Zombie Partnerships: Are we about to see the Multi-Stakeholder Partnership Bubble Burst? Could we be seeing upto 84% failure?

(This is based on my presentation to the HLPF Partnership Exchange and reflections afterwards)

Zombie partnership for house building
I had been asked to talk on ‘Building an Effective Monitoring Framework System for Partnerships.’ But as I reflect on the conversation and learning the term Zombie Partnerships (which means ones that do not really exist but are still being reported as real on the UN web site) originated by David Steven and Eric Kashambuzi in their 2016 report ‘Turning Ambition into Reality: Platforms and Partnerships for Delivering Agenda 2030’. I understand soon to be available on t-shirts in all sizes from the UN bookshop. I will come back to the issue of Zombie Partnerships later in the blog. Yes, this is a way of you reading the whole blog.


“Partnerships for sustainable development are multi-stakeholder initiatives voluntarily undertaken by Governments, intergovernmental organizations, major groups and others stakeholders, which efforts are contributing to the implementation of inter-governmentally agreed development goals and commitments.” (UN, 2018)

My engagement with Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships (MSPs) goes back to the preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). At the time, I was the Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum and we co-organized some of the first workshops on MSPs in 2000 and 2001.

Stakeholder Forum was a huge advocate of the idea that engaging stakeholders in the decision-making process would provide them with a sense of ownership of the outcome. The outcome would then be something they would engage in helping to deliver the MSPs.

Stakeholder Forum Implementation Conference at WSSD 2002
The WSSD agreement, ‘The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation,’ was based on the concept that Type 1 are government agreed goals and targets these would be in part supported by Type 2’s, which were Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships. These MSPs were NOT a replacement for the commitments that governments had made, but rather augmented these commitments.

WSSD in 2002 was meant to resemble the SDGs that were agreed to in 2015. This became impossible because of the impact of 9/11 and the election of President Bush. I go into more depth on this issue and the history of sustainable development in Only One Earth, the book I co-authored with Maurice Strong – the father of sustainable development – and Michael Strauss.

For WSSD, Stakeholder Forum didn’t just talk about MSPs. It worked over a nine-month period to launch 26 Type 2 MSPs at the Implementation Conference. You can read about the approach and the MSPs here.  

One of the problems with the MSPs launching around WSSD was the lack of guiding principles and effective guidance more broadly. At the final preparatory meeting for WSSD in Bali in July 2002, a set of what became known as the Bali Guiding Principles was put forward but was not negotiated.

In 2003 at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (the precursor to the High Level Political Forum (HLPF)), a set of criteria and guidelines was created for partnerships and can be read here. These were then endorsed through ECOSOC resolution 61.2002.

These criteria should have guided the MSPs following up WSSD, but there was not any mechanism to judge or delist them from the UN website if they had failed or just stopped working. The academic review of the whole of the WSSD database showed that up     to       70%   of them were inactive/useless      (Pattberg      et       al.      2012). Zombie partnerships???     

In fact, all partnerships were asked to do at the time was:
  • "Create a user profile on the e-DESA Information Portal;
  • Login to the e-DESA Information Portal;
  • Click the link to the Partnerships Portal;
  • Once on the partnerships database page, click "Submit a New Partnership Registration;”
  • Fill in information about your partnership in the form;
  • Click "Submit Completed Form.”
There was no oversight to see how partnerships were performing or a requirement to report on their performance and outcomes. You could submit a report, but partnerships that did not submit reports did not face any repercussions.

MSPs and the SDGs

A number of people in the UN administration, member state governments, and stakeholders who had lived through the WSSD period and the MSPs launch were concerned that we might go down a ‘1000 flowers bloom’ path again and not learn from the past.

This spurred them to initiate an early discussion on the need for the UN to develop up-to-date principles, criteria and guidelines for any MSPs that might be launched to help deliver the SDGs and their targets.

In 2015 many recognized the need for updates and clearer set of principles and guidelines by those that had been engaged in the MSP process over the 13 years since Johannesburg.

I wrote the first paper – Multi-stakeholder partnerships: Making them work for the Post-2015 Development Agendaaddressing the need for member States to put in place more effective systems for MSPs for the April 2015 ECOSOC Partnership Forum. Some of the key recommendations worth still considering are:

  • Companies engaged in partnerships with the United Nations could be asked to commit to the UN Global Compact Principles;
  •  For the sustainable development goals, one possible approach could be for a meta-partnership to be created for each target which would then oversee the contribution of those interested in contributing to deliver on the targets and report to the relevant Task Managers. (Dodds, 2015)
A workshop took place to address issues raised in this and those raised in a second commissioned paper by UNDESA produced by Dr. Marianne Beisheim and Dr. Nils Simon from the SWP Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.

