SDG17, coronavirus, and the battle for a collaborative future

SDG17, coronavirus, and the battle for a collaborative future

clock • 21 min read

SDG17's vision of a sustainable future driven by cross-border partnerships has been under siege for the past four years, but is a change coming in the way governments and businesses tackle global challenges?

Back when the UN Sustainable Development Goals were finalised in 2015, the philosophy underpinning SDG 17, the final Sustainable Development Goal, was very much in the ascendancy. Dubbed Partnership for the Goals, the wide-ranging targets covering everything from technology to trade, capacity-building to multi-stakeholder partnerships, and data and monitoring to accountability, were developed in the same year as the Paris Agreement amply demonstrated the merits of multilateralism.

Obama's quiet flexing of diplomatic muscles coupled with China's desire to avert a trade-damaging new Cold War had delivered a nuclear deal in Iran, the world's first universal climate change pact, and a broadly effective containment of the world's increasingly isolated authoritarian strongmen. Meanwhile, the global business community was edging towards an arguably belated recognition of the importance of co-operation, be it within industries, across different sectors, or between corporations and governments.

And then, less than 12 months later, hopes of a new era of multilateralism and enlightened co-operation were crushed overnight by the shock victory of an avowedly 'America First' US President. Within hours the whims of the American Electoral College system empowered autocrats, nationalists and polluters everywhere. The principles underpinning SDG17 were dealt a series of grievous blows, with the years that followed dominated by trade wars, bellicose rhetoric and the deliberate erosion of international institutions.

The conflicting ideals contained in the second term of the Obama Administration and the first term of the Trump Presidency now face their ultimate test. The hollowing out of international bodies and the reluctance of governments to co-operate has exacerbated the coronavirus crisis at every turn, from the initial, overly secretive response to the Wuhan outbreak, through the fierce competition to acquire medical equipment and belief in national exceptionalism, to the Trumpian misinformation and conspiracy theories. But none of that has stopped President Trump and some of his allies doubling down on their short-termist, science-rejecting, overtly populist tactics, presumably in the hope they can scapegoat their way out of the escalating economic, health, and social crisis.

Meanwhile, a fightback is gathering momentum. The principles of co-operation that underpinned SDG17 five long years ago remain as valid as ever. Around the world businesses and governments have been quick to step up calls for a revival of multilateralism as the best route for tackling both the pandemic and the still ongoing climate crisis. Calls are growing for co-ordinated efforts to embrace best practices for stemming and then reversing the march of the pandemic. At the same time ministers and CEOs are stepping up calls to deliver explicitly green economic recovery packages, which can ensure the world learns the lessons from this health crisis and puts itself on track to meet its sustainable development goals.

The SDGs in general, and SDG17 in particular, are suddenly back in vogue.

If partnership had been included as a target within each and every SDG, it would have made more sense - Louise Ayling, Radley Yeldar

Because it is so wide-ranging, and because many of its targets are explicitly aimed at governments and civil society, it can be tricky for businesses to see how they can contribute. And yet, as the global economy makes a start on the long road to recovery from the coronavirus pandemic with many organisations pledging to build back better, it may be the most important Goal of all.

"It's interesting to discuss SDG17 at the moment," reflects Hans Daems, group public affairs officer at Hitachi Europe. "Everyone is looking at what they can do to help deal with the situation we're in."

That help ranges from companies who are already involved in supplying essential equipment and products to health services and pharma groups refocusing their attention on finding a vaccine, to engineering groups such as Mercedes and Dyson joining forces to design new ventilators, while logistics companies have put their disaster response skills to good use and furloughed airline cabin crew have been serving meals to beleaguered health workers.

For other companies, from the Big Four auditing firms to some leading football clubs, a belief in the power of partnerships is finding expression in pay cuts for the highest earners to ensure that lower-paid workers keep their jobs. The pandemic is the perfect illustration that we are all in this together and that working together is the only way to get through it, meaning that delivering on SDG17 should play a major role in the recovery.

