequent dimensions.

This shift from judging to learning may be the key to genuinely using partnerships to respond to the complex challenges that development policy must address.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

In addition to the Department for International Development (DFID),United Kingdom funding, this publication benefits from structural support by ECDPM’s institutional partners Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.

Photo: Workers maintain the thermal power station at Takoradi, Ghana, June 21, 2006. Courtesy of Jonathan Ernst/World Bank/Flickr

1. Edited by Marianne Beisheim and Andrea Liese . (February 2014). Transnational Partnerships . [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 7 September 2015).




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Karim Karaki


2015-10-16 11:02:23

Dear Marcel, thank you for your insights, and (y)our focus which is not about judging partnerships, but about understanding them and learning. This link between multi-stakeholder partnerships effectiveness and power imbalances has been made in the literature about multi-stakeholder partnerships, that's why I was curious to hear more about this perspective. As you rightly say, different partners bring different resources and expertise, and what has been advanced by scholar is that financial resources are usually perceived as more valuable than others. Therefore partners bringing financial resources would tend to have more power and influence over the partnership. That's why I was curious to hear your perspective on the matter. Thank you also for sharing and highlighting two important facts: (i) perception on resources change over time, and varies depending on the objective that partnerships pursued; (ii) accountability (through transparency, monitoring and evaluation of results) is a key aspect for sustainable multi-stakeholder partnerships. Karim

Marcel Vernooij


2015-10-16 10:19:55

Dear Karim, We have not specifically evaluated power in the partnerships concerned, but are continuously 'learning by doing' in our partnerships and for this work together with among others the Partnership Resource Centre . It is valuable to look at power balances, but against the overall background that partnership are by nature voluntary. At he same time partners are in the course of the development of a partnership signing and living up to commitments, vis-à-vis each other and their own constituencies. So voluntary does not mean that participation is for free, nor that the choice to no longer participate in a partnership can be easily made without impact. Furthermore, the (perceived) power of a stakeholder is something else than the (materialized) influence in a partnership. For example: companies are often powerful in economic terms, governments in the legal domain, science in information gathering/analysis, civil society in morality/publicity. This may be a starting point in a partnership, but each of these factors can be dominant for a specific objective in a partnership, which may also shift over time. We furthermore don't think that power as such in partnerships is to be judged as positive/negative, nor that there is a direct link between (balances in) power/influence and the effectiveness of the partnership. Again, a fair share of results will count and a transparent, pragmatic approach can keep a partnership inspiring for all stakeholders. Marcel Vernooij, Sustainable Economic Development Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hague, The Netherlands

Karim Karaki


2015-10-15 11:20:07

Dear Marcel, thank you for your comment. Indeed stating clearly and explicitly interests, motivations and objectives seems to be a key attribute of sustainable and effective partnerships. This is sound basis for understanding decision making process within partnerships. That being said, an interesting issue I find is to link the decision making process with the power balance within a partnership, and see e.g. whether or not power imbalances ultimately affect the effectiveness of partnerships. In the case it would, then an interesting question is about what can be done to prevent power imbalance and/or to rebalance power within partnerships. If you have ever come across this issue through e.g. the three cases you highlighted in your blog (Rabobank, CBI, Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety) or in others, I'd be very interested to hear them. Best, Karim

Marcel Vernooij


2015-10-12 19:47:54

Indeed, it is important not to see multistakeholder partnerships as the solution for everything, but as another option to get and wotk together. In my earlier blog at ECDPM on partnerships, I have underlined to be transparent on each partners motivation and objectives, and pragmatically move forward. See:

Karim Karaki


2015-10-12 13:05:53

Thank you David for your comment. To clarify things, I believe the purpose of this blog was to actually shift the debate around multi-stakeholder partnerships from their impact/"reputation" to how they actually work, taking thus into account e.g. governance as a critical factor affecting the effectiveness and outcomes of partnerships. So I am glad to see that you picked up on it to suggest insightful publications about multi-stakeholder partnerships' governance related challenges. I can also recommend an interesting study which was also published by the Center for Global development - Besides, a forthcoming study about multi-stakeholder partnerships will actually be focusing on governance to analyse the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder partnerships. Less importantly now, reputation matters do affect every partner, from large corporations as you pointed it out, to development partners, CSOs and government - could be their credibility, funding, etc. But as you rightly said, this is the least worrying issue.

David Sogge


2015-10-09 20:00:09

In noting elevated expectations riding on multistakeholder approaches, the writer has called attention to important issues. However risks to the reputations of large corporations may be the least of those we need to be worrying about. For as a general method of governance, multistakeholderism poses serious risks to democratic practice and public accountability. Such vital matters have been researched by the Boston University's Center for Governance and Sustainability.. See A synthesis of findings appears in the 'State of Civil Society 2014' report by Civicus. It is available at:

Trade, investment and financeBusiness and DevelopmentCivil societyPublic Private Partnerships (PPPs)Africa