Public-private partnerships or “PPPs” have been the cherished and widely used approach for collaboration in global development for more than two decades. However, more recently, partnerships have taken on new forms due to a range of factors – and arguably in response to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

The new models are intriguing and a cause for optimism because they have great potential for transformative impact. And if they stick, their silo-busting forms herald a new, promising level of transparency and collaboration across a variety of groups.

The four examples below are among the new areas of alliances that have the promise to deliver toward the SDGs, and do so more cost-effectively, collaboratively, and sustainably. They are:

1. Collaboration between Industries 

Driven by tighter accountability, deeper levels of engagement by the corporate sector, and potentially the SDGs, companies are moving away from reporting on process and instead focusing on impact. For Pfizer, one company making this transition, that means looking beyond the specific contributions the company makes in product donations and programs funded, to how their investments connect with others’ to save the greatest number of lives and make gains in health. This shift necessitates greater collaboration with a range of stakeholders, more communication and alignment among those investing in a given population, and a longer-term horizon.  

A focus on impact also leads to new partnerships between companies in completely different industries whose investments are complementary. For example, another global health care company has begun exploring partnerships with infrastructure companies because its investment in training health facility staff will only truly yield impact if patients can get to facilities on passable roads, and if the facilities have electricity and running water. The resulting new 360-degree look at solutions is one of the most important shifts in perspective that will usher in B2B partnerships and other fresh alliances.  

2. Collaboration among Competitors

Companies in the same industry that otherwise compete fiercely in the marketplace are now joining forces through alliances around social issues and the SDGs. For example, the GSMA, which represents 800 mobile operators and 300 companies, recognizes the critical role that the mobile industry can play in expanding connectivity and lowering barriers to mobile access – accelerators for many SDGs. Other examples of alliances include: Access Accelerated, a cross-industry collaboration of 24 biopharmaceutical companies to fight non-communicable diseases; and Common Ground Initiative, a commitment by the ‘big six’ communications industry giants to support the SDGs. There are also broad new endeavors taking a systemic perspective such as the Food Reform for Sustainability and Health (FReSH) and the Food and Land Use Coalition. The alliance model is encouraging as a path toward rapid systemic change.

3. Collaboration between Business and the UN

One of the comments often heard about the SDGs – from all groups – is that to achieve the goals, ‘we can’t go it alone.’ This realization extends to UN agencies and programs, which lead or participate in a growing number of partnerships and collaboration with the private sector, civil society, and others. Examples include Unstereotype Alliance, convened by UN Women and comprised of multi-national companies and advertisers that are committing to eliminate gender stereotypes in advertising.  Sustainable Energy for All, launched by then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is now a major multi-stakeholder effort to mobilize sustainable energy access. And there are encouraging multi-sectoral efforts grounded in UN initiatives under development in the areas of disaster and pandemic preparedness, and other issues critical to our quality of life and safety. 

Partnership is necessarily complicated for an organization like the UN, and should be, as it must maintain its neutrality. But done right, the power of aligning the reach, know-how, and assets of business with the problem-solving and protective global mandates of the UN is vast. And it is not yet fully tapped. With new leadership at the top and many levels of the UN, including the UN Global Compact, the openness to partnership begun under the last Secretary General’s tenure is poised to expand.  

4. Collaboration between Government Ministries

In many of the best cases, we are hearing that countries’ efforts to address the SDGs are helping to uncover both redundancies between ministry functions and gaps where collaboration would have significant impact or efficiency gains.  

The presentations and meetings around the 2018 High-level Political Forum (HLPF) this week will highlight whether the process of reporting into Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) is bringing ministries (and other institutions) together in new ways, which will likely produce greater efficiencies through synergistic collaboration on financing and policy, as well as service delivery.  

Blending Social and Business Goals with the SDGs

All four of these developments in partnerships and alliances are grounded in perhaps the most exciting change of all: Social goals and business goals are no longer siloed. This is not breaking news – it’s the premise behind the landmark 2016 Business and Sustainable Development Commission report, which estimates the economic prize for business to drive achievement of the SDGs at $12 trillion by 2025. And this is in just the four areas of health care, energy, cities, and food & agriculture.  

As Gib Bulloch sums up in his just-launched book, The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a Corporate Insurgent, “Issues, which might have been considered [by business] social in the past, are now highly strategic.” This meta-level blending of siloes has been in the making for many years, as Bulloch and others have observed, and we now appear to be at an exciting inflection point. He goes on to say we may even have an emerging  ‘4th sector’  beyond partnerships, a new ecosystem of hybrid business models where purpose is put on a par with profit.

Reasons include a culmination of well-documented factors: from globalization to the transparency of our digital age to the values-based world view of the millennial generation, which is increasingly shaping corporate conduct and strategy.   

It is also clear that the SDGs are helping to galvanize this shift. I see and hear this every day in my work.  

Through our work at the UN Foundation and our Business Council for the UN, along with other major business initiatives including the UN Global Compact, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Business Fights Poverty  and others, we have helped encourage change through advocacy, thought leadership, celebrating innovators and leaders, and active partnership brokering.

As we look at the third UN High Level Political Forum, let’s use the tools at hand to support this positive evolution. Initiatives developing outside the UN such as the World Benchmarking Alliance and those from within the UN, such as the dynamic SDG Lab at the UN Office at Geneva, or even the reporting process of the VNRs, are poised to have the added benefit of driving more effective collaboration – between and now also within sectors. Let’s continue to engage businesses with integrity as a major contributor – and a critical partner – in achieving the SDGs.