Opinion: Why does United Nations Secretary-General insist on placing Public-Private Partnerships in the heart of the Post 2015 Development Agenda?

Jonathan Volt, Earth System Governance International Project Office [@Voltinized] • Mar 23rd, 2015
Opinion: Why does United Nations Secretary-General insist on placing Public-Private Partnerships in the heart of the Post 2015 Development Agenda?
    • The United Nations Secretary-General recently published a synthesis report titled “The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet”. In the report the importance of Public-Private Partnerships is highlighted, and by including “partnerships” as one of six “essential elements” UNSG further boosts the role of partnerships in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. While Public-Private Partnerships might have the potential to leverage funding for development, their track-record in the past is mixed at best.


    • Public-Private Partnerships have not yet proven to be consistent with inclusive governance. In his report, UNSG writes that inclusion and dignity are formulas for sustainable development but this contradicts the results from numerous studies on Public-Private Partnerships, which have revealed that disadvantaged groups are rarely included in, or beneficiary of, these partnerships.


    • While UNSG underscores the importance of financial incentives for private actors he must also provide more clarification on how it will be possible to ensure accountability, transparency and coherence in the future governance of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Participation in Public-Private Partnerships must come with obligations on transparency and accountability. We need a consistent definition of the term “partnerships” and a clear understanding of its role in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.


The United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon recently launched a synthesis report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda titled The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the PlanetIn this report he outlined a blueprint for the road towards sustainable development. The report structures the current proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as building blocks of the Post-2015 Development Agenda separated into “six essential elements for delivering on the SDGs”. These are: Planet, People, Dignity, Prosperity, Justice and Partnerships (UN, 2014, p. 20). By including “partnerships as one key element and by underscoring the importance of private action, the UNSG has effectively put Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) at the center of the Post-2015 Development Agenda and its SDGs. In the synthesis report, PPPs are framed as the best way for implementing and therefore achieving SDGs in an inclusive, efficient, effective and accountable manner. 


“Inclusive partnerships must be a key feature of implementation, at all levels: global, regional, national and local. We know the extent to which this may be transformative. The sustainable development goals provide a platform for aligning private action and public policies.”
                                                              (UNSG Synthesis report 2014, 24) 

The idea of “PPPs” has been “en vogue” in international governance of sustainable development, and increasingly mentioned in UN reports. While, the concept of a “global partnershiponly appeared in one of the original eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and is mentioned again in one of the seventeen newly proposed post-2015 SDGs, did PPPs have a central role in the UNSG’s synthesis report with “partnerships” specifically declared as one of six “essential elements”.

However, the term “partnership”, in combination with other words (see Box 1), can often imply different meanings and purposes. In the MDGs, the primary role of partnerships was to assist developing countries to get out of poverty. The only sub-target mentioning the private sector (8F) was focusing on making new technologies more available for developing countries (i.e. technology transfer). It cannot be understated the degree to which the framing of partnerships has shifted over the fifteen year gaps between when the MDGs were first adopted and when the new SDGs are set to be adopted. The Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 introduced “Type II” partnerships (i.e. PPPs), which formally welcomed both private sector and civil society actors into the global governance of sustainable development. PPPs are highlighted as a separate target (17:17) in the proposed SDGs but the term “partnership” is mentioned only four times in the seventeen proposed SDGs and its underlying 164 targets. In contrast to the UNSG synthesis report in which PPPs play a large role and is framed as something inherently good.

The following table displays the output from a text analysis comparing the UNSG synthesis report with two related documents: We the Peoples (UN, 2000) which was the basis for the MDGs and The Future we Want (UN, 2012) which was the basis of the Rio+20 Conference at which the SDGs were launched on the international agenda.

This text analysis revealed several interesting trends. First of all, the analysis illustrates the policy shift towards PPPs over the last fifteen years. The concept of partnerships was used three times more often in the report released in 2012 than in the report published in 2000. However more interestingly, the UNSG synthesis report mentions partnerships twice as frequently as the UN report published just two years prior, and seven times more frequently than in the UN report from 2000. 