But that does not alter the fact that it is one of the most difficult Goals to get to grips with. On the one hand, Jennifer Perr, sustainability director of packaging group Hi-Cone, argues that SDG 17 "is perhaps the most important and most versatile of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, as it focuses on the means by which to achieve the other goals listed". "For example, as part of the manufacturing industry, we see this goal as the formula for achieving our own progress towards a circular economy as well as reaching SDG12 and SDG13 on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns and taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, respectively," she explains. "SDG 17 rightfully highlights collaboration as the path forward. No one organisation or company will be able to make a difference on their own, yet we need the participation of each and every player in order to build a truly sustainable future."

In that sense, the final SDG ties in with a convergence of public opinion around the need for all parties to act urgently on critical sustainability issues, particularly climate change, says Joanne Patrick, investment director at Amber Infrastructure and director of the Mayor of London's Energy Efficiency Fund. "We see an increased appetite for cross-sector collaboration to identify solutions," she says. "From a cities perspective, this includes procuring private sector joint venture partners to deliver clean energy and social value for their people; Bristol City Leap is a notable example."

Imagine

But on the other hand, Louise Ayling, head of sustainability at consultancy Radley Yeldar, says it is her "least favourite SDG". "It feels like the odd one out, like they had a few things left out and didn't know where to put them," she argues. "If partnership had been included as a target within each and every goal, it would have made more sense."

Another problem, she says, is that although business is key to delivering many of the outcomes set out by the Goal, "SDG 17 feels like it is focused on governments and NGOs". "Business is a bit of an afterthought," she argues. "Partnerships are meaningful and useful to achieving the other goals, but SDG17 is not really accessible to business."

Ayling's gripe is not with the role of partnerships, but how they are incorporated in the SDGs. "The SDGs would not suffer without SDG 17 if the spirit of partnerships was expressed in every other goal," she suggests. "Alliance 8.7, which aims to catalyse action on target 8.7, which calls for everyone to end modern slavery and child labour, is a good example of how partnerships are being used to tackle some of the more granular issues in the Goals."

What's in SDG 17?

The overarching aim of SDG17 is to "strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development", but, as Ayling notes, it is one of the more difficult goals for business to engage with because much of it appears to be aimed at the development and aid community - governments, multilateral banks and NGOs.

Developed countries are expected to increase their support for developing countries, including a target of deploying up to 0.9 per cent of their GDP in international aid and leveraging additional finance from other sources.

There is also a call to improve access to science, technology and innovation, with a particular focus on "environmentally sound technologies" that can help developing countries build capacity to implement the SDGs. This capacity-building should include work to increase the availability of data to allow monitoring and enhanced accountability by 2020, before then establishing "measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement gross domestic product" by 2030.

SDG17 also calls for the long standing development Holy Grail of "a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organization", which allows exports from developing countries to increase.

And it calls for enhanced global macroeconomic stability, including through policy co-ordination and policy coherence and the development of multi-stakeholder partnerships "that mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals in all countries, in particular developing countries".

The European Commission says that "Goal 17 calls for a global partnership for sustainable development. The goal highlights the importance of global macroeconomic stability and the need to mobilise financial resources for developing countries from international sources, as well as through strengthened domestic capacities for revenue collection. It also highlights the importance of trade for developing countries and equitable rules for governing international trade".

To achieve the ambition of the 2030 Agenda, co-operative and strong partnerships are necessary at all levels and between different governments, the private sector, civil society and other parties. But it is also fair to say that progress towards these goals has been pretty limited over the past few years, and has even been thrown into reverse in some areas. The pursuit of macroeconomic stability currently looks like a bad joke - and it is not as if the business community can revive progress towards SDG17 on its own.

Progress towards meeting SDG 17

However, progress on some of the SDG17 targets is moving rapidly, according to the United Nations' SDG Knowledge Platform. "Personal remittances are at an all-time high, an increasing proportion of the global population has access to the Internet and the Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries has been established," it says.