UNDESA has since held three workshops to advance this discussion to a decision by member States. What we have seen is a reluctance from developed countries to develop a better and more up-to-date set of principles and multi-stakeholder partnerships for implementing the 2030 Agenda.

I would like to highlight a couple of very interesting ideas in Marianne’s paper. It suggested grouping partnerships in three ways. The literature (Nelson 2002; Pattberg et al. 2012; Beisheim and Liese 2014) features many typologies, mostly focusing on the core function of the partnership, the three main types being:
  • MSPs for sharing knowledge: this would be exchanging knowledge between various stakeholders and disseminating knowledge to help to deliver the goals and targets (e.g. GWP- Global Water Partnership);
  • MSPs for providing services to deliver the goals and targets (e.g. GAVI– the Vaccine Alliance);
  • MSPs for setting standards this would establishing standards and norms in areas where there are currently no (or no adequate) regulatory mechanisms to advance the delivery of the goals and targets (e.g. AWS - The Alliance for Water Stewardship)
The second idea was to consider  the level of due diligence needed:
“new set of guidelines could build on existing ones and should differentiate between MSPs with UN involvement and MSPs outside the UN system. Accordingly, when it comes to monitoring and reporting, for the former there need to be robust due diligence and mandatory reporting procedures. While these MSPs should be required to report to the UN bodies in charge, the latter could be asked to self-report to the Partnerships for SDGs online platform. In any case, there should be a concise template for reporting.” (Beisheim, 2016)

Again, the recommendations from the paper and the two-day retreat by member States did not lead to an agreement on a new set of principles, criteria and guidance.

There was some discussion at the April 2016 Partnership Fair on “improving the governance of multi-stakeholder partnerships for the 2030 Agenda” and discussion around ways to promote shared governance of multi-stakeholder initiatives, including through transparency, accountability and building trust. Unfortunately, partnerships are now being placed on the UN website as MSP commitments, without any new intergovernmental guidance.  

In late 2016 there was a third attempt to try and move forward the issue of MSP principles, criteria and guidelines with another workshop for member States and another paper this time – Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships and the 2030 Agenda Challenges and options for oversight at the United Nations by Wade Hoxtell, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). The 2017 Partnership Forum was preceded a a day-long workshop the day before by the Friends of Governance for Sustainable Development, which was led by the governments of Germany, Romania, the Republic of Korea, Mexico and Nigeria. This workshop enabled member States to be briefed on three papers with idea of principles: one around private-public partnerships being developed at the UNECE, another around the Committee of Experts for Public Administration, and a third by Minu Hemmati and Felix Dodds drawing on the previous papers on MSPs. This ensured the most effective discussion on MSPs to date. We even saw some agreement that no company that has been delisted from the UN Global Compact (over 6000 companies) should be on the UN SDG partnership website. However, we still have no intergovernmental decision.

This has resulted in a move by many of the people who have engaged in this discussion over the last three years to move outside the UN to set up a MSP Charter. It is hoped that this will nurture new partnerships, improve the quality of those in existence and might even include a process for certifying partnerships. This might also help to quantify their impact to SDG implementation.

The approach shouldn’t be ‘let a thousand flowers bloom,’ which was what happened after WSSD – when we saw the majority of them die but should instead be a focus on significant MSPs that can quantify advance against the SDG targets such as accessibility to water and hygiene. So, what should we monitor? We should monitor what each partnership is actually delivering against the targets. If partnerships aren’t delivering, then they should have plans to do so in the future and they should be able to answer why they currently aren't. SDGs are the goals the international community declared as priorities and they should guide everyone’s efforts.

It is clear not all partnerships are about actually delivering the SDG targets; some are data partnerships, some are capacity building partnerships, and some are knowledge sharing partnerships. It is necessary to understand these differences so that we know the types of partnerships and have a clear idea of their value. Again, I think Marianne’s suggestion of grouping partnerships under, knowledge, standards and service is a good one.

MSPs existing listing requirements

So if you look at the MSP UN web site to list your partnership you need to include:

  • Title of partnership
  • Partners
  • Select SDG and relevant targets
  • Objective
  • Coordinating mechanism
  • Implementation methodologies
  • Arrangements for capacity building and technology transfer
  •  Deliverables
  •  Resources
The partnerships are meant to report each year.  There had been an intention to use the Samoa pathway traffic lights approach to MSPs and their listing.
Green if they report yellow if they haven’t reported in two years, red if they haven’t reported in three years and delisted after 4 years.

I strongly support this approach.

