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SDG partnerships analysed: environmental goals particularly popular

16 May 2023
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are high on the agenda of numerous companies, organizations, academic institutions - including VU Amsterdam - and governments worldwide. They are a call-to-action to address major sustainability challenges such as poverty and climate change. Goal 17 emphasizes the importance of international cooperation*. VU researchers Oscar Widerberg, Phillipp Pattberg, Cornelia Fast, and Montserrat Koloffon investigate these multi-stakeholder partnerships: What do they focus on? How do they work? And can they accelerate the sustainability transition?

As part of the SDG Academy lecture series, the Amsterdam Sustainability Institute (ASI) organised a hybrid event at the Green Office VU on May 11. During this event, the above mentioned authors of the report as well as, Karin Bäckstrand (Stockholm University) and guest speaker Sander Chan (Radboud University) presented and discussed the newly collected data on these SDG partnerships, as part of the research project: ‘Transformative Partnerships 2030’.

Environmental SDG’s most popular

The researchers analysed partnerships that connect multiple SDGs, thereby having greater potential to bring about large-scale change. The research results of the VU scientists show that the environmental goals are receiving most attention in multi-stakeholder partnerships. The top three most addressed combinations involve those goals or a combination of them: around a third (35%) of the partnerships address climate action (goal 13), also a third (39%) involve life below water (goal 14) and a quarter (24%) covers life on land (goal 15). Health and education are also often jointly addressed: 63 out of the 371 analysed partnerships connect these SDGs. However, the more economic goals, such as goal 12: responsible consumption and production, are the least popular: less than 5 percent of the investigated partnerships include this goal. VU Amsterdam researcher Cornelia Fast explains: "when you address responsible consumption and production, we end up in a discussion about who is responsible for what. Should companies take responsibility, or can this be left to individual consumers? Financially focused SDGs like goal 12 may be less attractive because companies in these collaborations must take responsibility themselves. That requires a lot of dedication."

Mostly national governments

The results show that not companies, but mainly public entities such as governments and international organizations are part of multi-stakeholder collaborations. When zooming in on governments, at least one country from each continent is represented in the top 25 most involved countries, according to the researchers' analysis. Particularly northern countries such as the US, France, and the Netherlands have a significant stake.

The Netherlands ranks seventh of this top 25 list. How important is the Netherlands as a partner in the sustainability transition? "Very important," says co-researcher Montserrat Koloffon. The Netherlands is a small country, but does certainly not have a small economy." Fast adds: "A major obstacle in many sustainability projects is a lack of funding. The Netherlands can play a significant role in this regard".


In contrast to earlier research, which showed that 60% of the collaborations examined were inactive or had no observable output (Pattberg, 2012), the VU researchers' dataset now, 11 years later, shows a more hopeful picture: more than half of the collaborations examined are active, although their functions mainly involve the "soft" side of governance and policy, such as knowledge-sharing, training, and capacity-building. Koloffon: "sometimes it seems as if collaborations hardly achieve any real action, but functions that are about creating awareness are also very important. And that is harder to measure."

Accelerating the transition

In the coming period, the VU researchers will delve further into the actual effectiveness of the collaborations. Montserrat Koloffon: "We are not only interested in whether the partnerships are possibly effective, but also whether they have the potential to accelerate the sustainability transition. With less than ten years left to accomplish the Agenda 2030, of which the SDGs form part, that is what matters."

The Transformative Partnerships 2030 research project is funded by Formas, the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development. To learn more about the project, please visit this website.

*Well-known international cooperations include Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which aims to increase access to vaccination, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for sustainable palm oil production and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) improving air quality and mitigating climate change.

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