It is also worth noting that the purpose of partnerships differs in the three reports. In the UN report, We the People, from 2000 the main aim is “to develop strong partnerships with the private sector to combat poverty in all its aspects” (UN 2000, 78). In the UN report, The Future We Want, from 2012 PPPs are rather described as an engine for green economy “in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” (UN 2012, 27). One central difference is the view on poverty eradication, which has gone from being the main target to being a sub target – much in line with the broader political trend towards further integration of the three pillars of sustainable development. In the 2014 UNSG synthesis report, the role of PPPs is no longer framed as a means to an end but an end in itself as illustrated by this statement: “Implementation is not just about quantity. It is also about doing things together, uniting around the problem” (UNSG synthesis report, 2014, 24). In parallel to the increased use of the concept of green economy (or green growth) the view of PPPs has shifted from being a necessary evil to something inherently good.  

What might this shift in focus imply for the implementation of the SDGs in relation to effectiveness and inclusion? Furthermore, how will this´s pivot towards PPPs affect global environmental governance and the role of UN in it?

“I am convinced that governments alone cannot tackle global development challenges. Partnerships with the private sector are crucial to achieving sustainable development.” (UNSG, 2013)  

One major problem with this increased enthusiasm for PPPs in global environmental governance is that many studies have shown that PPPs rarely meet the high expectations placed in them. Biermann et al. show through a large-n study that the entire system of PPPs that came out of the WSSD in Johannesburg had no positive effects on regulation, implementation or participation (Biermann et al. 2007, 256). PPPs will also come at a cost for the UN and its member states: The perception of legitimacy is likely to decrease when power shifts from governments to private actors. Furthermore, influential private actors and NGOs generally have their base in developed countries, which in extension shifts power from developing countries to developed countries.

“Efforts to increase the effectiveness of development cooperation need to be enhanced based on basic principles of country ownership, results focus, inclusive partnerships, transparency and accountability.”    (UNSG Synthesis report 2014, 28).

The UNSG synthesis report also describes PPPs as a means to improve effectiveness of sustainable development implementations. PPPs are often described as an arrangement that distributes tasks to the most efficient actor by encouraging collaborations between different levels of actors and expertise. However, studies show that the actual effectiveness of PPPs is questionable at best. Szulecki et al show that powerful actors from developed countries are more commonly part of the most effective partnerships and that “the least effective partnerships include weaker and poorer African countries” (Szulecki 2011, 731). Karin Bäckstrand points out that less than 50 percent of all the PPPs have implemented a mechanism for measuring effectiveness (Bäckstrand 2006, 303). Lack of transparency and accountability is an inherent problem in PPPs due to the nature of private actors, which often have an incentive to keep information confidential in order to not give away any competitive advantages. The overall effect of PPPs has been inconclusive and thus cannot be seen as a guarantee for successful achievement of the SDGs. Hence, the bold claims made by the UNSG in his are simply not evidence-based.

“All voices have demanded that we leave no one behind, ensuring equality, nondiscrimination, equity and inclusion at all levels.”  (UNSG Synthesis report 2014, 14)

Inclusion is another key concept in the UNSG synthesis report. PPPs are in the report framed as a good way to enhance inclusion of different actors.  For example, the report states that partnerships “include the participation of all relevant stakeholders” (UN, 2014, p. 24). Inclusion should indeed be something to strive for, but studies continue to show that PPPs have not been the best way to enhance inclusion or participation. One study found that partnerships only strengthen the participation of those actors that already participate (Biermann et al. 2008, p. 256). Pattberg (2010) shows in his study that PPPs in the area of climate change have only shown a limited ability to close the participation gap of actors. Biermann et al (2007) reach a similar conclusion in finding that the majority of partners in PPPs are based in developed countries. Biermann also found that there were significant limitations to inclusive participation given that ”of all partnerships registered with the United Nations as of December 2006, less than 1 percent had partners from groups such as farmers, workers and trade unions, indigenous people, women, youth or children” (Biermann 2007, 251-254). These findings clearly illustrate the fallacy of assuming that using partnerships will automatically drive social inclusion and participation. 

Given the diversity found in private sector, civil society and public actors, the typical assumption is that different actors have different incentives and rationalities. Glasbergen (2007, 6) notes that “taking a rather cynical view, one might assume that businesses always try to protect their own market, NGOs are constantly scouting for funding and governments […] see their participation as an opportunity to shift some of their responsibilities onto other shoulders.” To a large extent, the UN seems to share the same rationality as national governments. By promoting PPPs, the UNSG seems to be attempting to distribute some of the existing UN responsibilities for promoting equality and protecting the environment to the private sector and civil society. However, a small percent of private actors have enhancement of equality or the protection of the environment as their top priority.  