But it acknowledges that significant challenges remain: overall overseas aid is declining, private investment flows are not well aligned with sustainable development, there continues to be a significant digital divide, and there are plenty of ongoing trade tensions. "Enhanced international co-operation is needed to ensure that sufficient means of implementation exist to provide countries the opportunity to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals," it adds, with considerable understatement.

Imagine

The amount of international aid fell by 2.7 per cent in 2018, with the share going to the least developed countries falling by even more. "Bilateral ODA (overseas development assistance) to least developed countries fell by three per cent in real terms from 2017, aid to Africa fell by four per cent, and humanitarian aid fell by eight per cent," the UN said. Fears are already mounting that the coronavirus crisis will only accelerate this worrying trend.

Moreover, before the coronavirus pandemic struck, worsening trade wars were already reversing earlier gains in terms of lowering tariffs to provide wider access to goods and contribute to a more open trading system. Again, the current global economic crisis could only intensify the simmering trade tensions between the US, China, and others.

Slow growth in the share of least developed countries in world exports, which remains just below one per cent, could lead to missing the trade target set by the Istanbul Programme of Action - to double the least developed countries' share of global exports by 2020. "The exports from least developed countries will have to grow approximately four times faster than global exports to see their share doubled in two years," the UN warns.

In contrast, data, monitoring, and accountability is one area where there has been significant progress. In 2018, 111 countries had national statistical legislation that was compliant with the United Nations Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, up from 71 countries in 2017. While this is more a matter for governments than business, it is an important sign of progress given the time-honoured adage that 'you cannot manage what you don't measure'. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a uniquely painful lesson in the value of accurate data, as countries have struggled to trace the expansion of the pandemic while wrestling with unreliable data collected using myriad methodologies.

However, for developing countries to meet the data needs of the Sustainable Development Goals, current donor support for data and statistics programmes will need to increase by nearly $200m per year, the UN warns. Key areas where data is needed to formulate, implement and monitor development policies and programmes are population and housing censuses. Between 2008 and 2017, 89 per cent of countries or areas around the world conducted at least one population and housing census, but while in the 2013-2017 period 143 countries had birth registration data that were at least 90 per cent complete and 149 countries had death registration data that were at least 75 per cent complete, only nine of 53 sub-Saharan African countries met these standards.

Digital access

There has been significant progress on getting people online, or "giving people access to the global information society" as the UN calls it, with more than half of the global population, some 3.9 billion people, now having access to the internet.

"More than five billion people are now connected to a mobile network, equivalent to roughly two-thirds of the world's population," says Mats Granryd, director general of the GSM Association, the industry body for mobile network operators. "This has, in turn, created a platform of opportunity for people to use their devices to access the internet for the first time, providing them with access to a range of life-enhancing services."

These new technologies hold great potential for human progress, enabling innovations in areas such as health, financial services, energy, and transport, which can be integrated together to create hyper-efficient, low emission, smart cities and communities. "They will be essential for the realisation of every single one of the SDGs," points out Malcolm Johnson, deputy secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union.

There is a strong relationship between ICT maturity and the level of progress on the SDGs, particularly in education and health, which makes access to ICT a crucial part of SDG17, according to a report from Huawei, titled the ICT SDG Benchmark Report.

The only way we can achieve the SDGs by 2030 is through multi-stakeholder partnerships, public-private partnerships, and good governance - Malcolm Johnson, International Telecommunications Union

But digital transformation is just an enabler, stresses Gerbrand Haverkamp, executive director of the World Benchmarking Alliance. "Having access to technology does not mean anything in itself, but it does when it gives access to education, healthcare, crucial information such as weather forecasts for farmers," he observes.

One of the most spectacular demonstrations of the power of access to digital technology is the M-Pesa mobile phone-based money transfer, financing, and microfinancing service for people without a bank account, launched in 2007 by Vodafone for Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania. Over the last 13 years, it has grown into Africa's largest payments service.

