SDG17 calls on businesses and governments to actively partner in order to deliver sustainable development goals, but doing so is easier said than done
There are many parts of SDG 17 - such as the sections on trade rules, aid, and systemic issues - where companies can have only limited influence, given they are squarely aimed at governments or civil society. But the goal to advance partnerships so as to deliver the wider Sustainable Development Goals remains highly relevant to business and society at large.
"With the increasing importance of global value chains (GVCs), companies have a profound interest in building trade capacity in developing countries," says the consultancy PwC. "Access to trade-related infrastructure, an educated workforce and quality standards for inputs to their goods are all critical to the success of corporate GVCs. Multi-sector partnerships, which pool the resources and know-how of different stakeholders, are well placed to drive action."
Public-private partnerships may have a decidedly mixed reputation and there are myriad horror stories involving smaller organisations partnering with large corporates only to steamrollered by their new supposed ally, but delivering on the 17 separate SDGs is such an all-encompassing endeavour it is impossible to see how it can be accomplished without a sharp increase in global co-operation.
In the case of finance and SDG 17, "the private sector should work with the public sector to develop mechanisms to channel finance into areas which are crucial for long term sustainable development," advises Joanne Patrick, investment director at Amber Infrastructure and director of the Mayor of London's Energy Efficiency Fund (MEEF).
Credit card provider Mastercard, for example, has worked with humanitarian aid organisations to distribute aid swiftly and safely in places where there is no connectivity. The MasterCard Aid Network has helped 15,000 people in Yemen and 9,000 people in the Philippines receive aid through programmes managed by Save the Children and World Vision, respectively. "At its core, MasterCard Aid Network is a digital, non-financial service that organisations can use to provide basic human needs such as food, shelter and healthcare to impacted populations," the company says.
For ICT companies, the SDG17's digital agenda is core to their business strategy. Chinese tech group Huawei's 2019 ICT Sustainable Development Goals Benchmark report highlights how there is a strong correlation between ICT development and progress on the SDGs, but also that there is still a considerable gap between the leading countries and the rest.
And even in this sector, the best way to accelerate progress is through partnerships, the report concludes. "Engaging in partnerships and multi-stakeholder initiatives to leverage the power of numerous stakeholders will be critical to harnessing ICT to achieve the SDGs by 2030," it states. "Although ICT is not the only tool available to us in the pursuit for a sustainable and just world, it promises greater speed and efficiency for progress on the world's most urgent and complex challenges."
Successful partnerships can be informal or formal, says Darian McBain, executive advisor on Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at seafood company Thai Union. "The beauty of a less formal arrangement is that you can work initially on the area where you have identified overlapping interests but as the partners get to know each other, you realise how much more commonality there is - every project will evolve," she says.
But, she adds, companies must pick their partnerships with care and focus on quality not quantity. "The number of partnerships is not a measure of success," she says.
Companies should think outside the box when it comes to the types of partnership they engage in, advises Louise Ayling, head of sustainability at consultancy Radley Yeldar. "It should not just be companies in the same industry looking to work together," she says. "They should be looking at organisations outside their sector where they can bring a different perspective and add value. All the different companies working on producing ventilators for Covid-19 patients, such as Dyson and Formula 1 teams, is a great example of that."
Learning from other industries is critical accelerating sustainable development, especially as clean technologies tear down the barriers that previously divided the energy, transport, building, retail, food, and IT industries. But supply chains offer another route for companies to partner with firms from outside their sector in pursuit of shared green goals.
"Companies would benefit from thinking about the whole value chain when they think about partnerships," says Ayling, "while multi-stakeholder partnerships can be really useful in bringing industry leaders together with governments and civil society - the cocoa industry, for instance, is very pre-competitive in that way."
At the same time, she adds, there is a danger of having so many stakeholders involved that it is difficult to make progress, citing the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil as an example of a process that has faced plenty of criticism from environmental campaigners because there are so many competing interests involved.
The case for partnering in pursuit of sustainability goals is clear, but McBain warns that companies need to remain cognisant of the fact that collaboration is not the only way forward and as such they should not become over-reliant on them. "You may get to a point where there is too much collaboration," she reflects. "If they rely on the group to move forward, individual companies may not do as much as they could on their own. Some companies may want to take a leadership role. Partnerships may bring everyone together, but you also need leaders to go ahead of the pack and forge new territory."
It is clear that without partnerships, and SDG 17 as a whole, achieving the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals would be a much bigger challenge than it already is. But getting the balance right between collaborating with rivals and partners and forging ahead to create new sustainable practices ultimately holds the key as to whether the SDGs can be met.