As the challenges facing the global community become more complex and interdependent, global partnerships between public and non-State actors have gained momentum as an essential element of governance across scales and levels, and are identified as a key means of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On 16 November, the Centre for International Environmental Studies (CIES) organised an online public event to mark the end of its research project on Effectiveness of Partnerships for Sustainable Development – Behavioural Pathways and Impacts, which has been supported by the Swiss Network for International Studies (SNIS) since November 2017. The event explored the project’s findings on the impacts of sustainability partnerships and discussed some lessons that practitioners can learn as they seek to establish and implement effective public-private collaboration for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Given the variety of approaches and organizational structures which may characterize sustainability partnerships, from small project-based initiatives to global programs capable of mobilising large amounts of resources, the concept of partnership effectiveness itself remains hotly debated. Moreover, significant questions continue to surround the actual successes of the partnership initiatives launched over the past two decades, as well as the factors and design choices that may enhance their contribution to solving sustainable development problems.

The first panel allowed three core research members to present their findings and briefly introduce a series of potential policy implications. Prof. Liliana Andonova, academic co-coordinator of the project, explained the team’s approach to understanding and measuring partnership effectiveness, which she defined as “the contribution of partnerships to problem-solving and sustainability, through a set of pathways that affect actors and their collective capacity to advance relevant objectives and public purpose”. Prof. Andonova also underscored that while the actual impacts of partnerships will often interact with contextual factors, such as political conditions or external shocks, different internal features can play a key role in driving partnership effectiveness. In particular, Prof. Andonova pointed to four characteristics that were explored by the research team, and namely the specificity of partnership arrangements, the commitment of partner resources, the level of adaptability and learning-by-doing, and the deployment of innovative products, processes or services.

During the rest of the panel, some of the project’s empirical findings on partnership effectiveness were presented by Prof. Axel Michaelowa (University of Zurich) and Mr. Dario Piselli (Graduate Institute of Geneva). The first presentation discussed a research paper on the international carbon markets and funds launched by the World Bank since the late 1990s, linking the progressive evolution of the Bank’s role and design choices to the variable effectiveness of these instruments. The second illustrated the findings of three case studies in the fields of biodiversity and clean energy, namely the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) Program; the San Cristóbal Wind Power Project in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador and Costa Rica’s Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio). Mr Piselli argued that the contribution of these partnerships to problem-solving is most closely captured by the combination of their micro-level effects at the level of local populations and their spill-over effects on other institutions in the broader ecosystem of global governance. In addition, Mr. Piselli suggested that a greater specificity of partnership arrangements appears to be a core driver of effectiveness, because it influences the credibility of resource commitment by partners, creates structures and processes for organizational learning and adaptation, and sets the rules for the creation of innovative solutions to support partnership implementation.

The Amazon Region Protected Areas Programme (ARPA) in Brazil has been supported by a global partnership including the Brazilian Government, WWF International, KfW and the World Bank/Global Environmental Facility, among others. Photo Credit: Global Environment Facility.

A panel discussion with high-level practitioners Rolph Payet (Executive Secretary of the Basel, Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions), Juan Coderque Galligo (Head of the New Financing Models Unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross) and Gilbert Probst (Chair of the Board of the Banque Cantonal de Genève and Director of the Public-Private Partnership Centre of the University of Geneva) followed the presentations. The discussion, which was moderated by Prof. Moira Faul (Executive Director of NORRAG), delved deeper on the practical and policy implications of the project, assessed its findings against the direct experience of the panelists, and sought to draw a series of lessons for partnership practitioners. Mr. Payet and Mr. Coderque Galligo both emphasized the importance of consultating with local communities and ensuring civil society participation, noting that when partnerships mobilise a diversity of viewpoints and alignments, they are more likely to drive innovation and contribute to sustainable development. Mr. Coderque Galligo added that, in order to build effective partnerships, it is always necessary to start by clearly defining the problem that the partnership is trying to solve, making sure that the creation of innovative governance arrangements, including financing mechanisms, is seen as a means to an end rather as an outcome of partnering in itself. Finally, Prof. Probst applauded the project’s emphasis on presenting in-depth insights by combining quantitative and qualitative research, and agreed that the ultimate contribution of partnerships to sustainable development must be measured in terms of their impact on the delivery of actual social, economic and ecological benefits on the ground.

Overall, the event provided the basis for the drafting of the project’s policy recommendations and was an attended by over 100 participants from around the world, including practitioners from the United Nations Development Program, the World Meteorological Organisation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and several diplomatic missions in Geneva. During the proceedings, Prof. Andonova also announced that an agreement has been recently reached for the publication of an edited volume which will represent the main academic output of the project, with an expected release date in 2021