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

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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.
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