MSPs for the SDGs: Assessing the collaborative governance architecture of multi-stakeholder partnerships for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

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Multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) involving a diverse set of actors are assumed to reduce implementation gaps of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While existing research suggests that MSPs can complement state-led efforts in environmental and sustainability governance, a deeper understanding of the composition, thematic focus, and specific governance functions of MSPs for the SDGs is still wanting. In this article, we present the results of a survey of 192 MSPs registered on the United Nations Partnership Platform, analyzing their set-up and organization, partner composition, agency of partners, governance functions, SDG coverage, and effectiveness. We further complement existing research by investigating whether MSPs address SDG nexuses and relate our findings to previously identified interlinkages between the goals. Comparing our results to earlier studies, we find that MSPs have become more inclusive, involving more non-state actors overall, and as lead partners. Our results further indicate a complementary role of MSPs in SDG implementation by focusing on often underrepresented and cross-cutting goals such as climate action (SDG 13), quality education (SDG 4) and gender equality (SDG 5). However, there appears to be untapped potential for MSPs to capitalize on shared resources and capabilities to address combinations of SDGs that are likely to produce negative spillovers among each other. Moreover, we find partnerships between actors from multiple societal sectors to be potentially more effective than those involving only one societal sector.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100182
JournalEarth System Governance
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 01.08.2023

Bibliographical note

While the decision to contact the partnerships directly entailed a smaller sample size when compared to the totality of cases listed on the platform, the survey method offered important advantages: First, this approach ensured that only partnerships that have been or are currently “active” were included in our study. For there is reason to assume that a large part of the 4226 listed initiatives is no longer – or has never even been – active. For example, 15% of all survey invitations could not be delivered, mostly since the provided contact email was inexistent. This corroborates the claim that the UN failed to provide a clear mandate, political will and sufficient funding for effective monitoring, review and follow-up of partnerships (Beisheim and Simon, 2018). Further, the UN appears to use the platform to showcase action towards the SDGs. However, quite some of the initiatives that we contacted for our survey were not aware of their listing on the platform. To some degree, this can be attributed to the UN merging commitments from earlier conferences and action networks in one platform – including some that were held prior to the launch of the SDGs (see UN, 2022). In conjunction with unstructured, missing or outdated information about partnerships registered on the platform, the transparency and accountability of the UN database can at least be questioned. Second, we were able to scrutinize the SDGs addressed by MSPs though a two-stage selection process. In the first step, we asked respondents to indicate the SDGs that correspond to both the primary and secondary objectives of the partnership. In the second step, we only displayed the SDGs selected before and asked respondents to choose exclusively those that reflect the partnership's main purpose. This enabled us to reduce a bias by “box-ticking” all SDGs, which has been observed in comparable data bases (Coenen et al., 2022). It further helped us to create a refined data set for the analysis of SDG nexuses addressed. We consider a partnership to address an SDG nexus if it selected at least two goals as the primary objectives of their work. Third, by giving respondents the opportunity to comment freely on their input provided, we were able to retrieve additional insights about the partnerships that we would not have received by relying only on the information published at the platform.Based on our findings, we would like to conclude with an appeal to the UN system. First, we strongly encourage the UN to make the underlying data of their partnership platform readily available to the public, especially to advance research, knowledge generation, and ultimately, SDG implementation. Second, there appears to be much room for improvement regarding the monitoring, review and follow-up of partnerships registered. Currently, transparency and accountability seem limited, with data often being missing, incomplete or outdated. Further, some of the partnerships we contacted during our research process were not even aware of their listing on the platform, and others commented in the survey about the lacking support on behalf of the UN. Additionally, sound monitoring, review and follow-up could help reduce the opportunity for SDG- or blue-washing. Third, greater engagement with partnerships registered on the platform could accelerate SDG achievement. For example, drawing on scientific research, the UN could actively promote the establishment of MSPs for SDGs potentially involving many trade-offs and steer them towards nexus approaches to improve integrated implementation of the goals. They could further help to connect partnerships with a similar issue focus to foster resource and knowledge sharing. We recognize that all of this requires political will and sufficient resources. Yet, operating a transparent and accountable partnership platform – rather than using it as a vehicle for showcasing (sometimes questionable or inexistent) action – could help increase credibility and legitimacy, and mobilize more effective partnerships that as we have shown can serve important complementary functions in efforts to achieve the SDGs.

    Research areas

  • Sustainability Governance - Multi-stakeholder partnerships, Sustainable Development Goals, Governance, Interlinkages, Implementation, United Nations