And as we conduct an ever-growing proportion of our daily lives online, from shopping to socialising and entertainment to education and healthcare advice, it is clear that digital services will play a critical role in reshaping the post-coronavirus world, Daems stresses. "We're looking at what technologies we have, what impact they can have and how can they reach certain parts of society in relation to issues such as healthcare, the elderly and people looking to travel," he says.

One example of how the digital revolution could support SDG17 is provided by research being carried out at Hitachi and the University of Tokyo's Joint Research Laboratory, which is pursuing the Japanese government's goal of building a "super smart society" where economic growth coexists with quality of life, which the Japanese government calls Society 5.0. The company is not only collaborating with the university but putting a lot of its ideas to the test with members of the community.

However, while partnerships such as this are important, digital access remains highly unequal around the world. While more than 80 per cent of people are online in developed countries, only 45 per cent have access in developing countries and in the least developed countries the figure stands at just 20 per cent - the advances being made in the digital world are no panacea.

How are businesses supporting SDG 17?

As the world looks to rebuild in the wake of the pandemic, SDG17 ties in with the resilience agenda that is set to dominate the recovery efforts. "Leadership on sustainability is about understanding as a company that you can't do it alone," advises Stefan Crets, executive director at CSR Europe, which facilitates a number of cross-industry initiatives, including Biodiversity and Industry, Responsible Trucking, Drive Sustainability, Together for STEM, Upgraded and Sustainable Value Chains for Europe and Africa, and Tyre and Road Wear. "When it comes to the resilience agenda, it's important to create partnerships with like-minded groups," he adds.

These partnerships must embrace all aspects of a company's relationships, not just its competitors, he continues. "If you want to change something at scale, you need to work very closely with NGOs, bilateral funders, development agencies," he says. "You also need to work with your suppliers and your rivals, as well as with governments. Partnerships create a common language to agree what you are going to tackle."

ITU's Johnson reiterates that partnerships are absolutely critical. "The only way we can achieve the SDGs by 2030 is through multi-stakeholder partnerships - public-private partnerships - and good governance," he says. "We all need to bring our specific competencies to the table, avoid duplication, pool our resources and work to the common good."

His point is inarguable. The sheer pace and scale of the transformation required to deliver on the Paris Agreement and the SDGs means co-operation within industries, especially in hard to decarbonise sectors, is essential, as is the need to accelerate the convergence that is under way between the various clean technology spheres. The innovation that emerges from competitive instincts remains vital, but if the resulting clean technologies are to be deployed quickly enough then a greater degree of co-operation is going to be required than has been evident in the past.

Walney offshore wind farm | Credit: Ørsted

Thankfully, multiple industries seem to have recognised this truism. Whether it is smart grids, green hydrogen production, carbon capture, tackling methane emissions, electric vehicles, renewables, green aviation and shipping R&D or myriad other areas, the past five years has seen thousands of businesses sign up to countless cross sector programmes and initiatives.

While every partnership will be different due to the nature of the challenge that it is tackling, there are some standardised steps that those convening partnerships can take, advises Crets. "First, you need to listen carefully to the different organisations that want to do something; then define exactly what you want do, and how you can make it happen," he says, adding that once the broad goal is established, you can define the specific requirements of the partnership.

However, an open-minded commitment to partnerships does not automatically guarantee success. "In bringing together different groups, you have to target what you might call the organisational signature of different parties - a development agency has a different agenda than a company," Crets continues. "Different approaches can be mutually enriching if the different parties can align their thinking. But sometimes it can be like herding cats when you bring actors from all these different spheres together."

And in many ways, establishing the partnership is the easy part - the challenge is to get it to a scale where it can make a real difference. CSR Europe last year launched the CEOs Call to Action for a Sustainable Europe 2030, endorsed by 375 European CEOs. But a call to action must be followed by action, Crets warns. "We just need to start doing things, start creating experiences of collaboration, seeing what success and failure looks like," he reflects.

