Now is the moment to transform ‘Partnerships for the Goals’ from vision to reality

In her third pandemic recovery blog for UKSSD, journalist Sarah George asks how we can transform the vision of partnerships within the Sustainable Development Goals into reality and achieve a just and green recovery for all.

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.

If you’ve ever whiled away a few moments scrolling through motivational content on LinkedIn or Pinterest or watched a TED Talk, the odds are that you will have seen this quote.  

In the pre-pandemic world, it would be easy to brush such sentiments aside as pleasant but ultimately vapid. It had been said togetherness is hard to measure and niceties without a proven economic payback were just that. As famed social and climate activist Naomi Klein wrote in This Changes Everything, leaders served systems which “fetishized” numbers and specifically GDP growth, over “things we cherish most”: Genuine connection, stability, good living conditions and space to dream of a brighter future. In other words, financial competition is king in ‘business-as-usual’ scenarios.

But amid the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis, and with the most challenging economic recovery efforts since the Great Depression on the horizon, the value of community and of partnerships has been writ large. The UK’s Office for National Statistics has been tracking feelings of community since lockdown began, recording a steady week-on-week increase as people reach out to the vulnerable members of their community and back causes like Clap for Carers and mutual aid groups.

Hubbub’s recent survey of businesses and shoppers concluded that collaboration was the most pressing theme, with individuals increasingly backing brands demonstrating a strong, people-centric and partnership-focused approach and scrutinizing those which have been quick to drop support for staff, suppliers or charity partners.

With the benefits and necessity of partnerships now proven, the big questions are: What shape will partnerships take in a post-pandemic world? And, how do organisations forge meaningful partnerships which are resilient, and drive tangible and lasting positive impacts?

Positive progress

Since the Sustainable Development Goals were finalized in 2015, the 17th and final Goal has been held up as the cornerstone – the glue which holds all other SDGs together. SDG 17 must be delivered to ensure success on any of the others, the UN stated. Goal 17’s targets and indicators cover everything from finance to data, trade to technology, accountability to market shifts. They attempt to take collaboration from a nebulous concept to something concrete and measurable.

In order to meet SDG 17’s sweeping ambitions, organisations of various shapes, sizes and sectors across the globe have forged innovative collaborations to tackle all manner of social and environmental issues. Partnerships have been corporate-corporate (think Toyota working with Panasonic to develop electric vehicle batteries); corporate-NGO (such as Tesco working with WWF to halve the environmental impact of the average grocery shop); Government-NGO; Government-corporate (Ministers are banking on AstraZeneca to progress a Covid-19 vaccine); sector-wide (like the UK Green Building Council); cross sector (like The Climate Group or We Mean Business) and truly multi-stakeholder, such as UKSSD.

Despite the UK’s poor policy performance against many SDGs, one of the strong suits of the the national government and its partners has been collaboration for sustainable development, UKSSD’s landmark Measuring Up research concluded. Across all 17 SDGs, ‘good’ performance was recorded against just 24% of indicators. Against SDG 17 alone, the proportion was more than 50%.

Nonetheless, more remains to be done – especially given that there is now less than a decade to deliver against the SDGs. And, as many thought leaders have concluded, crises provide a chance to spur progress across the sustainable development agenda through recovery efforts.

Moving forwards

The benefits of partnerships are many and varied. Some will be of use in the near future in which a global economic contraction of up to 35% is likely, such as efficiency boosting, knowledge sharing or pivoting to create new models (see recycling service First Mile delivering produce and plants, or Brewdog manufacturing hand sanatizer).

Others may not be front-of-mind for those in crisis management mode, but invaluable as we emerge into the post-pandemic world. When developed with clear aims in mind and pathways to achieving them, partnerships can bring about policy change or market shifts by amplifying voices, bringing technologies to maturity or simply proving that there are multiple leaders capable of going further and faster together.

Now is also the moment to look across all definitions of partnerships to identify and close gaps which have either been widened or highlighted by the shockwaves of the pandemic. Much outrage, for example, has been directed at businesses which have failed to establish two-way relationships with staff (see Wetherspoons) or suppliers (see the fashion giants targeted by the Clean Clothes Campaign’s #PayUp). Questions are also arising around whether business partnerships with charities which rely solely on non-essential retail or mass events are future-ready, given that the likelihood of public health emergencies is amplified by megatrends such as climate change, population growth, urbanization and nature degradation.

Additionally, the need for existing partnerships to better support the most vulnerable people and places, and for new partnerships to ensure that their progress is inclusive, has never been clearer. Measuring up, aside from making specific recommendations around collaboration, bore the overarching conclusion that marginalized communities were both feeling the negative benefits of poor progress in some areas, and missing out on the positive benefits of good progress in others. Despite talk of a just low-carbon transition and the end of austerity, the current crisis has shown that domestic disparities between rich and poor and white and BAME communities and international disparities between developed and developing nations continue.

For the UK Government itself, several of the key recommendations of Measuring up remain, almost two years on from its publication. While a Voluntary National Review has been completed, there is still no official SDG-focused partnership bringing Government and other stakeholders together and no cross-departmental mechanism to co-ordinate policy development and implementation. Moreover, while the Treasury is conducting a review into the costs and benefits of the net-zero transition, a commitment to such analysis across the sustainable development spectrum has not been made. Similarly, alignment with the national net-zero target and other recent environmental legislation has been assured in post-Brexit trade deal negotiations with the US, but broader SDG advancement has not.

Now is not the moment to ask whether any organization can afford to partner for sustainable development, as some short-termist thinkers are musing. It must instead ask whether it can afford not to, both in the long-term and in a short-term where priorities have so dramatically shifted away from growth at any cost.

As we start to emerge from the pandemic, with many uncertainties remaining and an economic recession dawning, we must act now to transform ‘Partnerships for the Goals’ from vision to reality.

Sarah George is a reporter and journalist. Her previous blogs include: We can't leave anyone behind in Coronavirus recovery planning' and 'Why the SDGs are a formula for building back better post-pandemic'