Why the SDGs flunk the partnership test

by | Sep 7, 2015

Among the many useful elements of this year’s OECD Development Cooperation Report on partnerships, which is out today, is a handy 10 point checklist for what makes for a successful partnership.

The list comes courtesy of Hildegard Lingnau and Julia Sattelberger, who have co-authored a summary chapter that distils lessons learned from the various contributors’ chapters (among them one by me on public-private partnerships) and from a dozen case studies that explore a range of different partnerships in practice.

And while the list can certainly provide a good basis for gauging partnerships – more rigorous quality control of which would definitely be welcome – the thing that struck me as I read it was that their ten criteria were also not a bad basis for evaluating the larger undertaking that all these partnerships are supposed to contribute to: the Sustainable Development Goals themselves and the emerging Global Partnership that they are intended to help catalyse.

So, partly humorously and partly seriously, I went through the OECD’s partnership checklist and gave the post-2015 story so far marks out of 10 on each of the checklist’s points – an exam grade, if you will, on the state of the SDG agenda.

  1. Secure high level leadership. The SDG agenda started well on this front, when the UN Secretary-General convened his high level panel on the post-2015 agenda and got the heads of Liberia, Indonesia, and the UK to lead it. Since then, though, things have gone downhill – in large part because the Open Working Group involved country ambassadors to the UN rather than ministers from capitals (many of whom may learn about the SDG for the first time on the plane to New York in a couple of weeks’ time). 4/10.
  2. Ensure partnerships are country-led and specific. The fact that there are 17 Goals and 169 targets in the SDG framework gives countries plenty of latitude to take a ‘pick and mix’ approach to what to focus on – which suggests a pretty high degree of country ownership over how the SDGs are implemented on the ground. The catch, of course, is that developed countries will also be free to take a pick and mix approach to which priorities they want to resource – so the degree of developing country ownership may not be quite as high as a first glance would suggest. 6/10.
  3. Avoid duplication of effort and fragmentation. As a set of Goals, the SDGs are a holistic agenda, that covers the full range of sustainable development issues – including the three core points of ending absolute poverty, getting serious about reducing inequality, and living within planetary boundaries. But they risk becoming much more fragmented if the G77 succeed in demanding separate ‘means of implementation’ for each of the 17 Goals – ignoring the extent to which an integrated strategy is needed for delivering on all of them as a set. 6/10.
  4. Make governance inclusive and transparent. One area where you have to give the SDG Open Working Group its due: it was nothing if not inclusive. Of course, the downside of that is that the set of Goals it has come up with is much less succinct than the MDGs – but given how many developing countries felt that the MDGs had been dreamed up in a back room from which they’d been excluded, that seems a price worth paying. 9/10.
  5. Apply the right type of partnership model for the challenge. Hard to call, this one, as the question of which kind of partnership model the SDGs will use remains very much an open question. On one hand, there’s a lot of talk of a new Global Partnership to follow on from MDG8, and the Financing For Development (FFD) outcome document rightly stresses a diverse range of actors and sources of cash: from FDI to domestic resource mobilisation and from ODA to philanthropies and South-South cooperation. On the other hand, Addis was also notably short on concrete commitments – least of all from the OECD countries. 5/10.
  6. Agree on principles, targets, implementation plans and enforcement mechanisms. Any framework with 169 targets has to score at least a few points on this front – and as noted earlier, the SDGs don’t do a bad job of covering the full range of sustainable development principles. But when it comes to concrete implementation plans, don’t hold your breath, and as for any kind of enforcement mechanisms that force countries to keep their promises: dream on. 3/10.
  7. Clarify roles and responsibilities. This is where the FFD outcome’s emphasis on such a wide range of actors involved in delivering the SDGs falls down: the principle that everyone contributes makes it that much easier for individual actors to weasel out of their commitments. There’s a lot of talk of what the world intends to achieve, and a lot of broad brush description of how in the FFD outcome – but when it comes to who, when, and how much, it all gets a lot more hazy. 3/10.
  8. Maintain a clear focus on results. Back when the High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda produced its report in 2013, one of the points that they emphasised in neon lights was that the successor goals and targets to the MDGs needed to meet SMART criteria: i.e. be specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound. The Open Working Group didn’t pay much attention to that (“promote public procurement practices that are sustainable in accordance with national policies and priorities”, anyone?) 4/10.
  9. Measure and monitor progress towards goals and targets. Notwithstanding the dearth of SMART targets, I suspect the UN, the OECD and others will in the end actually do a pretty good job of monitoring and reporting against the SDGs. The UN Statistical Commission is already looking at ways to translate the Goals’ wordy aspirations into more concrete metrics, and the UN is in its element when it comes to regular progress reports like the Human Development Report or the MDG Report. 7/10.
  10. Mobilise the required financial resources and use them effectively. For all that the OECD’s December 2014 High Level Meeting saw DAC members commit to 0.7, the fact remains that back in 2005, 15 countries promised to hit 0.7 by 2015 – and only five of them did. Nor have we yet managed to win concrete improvements in the proportion of aid that goes to Least Developed Countries. And while FDI and remittances are much bigger than ODA as sources of development finance, there’s been minimal progress on reducing remittance transaction costs – and little concrete action on helping developing countries to build enabling environments for investment. That said, the Addis Tax Initiative was at least a step in the right direction on helping countries to scale up their revenue raising capacity. 3/10.

The final score when the tally is added up: 50%. Not an E, but certainly not an A or a B either; let’s be charitable and call it a C minus. If the world wants to score a proper pass grade, the next step is to get much more serious about means of implementation at the SDG summit in a couple of weeks’ time…


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

More from Global Dashboard

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Created in partnership with: COVID-19 marks a turning point in the 21st century.​ Levels of uncertainty are off the chart, making predictions impossible. ​But if we can create plausible stories about different futures, we create a...

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Earlier this week, we published Shooting the Rapids – COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation. In the final section, we present a plan for collective action at the global level with four elements:  Firefight better – getting the emergency response...