Partnerships are widely discussed but poorly understood in negotiations around the 2030 development agenda mostly because people always mean something different when they refer to "partnerships," "multi-stakeholder partnerships" or "public-private partnerships."  Confusing matters further is the persistent reference to the "Global Partnership for (sustainable) Development," which typically refers specifically to the understandings reached in the Monterrey Consensus, a centerpiece of which is the commitment by donors to contribute 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) to developing countries in the form of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to help them achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals (the "Global Partnership for Development," was included as the 8th Millennium Development Goal). 

Public-private, multi-stakeholder partnerships at the global, national and local levels all present tremendous opportunities for business to demonstrate its unique value proposition to contribute to sustainable development (see McKinsey, 2009). These partnerships have taken on more prominence with the growing corporate awareness that global challenges - like health - if left unaddressed can have considerable economic impacts which can undermine competitiveness.

Some of the more prominent examples are so-called "global partnerships" that emerged in response to the challenge of fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals. Initiatives such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the GAVI Alliance on vaccines galvanized the global community, including governments, business and civil society to address major challenges, particularly in health.

There was also a flurry of activity initiated at the Rio+20 Conference, leading to the announcement of hundreds of initiatives, which have grown to include over one thousand in the two years since Rio+20. These commitments are tracked in the SD in Action Registry, which was launched shortly after Rio+20 to track all official registered voluntary initiatives and to facilitate access to other registries and initiatives that promote sustainable development (known as "Action Networks") that focus on particular themes, such as Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4All), the UN Global Compact, Every Woman Every Child (EWEC), the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI), the Action Network on Sustainable Transport and the action network on Partnerships for Small Island Developing States.  The current draft of the Financing for Development Outcome Document recognizes the contribution of these partnerships and funds and calls for their reinforcement, as well as new initiatives.   

It should be kept in mind, however, that there are many kinds of public-private partnerships operating that are not global funds or registered with the U.N., such as many of the initiatives catalogued on this site (see Business+ SDGs to explore Goal by Goal).

"Public-private partnerships" (PPPs) in the more traditional sense are typically joint venture projects to build large-scale public infrastructure projects or other physical plants, such as schools or hospitals, or for the delivery of basic social services, such water, sanitation and electricity, and more recently internet connectivity.  There are considerable misconceptions about the relative costs and benefits of PPPs that have come to the fore in the current 2030 development agenda debates.  Beyond a general distrust of outsourcing core governmental functions to the private sector, there are claims that PPPs are often more costly to governments than purely publicly-funded projects.

But these criticisms may not withstand scrutiny.  Certainly there have been examples of poorly planned and executed PPPs, but these cannot serve as a basis for dismissing the entire model.

  • Criticism of PPPs wrongly assume that they have the luxury of comparing a PPP to a public project that would have been executed instead; to the contrary, adequate supply of public funding cannot be taken for granted and it cannot be assumed that in many instances a project could even be built without private involvement.

  • Another problem with these criticisms is that they may focus only on financial costs without considering non-financial socio-economic benefits provided by PPPs, such as accelerated delivery (delivering services earlier), enhanced delivery (delivering services to a higher standard) and wider social impacts (greater benefits to society as a whole). Under a more qualitative analysis, considering these non-financial indicators would tend to show that they come out far ahead of purely publicly-funded projects (see European PPP Expertise Centre (EPEC)). While measuring non-financial benefits may be methodologically complex, if PPPs are able to deliver these benefits on higher levels than conventionally procured projects, it would be misguided to ignore them when appraising the overall advantages of the PPP model.

Governments have the job of establishing enabling governing environments for productive societies.  In the context of partnerships, what is needed most are effective policies for the private sector to collaborate with government agencies and civil society in assessing partnership opportunities across diverse sectors and social needs (see DFID 2003).  

Countries should carefully consider the value of establishing a dedicated centralized PPP unit within their governments that can evaluate PPP opportunities across ministries and sectors, which are perceived to contribute greatly to the success of a country’s PPP program (see ODI 2013).