The UN´s role in a new and more fragmented governance system is constantly evolving. There is a growing call for the UN to evolve its role in the global governance system in order to be “fit for purpose” within the new political and economic realities in the current world system. Global environmental governance is characterized by a broad set of new and increasingly powerful actors such as local and regional governments, civil society and private actors (see Young et al. 2014). However, in this new environment of actors and agents, PPPs will not automatically benefit good governance or institutions. Studies have shown that PPPs are most frequently used in those areas that are already heavily institutionalized and regulated (Biermann et al. 2007, 256). The UN should create incentives for PPPs to be more pluralistic, just and inclusive.

One key motivation for the UN to shift power and influence to external actors is related to finance. The UN and the ambitious Post-2015 Development Agenda need funding, so the private sector is being viewed as the key source for that much needed funding. But when the UN abdicates the Development Agenda to corporations in the private sector, they might lose more than just their legitimacy.  Would it even be possible to gather public support for the Post-2015 agenda and its SDGs in the future (like the People´s Climate March that took place in New York and around the world in September 2014) if big corporations, such as British Petroleum and McDonalds, are taking the lead?

The role of PPPs in global environmental governance may increase in the future, and that may or may not be a positive change. But financial incentives for private actors engaged in PPPs must be balanced with real development obligations faced by both individual nation states and the UN in order to ensure transparency, accountability and just outcomes. In much the same way that there are extensive discussions on what constitutes good governance, we must be equally serious in discussing what constitutes good partnerships. It is time to recognize that PPPs are neither inherently good nor democratic, and thus it is critical that we forge agreement on what a good partnership is and how we can create the right incentives for good partnerships that will actually benefit the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Essential values in the Post-2015 Development Agenda such as equity and inclusion must permeate the whole process and not just the goals. Thus, PPPs must reflect these values and be inclusive, fair and transparent. Finally, we need clarity on the concept of partnerships so there can be some agreement on what elements should be included and excluded, what should be the purpose of PPPs,  and in what ways we can we ensure accountability and transparency from Post-2015 partnerships. Without a clear and unequivocal understanding of these concepts, it is unlikely that partnerships in the way they are being uncritically hailed by the UNSG will benefit the Post-2015 Development Agenda or its SDGs.


List of references 

Biermann, Frank - Chan, Man-san - Mert Ayşem and Pattberg Phillip,”Multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development: does the promise hold?” in Glasbergen, Pieter, Biermann, Frank & Mol, Arthur P. J. (red.) (2007). Partnerships, governance and sustainable development: reflections on theory and practice. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar p. 239 – 260

Bäckstrand, Karin, 2006. ‘Multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development: rethinking legitimacy, accountability and effectiveness’. European Environment, 16, 290–306.

Glasbergen, Pieter, ”Setting the scene: the partnership paradigm in the making” in Glasbergen, Pieter, Biermann, Frank & Mol, Arthur P. J. (red.) (2007). Partnerships, governance and sustainable development: reflections on theory and practice. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar p. 1-25

Pattberg Philipp, 2010.  Public–private partnerships in global climate governance. WIREs Climate Change 279-287. [Electronic] Available: 

Szulecki, K., Pattberg, P. and Biermann, F. 2011.Explaining Variation in the Effectiveness of Transnational Energy Partnerships”, Governance, 24 (4), 713–736 [Electronic] Available:

UNSG Synthesis report = United Nations (UNSG Ban Ki Moon), 2014, The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet. Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General On the Post-2015 Agenda. [Electronic] Available:

UNCSD, 2012. The Future We Want: Outcome Document adopted the United Nation Conference on Sustainable Development [Electronic]  Available:

United Nations (UNSG Kofi A. Annan), 2000. We the Peoples: the Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century [Electronic] Available:

UNSG = United Nations (UNSG Ban Ki Moon), 2013. Statement: Secretary-General's remarks at the Hong Kong-U.S. Business Council Dialogue. [Electronic] Available:

Young, Oran R. Underdal, Arild. Kanie, Norichika. Andresen, Steinar. Bernstein, Steven. Biermann, Frank. Gupta, Joyeeta. Haas, Peter M.  Iguchi, Masahiko. Kok, Marcel. Levy, Marc. Nilsson, Måns. Pintér, László and Stevens, Casey. 2014. Earth System Challenges and a Multi-Layered Approach for the Sustainable Development Goal POST2015/UNU-IAS Policy Brief #1. Tokyo: United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability [Electronic] Available:


Tags: global governance,Post-2015 Development Agenda,Public-Private Partnerships,SDGs,UN Secretary General,UNSG Synthesis Report