MSPs and Industry

I would like take this opportunity to also address the involvement of industry with the partnerships.

There are now over 6000 companies that have been delisted from the UN Global Compact because they have not been bothered, able or willing to report on their delivery against the 10 Global Compact Principles.

No MSP that has a company that has been delisted by the UNGC should be in the UN MSP database.

I would go as far as saying unless a company is a member of the UNGC, then they shouldn’t be on the UN partnerships database or any UN database for that matter. UNEP is adopting this approach with its new due diligence policy. If a company isn’t yet a member of the UNGC, they will be given two years to join. The same approach is being taken with the Peoples First Principles for Public Private Partnerships for the SDGs being advanced by the UNECE.

At the HLPF event some argued that there should be no limit on industry being part of a partnership. What was fascinating was that the industry itself took the floor to say they disagreed as this only promotes freeloaders.

Do we know which is a zombie and which isn't?
Zombie Partnerships and the SDGs

So, this is the bit you were most interested in. Marianne Beisheim being the great academic she is, did something very interesting, she looked at the SDG MSP database to document how many partnerships had reported:
“only 409 progress updates for 3,834 partnerships/commitments” (Beisham, 2018)

This means 84% of MSPs have NOT reported.

There are a number of reasons for this one that some maybe be just Voluntary Initiatives from Rio+20 which are an initiative by a single organization to do something. These should anyway be separated out into a different section and should anyway require reporting against what they promised in Rio+20. You can’t mix together oranges and apples. Second some may be reporting to somewhere else such as the UN Global Compact it shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure cooperation so that that report also is on the partnership web site.  Of course, any real attempt to approach the MSP process effectively by the UN will need much more resources but ill come to that later.

Even saying all this it would still be very true to say that if we used the traffic light system, a large proportion should be delisted in September 2019 and a lot should be red flagged now….and would be about to be delisted in time for the Heads of State review of the 2030 Agenda in September 2019.

This is not a complete surprise for me. I with Minu Hemmati organized a MSP workshop for the MSPs that were relevant to the 2017 HLPF in 2017 middle weekend of the HLPF. We emailed them and NOT one responded. Do any of them really still exist??

Only delisting will force reporting. If they don’t care about reporting they shouldn’t be listed. The UN Global Compact works the same way. If you don’t report as a company then you are delisted.

Final reflections

I heard the argument in 2002, and now again, that monitoring needs to be useful to partnerships rather than simply an extra chore.

Monitoring enables learning, and learning is never optional – it is essential for everyone’s work.

At the moment the approach seems to be more focused on the quantity of partnerships rather than their quality.

Partnerships are already required to report to their funders and investors. They should also be reporting on their contribution to delivering the SDG targets. We should be asking them to report to the UN as a matter of pride, a matter of quality and a matter of ambition. The UN should be able to report which contributions MSPs have made against whichever SDG is being reviewed.  Ideally this would enable aggregated impacts and outcomes to be clear and any problems that they have faced truly being able to be addressed. This isn’t as difficult as it seems in 2004 I went to see the EU team dealing with the delivery of the water MDG and on the wall they had a graph showing what they were delivering against the target. The EU produced reports on their partnerships in 2003 and 2004 against the MDG and WSSD targets.

The contributions should then be available for all to see on the UN website and an ability to challenge the data should also be available.

Making MSPs better will require much more support. This might, and in my view should, include a UN system approach where affiliated organizations can offer training and assist with capacity building. Perhaps we need a meta-partnership comprised of all partnerships working on each of the targets so that they can build and share knowledge and identify challenges early.

Is a game you can play or is it?
Good partnerships need to be replicated, but we don’t yet have a mechanism to do that. Replication and scaling will need to be a focus of our work as we move forward if we want our impact to grow beyond a few good examples and achieve comprehensive transformation across all partnerships. This is true for all efforts towards the SDGs, and MSPs are no exception.

For MSPs to take their place their needs to be an influx of substantive funding both for partnerships and for the UN to monitor and support them. Only then will MSPs be able to try and reach their potential as a mechanism to help deliver the SDGs.

As we move towards the review of the HLPF and ECOSOC over the next 18 months then we need to look to increase the space for partnership learning. One way of this would be to also increase the space of the Partnership Forum as well as the space of the partnership Exchange and to utilize the biannual Partnership Resolution to address any challenges and policy requirements that emerge.  ANother world be to host Partenrship sharing at the national and regional elvel. Not doing this seriously weakens our capacity to achieve the ambition behind the SDGs. And damages the reputation of MSPs.
Preparing to go out to look for Zombie Partnerships with my friend Michael in his Zombie Response Vehicle


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