Stakeholder engagement: between innovate efforts and unmet commitments

January 31, 2023

Philipp Schönrock
Executive Director

At my favorite small bookstore, my mind glides through the bookshelves, and my thoughts take me to the humanities section. No matter which book I take, I consistently find words like: raise the ambition, digital divide, impact (or lack of it), moment of urgency, gender equality, Ukraine war, inflation, and partnerships. Yes, partnerships. We live in an era of partnerships, interlinkages, collaboration, and cooperation. And many coincide in that multi-stakeholder partnerships are needed more than ever. Everyone, in theory, recognizes it; the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs do, as does the UN leadership and some member states. 

We —the so-called stakeholders—  should also engage more proactively and be accountable for our actions when we review the state of progress of the SDGs in the year 2030. The upcoming Partnership Forum of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will bring together UN member states and stakeholders to “discuss innovative efforts that are driving action on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to highlight the contributions that partnerships can make in this regard.”

When experts and practitioners meet at the forum in New York to discuss innovative ideas, they could take a step back and look at what already exists at the country level. And how UN entities are putting into practice the vision of multistakeholder partnerships, promoting accountability and transparency, bringing experience and sectoral knowledge into discussions, reaching grassroots partners, and increasing ownership and trust. 

With the Partnership Forum in mind, Cepei brought together an interdisciplinary group of experts from across the development spectrum to discuss the state of partnerships within the SDGs. 

Upfront, let me share one issue that gave us a reality check. Several senior UN officials and member states representatives with whom we spoke questioned the value of stakeholder engagement, suggesting that before we think about ‘how’ to engage stakeholders better, we should answer the question of ‘why’  —what value does it bring and how will it help achieve better results? This is the wrong starting point. The UN and its member states should strive to recognize and, more importantly, respect the right of those affected by the decisions to participate in the development process and the inherent value of stakeholder participation.

As a result of the expert group’s discussions, [1] we saw the broader picture of how multi-stakeholder partnerships are working these days. From the many points that floated around while debating, let me pinpoint three issues:

  1. We perceived a need for clear, centralized leadership regarding multi-stakeholder engagement within the SDG implementation processes. Bureaucrats, at all levels, seemed unsure about where leadership and guidance to translate the SDG vision on stakeholder engagement into reality should come from. 
  1. There needs to be a clear governance and implementation framework for stakeholder engagement, especially at the national and subnational levels. We have seen little evidence of governments generating incentives, giving financial support, and providing meaningful engagement mechanisms/opportunities for stakeholders to contribute to the SDGs.
  1. A somewhat naive approach persists that it is easy to organize multiple stakeholders, requiring little skill or financial resources. 

As the SDGs reach a defining moment, the main question remains, how to get from agreeing on the problems to a step-by-step transformative agenda? If we don’t get this right today, all actors risk losing credibility when encouraging others to adopt a multistakeholder approach in implementing ongoing or future sustainable development agendas, no matter at what level.

[1] The results of the expert group discussions are available in the paper “Reflections and recommendations for a multi-stakeholder engagement at the regional level” by Leo Williams, Researcher.

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