Daems acknowledges some form of co-ordinating body is often required. "You definitely need someone who can connect all the dots, identify which stakeholders are important and can translate the issue into business impact," he says. "Neutral, business-driven impact-led platforms have the best potential for achieving SDG 17, whether they are specific to a particular sector or industry, or sustainability-driven. If you can connect the dots, you will reach more stakeholders."

Leadership on sustainability is about understanding as a company that you can't do it alone - Stefan Crets, CSR Europe

Pooling expertise also brings another major benefit, according to Haverkamp of the World Benchmarking Alliance. "We need three times as much investment as we currently have and that will only come from non-traditional resources," he notes. "ODA and CSR budgets can't mobilise the investment that is needed. SDG17 asks for both the public and private sector to massively step up their investments."

Delivering a surge in investment will necessarily involve a range of strategies, he continues. "We need to test new vehicles to mobilise investment," he says, highlighting how public-private partnerships and the use of blended finance approaches that seek to leverage development finance and philanthropic funds to unlock private capital flows to emerging and frontier markets all have a role to play.

More broadly, and more controversially, there is also a need to shift the course of existing investments to help achieve the SDGs - a topic that is likely to come to the fore in the coming months as calls grow to 'build back better' in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The implication contained in all green recovery programmes is that some clean industries deserve stimulus and other polluting sectors should only receive government support if they promise to change their ways.

Imagine

As Haverkamp warns, current investment patterns are simply not compatible with meeting the SDGs. "Take food as an example," he says. "Some 350 food and agriculture companies invest enough money to achieve the relevant SDGs, but that investment is misaligned. We need to think about how we can bring that investment into alignment with what we need to bring about a shift from animal protein to plant protein. Elsewhere, we need to shift investment into renewables and into the infrastructure that can bring more people online."

Partnerships offer a route to boost investments in global public goods - a need that is being starkly highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. "What we have seen is that investment in these global public goods has lagged behind - countries that don't invest in healthcare are really suffering now, for example," Haverkamp adds.

Investor pressure

Another form of partnership is seeking to divert investment towards where it is needed most, as growing numbers of top investors recognise they could hold the key to delivering on both the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. By pooling their considerable leverage this new breed of investors are encouraging firms to embrace environmental best practices, while helping to reduce the huge latent risks contained in their portfolios - risks that the coronavirus crisis has suddenly thrown an unforgiving spotlight upon.

At the start of the year, the World Benchmarking Alliance published SDG2000, a list of the companies that have the most influence over our ability to deliver a more sustainable future. The list comprises companies that make up half of the global economy and are responsible for $43tr in revenue.

Having identified the companies - which range from Starbucks to Saudi Aramco and Tesla to Tencent - WBA will next rank them on their performance and contribution to the SDGs - ensuring the results and findings are freely and publicly available to all. The rankings will not only hold businesses to account by highlighting peer-to-peer performance, they will also give investors a basis on which to engage companies so as to encourage them to improve their performance.

Investor collaborations based on similar benchmarks are already having an impact, with initiatives such as the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark and the Climate Action 100+ grouping, which focuses on the world's largest emitters and the companies that have the greatest potential to tackle climate change, winning a series of high profile concessions from leading corporates. Both groups have achieved significant progress in their respective fields by targeting the worst offenders and pressuring them to change their behaviour.

"We will see more partnerships where governments, civil society and investors are pushing companies for the same thing," Haverkamp predicts. "But we need the data we use to engage to be public, and a willingness from investors to use their voice to create a platform for others. This is a new thing for investors, for whom engagement has previously mainly been a private affair. But we will see more and more of them being much more public in future and lending their voice to others."

It is a trend that will be accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Crets says. "The pandemic will increase the realisation that we can't do this alone," he concludes. "It can only be done by collaboration. We're starting to see more understanding and willingness from companies to reach out to others."

SDG17 may be complex and challenging for companies to deal with, but it may turn out to be the SDG for our times - assuming, of course, the principles of mutually beneficial co-operation win out in their era-defining tussle with the beggar-thy-neighbour nationalism and petty rivalries that have left the world so dangerously exposed to the interlocking crises it now faces.

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