Making public-private partnerships work

by John Ruggie
Wednesday, 11 September 2013 10:00 GMT

In a file photo from 2007, airline tycoon Richard Branson (L) and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore hold a globe in central London. REUTERS Kieran Doherty

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For business to contribute to global priorities, the U.N. Global Compact summit must focus on learning from experience what makes partnerships work, in particular for those who are most in need of assistance

A full agenda awaits business executives, government officials and civil society representatives attending next week’s U.N. Global Compact leaders summit in New York. Everything from climate change to women’s empowerment to the ambitions for new global development goals post-2015 - and the private sector’s role in each of these - will be part of the discussions. At stake is nothing less than making multistakeholder initiatives more effective and legitimate forms of global governance.

The U.N. Global Compact is itself an experiment in global governance. What started in 2000 as a challenge to businesses by then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to uphold within their own operations a set of principles based on U.N. standards in the areas of human rights, labour and the environment (an anti-corruption principle was added later), has grown to become the world’s largest corporate citizenship initiative. Today, the Global Compact ambitiously aims to put forward “a new global architecture for scaling up corporate sustainability” and “a path for business to contribute to global priorities and the public good”.

But what forms should this and other forms of collective action take, and how can we measure progress?

A report by the high-level panel appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on post-2015 priorities to carry on from the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, titled “A New Global Partnership”, builds on growing interest in “public-private partnerships” to address governance challenges across a wide range of issues. It suggests such partnerships are key to making faster progress over the next decade. But it should be acknowledged that debates continue over whether and how such arrangements - designed to bring diverse state and non-state actors together to tackle common problems or governance gaps - can best be made to work in practice.

Proponents of public-private partnerships argue that, if well designed, they can be a more effective strategy than traditional top-down regulatory measures, which have often proven ill equipped to respond to many collective action problems. Others point to numerous obstacles facing such efforts, including difficulties in achieving consensus, imbalances in power and capacity among the various actors involved, as well as questions regarding their social and political legitimacy.

The high-level panel’s report notes that such partnerships will need to be based on “new ways of working” and a “clear process through which to measure progress towards goals and targets and to hold people accountable for meeting their commitments”. But what lessons can we learn from existing initiatives on what works and what doesn’t in implementing collective action strategies? And where should we look for the baseline expectations for all actors as they engage in public-private experiments in governance?

The good news is that we have an increasingly large number of multistakeholder efforts to study and draw lessons from. For example, since the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, hundreds of partnerships have taken shape across multiple policy domains. Many new initiatives were announced at the 2012 Rio+20 Summit. Similarly, a growing number of industry sectors - from apparel to extractives to private security to major commodities such as palm oil and diamonds - have worked with other stakeholders to develop initiatives aimed at improving their own environmental and social performance.

Yet despite their numbers, we don’t yet have solid evidence or even shared views on what good practice for such initiatives looks like; and we are still in the early stages of developing the tools needed to evaluate their impacts across the board. As a result, too often new efforts continue to “start from scratch” in developing standards and governance arrangements instead of learning from those that went before. That’s why this year’s Global Compact summit and the discussions leading up to 2015 must give central attention to learning from experience on what makes partnerships work, in particular for those who are most vulnerable and in need of assistance.

One important contribution to that aim can be found in the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed unanimously by the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2011. The guiding principles were the result of a six-year global multistakeholder effort. They reaffirm the duties of states to protect against rights abuses involving business, but also clarify the responsibilities of all companies to respect human rights in their own business conduct and relationships. Given the broad backing these guiding principles now enjoy, public-private partnerships going forward should include in their governance arrangements measures to reinforce existing state duties as well as corporate due diligence processes to avoid adverse impacts, and to address them where they do occur. Multistakeholder initiatives should also ensure they have in place effective grievance mechanisms consistent with the provisions set out in the guiding principles.

Launching new partnerships is the easy part. Making them effective and accountable is harder, and requires greater attention, as such initiatives become an ever-more frequent response to societies’ many serious challenges.

John Ruggie is the Berthold Beitz professor in human rights and international affairs at Harvard University and chair of the international advisory board of the Institute for Human Rights and Business. From 2005 to 2011 he served as the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative on business and human rights.