SDG17's vision of a sustainable future driven by cross-border partnerships has been under siege for the past four years, but is a change coming in the way governments and businesses tackle global challenges?


Back when the UN Sustainable Development Goals were finalised in 2015, the philosophy underpinning SDG 17, the final Sustainable Development Goal, was very much in the ascendancy. Dubbed Partnership for the Goals, the wide-ranging targets covering everything from technology to trade, capacity-building to multi-stakeholder partnerships, and data and monitoring to accountability, were developed in the same year as the Paris Agreement amply demonstrated the merits of multilateralism.

Obama's quiet flexing of diplomatic muscles coupled with China's desire to avert a trade-damaging new Cold War had delivered a nuclear deal in Iran, the world's first universal climate change pact, and a broadly effective containment of the world's increasingly isolated authoritarian strongmen. Meanwhile, the global business community was edging towards an arguably belated recognition of the importance of co-operation, be it within industries, across different sectors, or between corporations and governments.

And then, less than 12 months later, hopes of a new era of multilateralism and enlightened co-operation were crushed overnight by the shock victory of an avowedly 'America First' US President. Within hours the whims of the American Electoral College system empowered autocrats, nationalists and polluters everywhere. The principles underpinning SDG17 were dealt a series of grievous blows, with the years that followed dominated by trade wars, bellicose rhetoric and the deliberate erosion of international institutions.

The conflicting ideals contained in the second term of the Obama Administration and the first term of the Trump Presidency now face their ultimate test. The hollowing out of international bodies and the reluctance of governments to co-operate has exacerbated the coronavirus crisis at every turn, from the initial, overly secretive response to the Wuhan outbreak, through the fierce competition to acquire medical equipment and belief in national exceptionalism, to the Trumpian misinformation and conspiracy theories. But none of that has stopped President Trump and some of his allies doubling down on their short-termist, science-rejecting, overtly populist tactics, presumably in the hope they can scapegoat their way out of the escalating economic, health, and social crisis.

Meanwhile, a fightback is gathering momentum. The principles of co-operation that underpinned SDG17 five long years ago remain as valid as ever. Around the world businesses and governments have been quick to step up calls for a revival of multilateralism as the best route for tackling both the pandemic and the still ongoing climate crisis. Calls are growing for co-ordinated efforts to embrace best practices for stemming and then reversing the march of the pandemic. At the same time ministers and CEOs are stepping up calls to deliver explicitly green economic recovery packages, which can ensure the world learns the lessons from this health crisis and puts itself on track to meet its sustainable development goals

"If partnership had been included as a target within each and every SDG, it would have made more sense" - Louise Ayling, Radley Yeldar


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