The SDGs call for a revitalised global partnership: What should we do differently this time?

By Nicola Harrington, Deputy Director, OECD Development Centre

Partnerships were central from the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000.  Public, private and civil society entities forged ties, leading to some outstanding results. This was notable in health, where path-breaking co-operation across governments, companies and foundations improved millions of lives through medicines and vaccines. Given this track record, why do the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 15 years later require revitalising global partnerships? What was missing the first time, and what should be different now?

First off, the definition of partnership has evolved, and so has what we expect partnerships to accomplish. Partnerships in the MDG-era were defined essentially by the north giving the south aid, debt relief and trade access. We called on the private sector to provide medicines and information and communications technology to people in developing countries. The SDGs, on the other hand, call for partnerships forged on mutual terms and on a more equal footing. This difference may result, in part, from the shift in the global economy’s centre of gravity from developed to developing countries. The change also reflects today’s agenda. In virtually no area – from poverty to climate, to peace and security and even social protection – can we see our futures as independent of one another. Domestic and international policy agendas are fast becoming fused, as the current migration challenges dramatically demonstrate. Both the proverbial woman in the street and policy makers express the need for collective responses in this era of interdependence.

Second, what partnerships can bring to this collective agenda is shifting. MDG Goal 8 invested in partnerships for aid, trade and technology; SDG Goal 17 invests in knowledge-centred partnerships. The SDGs require a knowledge base that goes far beyond sharing what is already known, towards co-creating new knowledge to stimulate greater shared understanding. Knowledge becomes a catalyst for broadening collaboration and building much-needed trust among stakeholders. So, co-ordinating multiple stakeholders to mobilise, process, develop and share knowledge will help countries, in turn, apply that knowledge to their own experiences and their own policy choices to drive their own development priorities.

When the Government of Cote d’Ivoire, for example, asked the OECD Development Centre for support in designing its 2015-20 national development plan, it benchmarked options against the Centre’s geographically diverse members. This meant looking at not only other African countries but also Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Korea. In both their similarities and differences, each country offered Cote d’Ivoire a mirror for self-assessment. Data shed light on particular areas where the country lags compared with its peers, generated greater awareness of the bottlenecks to development and precipitated reflection on the policies needed to unlock opportunities. While each country is different, by comparing itself with others, the Ivorian government is able to consider a range of policy options to make better-informed choices on the priorities in its national plan and to accelerate its development.

Consider also how industry and governments look to others to deploy country branding to improve their chances of succeeding in global value chains. Not surprisingly, governments often look to Italy, a country widely associated with design and fashion. The Made in Italy brand has been a key component of Italian companies’ international success. Less obviously, governments are also looking to Peru. Alpaca del Peru provided a powerful case of how close cooperation among government, industry and communities boosted sales of high-end fashion, taking alpaca fibre from the Andean mountains into the international luxury fashion markets while simultaneously creating jobs and improving the livelihoods of local farmers.

The static concept of exchanging best practices is moving towards a two-way process of mutual learning. Such a dynamic process builds new evidence on what can work and how. It also stimulates the horizontal co-operation across sectors and actors that is key to achieving the SDGs.

Take the value of encouraging undergraduates to study science, technology, engineering and math in today’s knowledge economy. These fields can deepen a country’s ability to increase productivity and competitiveness in global and regional markets. China, for instance, currently has 31 million tertiary students in school, with over half studying these subjects. Panama turned to Uruguay, a country relatively well-advanced in science and innovation, to examine its experiences in this domain. While further ahead in several areas, Uruguay took home and applied valuable lessons from Panama’s success in conveying to its people the importance of science for the country’s wellbeing, development and access to markets. Messages reached remote communities through internet points, a trained cadre of scientific journalists feeding the media, and science clubs and digital colleges that made studying science “cool.”

Take also the value of data as a powerful tool to compare and learn from experiences. The MDGs taught us that what is measured matters, and that lesson is part and parcel of the SDGs as well. We see this in how data on gender is being applied. Progress in reaching gender equality goals proved slower and more uneven than anticipated under the MDGs. While the number of female members of parliaments has doubled since 2000, gender equality is not a reality in all countries. The OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) gets to the root causes of persisting inequalities by measuring social norms in 160 countries. SIGI is a powerful data tool for shining the spotlight on issues such as who can own land, who can open a bank account or have a say in household decisions.  In a number of OECD countries, many social institutions continue to discriminate against women despite laws guaranteeing equal rights. SIGI’s data shows that no country has a perfect record on gender equality and reinforces the value of comparing those track records and making sustained investments in removing discrimination in laws, practices and attitudes.

While the success of the MDGs depended on money and political will, the success of the SDGs in today’s world is more likely to depend on the ability of several partners to act collectively. Knowledge will help. Sharing knowledge will help more. Interactive settings that allow a range of partners to define common questions and come up with mutually acceptable solutions, to pool and co-create new knowledge and to shape and test innovative solutions should go a long way to redefine and revitalise global partnerships for development.


This article should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD, the OECD Development Centre or of their member countries. The opinions expressed and arguments employed are those of the author.

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