By Irina Bolgari

The 17th SDG on the 2030 agenda states that the global community should strengthen and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, hinting to the importance of historical precedents and learning from past experiences. Nevertheless, the 2030 agenda has set in motion a global quest for establishing new multistakeholder partnerships, often forgetting to look back at the lessons learned from old partnerships and neglecting the revitalization component of the goal itself.

The history of partnerships, the factors that made partnerships work in the past and common mistakes that must be avoided by future partnerships are often overlooked and pushed to the side at the discussion table, even though multistakeholder partnerships are not a recent development. This is a very troubling trend, especially when the research shows that the failure rate of partnership ranges between 20 and 80 per cent. So how can we move away from the 80 per cent failure rate and build more partnerships that succeed? The answer is to follow a structured approach based on preparation, management and communication. Unfortunately, if the global community continues to establish partnerships in isolation from one another, without taking account of past successes and failures, and without learning from each other, failure rates will remain in the high, and building resilient societies and reaching global SDGs will need to be pushed further into the future.

To illustrate the problems that arise when partnership projects operate in parallel to one another, let’s look at the WASH sector and more specifically the problem of safe water provision. One Google search on safe water provision programs will reveal the myriad of actors and programs that operate in this field. At the local level, there are governmental efforts and programs, as well as, multiple NGOs operating all over the world: raising funds, building wells, conducting awareness-raising campaigns and trying to bring safe water to people. There are also at least 50 major companies that have safe water programs as part of their CSR, including Nestle, Siemens, Volkswagen, Voila and HSBC. At the international level, there are intergovernmental organizations and various UN bodies that oversee water provision programs. The UN has a dedicated body to water, UN Water, whose responsibility is to oversee and coordinate all water-related programs conducted by 30 different UN bodies.

Partnerships are also common in the field: governments support the efforts of NGOs and private companies to provide better water facilities to vulnerable people. Additionally, it is common for private companies to reach out to local communities and local NGOs for their support in carrying out water-related programs. For example, the HSBC water programme is a partnership between HSBC, WWF, WaterAid and Earthwatch and aims to provide and protect water sources, inform and educate communities in need, and enable people to prosper and drive economic development across the world. The partnership is highly successful; it has already given 1.6 million people access to safe water and 2.5 million people access to improved sanitation and provided numerous training to local businesses on water risks related to pollution and efficiency. This is just one of the many examples of partnerships that have been formed in the WASH sector and have helped many people gain access to safe water.

Imagine the results that could be achieved if partners in these initiatives could share lessons that they have learned via a simple communication platform. Furthermore, imagine if new actors interested in such initiatives could join in existing efforts or contribute advice and resources to have a greater, more sustainable impact. The water scarcity problem would have higher chances of being explored from different angles and the probability of effective solutions would also increase. The problem is that currently, partnerships are most likely to happen on an ad hoc basis, in various geographical locations with very little coordination between new and old programs.

Moreover, the WASH sector illustrates how simply having an interest in solving an issue and forming partnerships to do so is not enough. The long list of likely actors and the partnerships that they form succeed mostly in providing narrower solutions to a problem that requires a broad action plan. With the SDG 6 on WASH, we need to ask some important questions when we build new partnerships. Will we replicate and cannibalise partnerships that already exist or will we maximize the potential of the ones that are already out there? Will we learn from successes and failures of actions taken in this field so far or will we start fresh with a novel approach? Will we involve more new actors or will we continue working with the people that have experience in the field? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Moreover, these shouldn’t be either or questions. Maybe we can make them all work or maybe we can come up with an approach that combines all sides of the new and the old in a way that brings all actors and stakeholders to the same discussion table.

The message for the global community is short and clear: no country can address global problems alone, just like no business or society sector can. We definitely need partnerships to address the root cause of global issues. But we don’t want partnerships to become a matter of quantity rather than quality. In order to avoid building more rather than better quality partnerships, we need to learn from each other and from the past. The global issues that we face will not be solved just because 50 or 500 new partnerships were established. What we can do is facilitate communication between different sectors and actors and let organizations such as Alliance4Impact facilitate a process of learning based on cooperation and lessons taken from the past into the future.

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