Guest Articles

November 8

Yaquta Kanchwala Fatehi / Dana Gorodetsky

Five Ways the Private Sector Can Align with the Sustainable Development Goals

How can partnerships between the private sector, governments and NGOs help advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and what’s the best way to measure the success of these collaborations? How can these institutions join forces effectively with local communities for real and sustainable impact? How can progress toward both global and local sustainability be measured uniformly given the proliferation of performance indicators?

These are a few of the questions explored at the recent Sustainability and Development Conference (SDC) at the University of Michigan. The event drew nearly 500 academics and practitioners from around the world, and we attended on behalf of the William Davidson Institute (WDI – NextBillion’s parent organization).

The conference delivered some essential insights on the private sector’s role in sustainability and development. Here are some key takeaways.


Shifting from Transactional to Transformational Partnerships

There’s a growing awareness that the private sector has a role to play in advancing sustainability and development goals – and the SDGs in particular. Rosina Bierbaum at the University of Maryland highlighted the strong financial case being made for sustainability efforts in the “Adapt Now: A Global Call For Leadership On Climate Resilience” report. And as Mette Olwig from Roskilde University pointed out in her session on “commodifying humanitarianism,” profit and doing good are increasingly seen as going hand-in-hand – and “doing good” is increasingly defined as working toward the SDGs. The goals offer a convenient and visible framework for sustainability and development efforts that appeals to the business world.

These trends are welcome, given the concern raised by World Vision’s Keith Dokho in a panel on leveraging private sector resources for development impact: namely, that philanthropy alone cannot bridge the estimated annual US $2.5-3 trillion gap in investment needed to achieve the SDGs. One way private sector actors are helping to address this gap is by shifting from transactional to transformational partnerships.

Transformational partnerships are built on common goals and values among organizations, and have potential for deeper change than transactional partnerships. They require companies to move beyond their charitable foundation or corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, and to engage their core business units in working to achieve the SDGs. The efforts of corporate foundations and CSR units can fall in the transactional partnership category, as they tend to focus on brand recognition and marketing targeted at Global North consumers, resulting in less Global South social impact. We believe that companies should continue seeking ways to tie their core business activities to environmental and social metrics, and use them together with business metrics to generate sustainable and scalable positive change – while also driving growth and revenue.


Exploring New Frameworks for Measuring Impact

It can be hard to make sense of all the different forms of partnerships that the private sector may engage in to advance the SDGs. It can be equally challenging to answer questions like:

  • Was this cross-sector partnership a success?
  • What worked – and what were the unintended consequences?
  • Is there any way to predict a partnership’s change potential?

A number of assessment frameworks aim to answer some of these questions – but few of them are suited to cross-sector partnerships focused on sustainability and international development. A new, integrated framework presented by Thilde Langevang from the Copenhagen Business School aims to assess the actual impact of these kinds of partnerships as development agents. It seeks to unearth insights in agency and empowerment from the beneficiaries of cross-sector partnership that are not immediately apparent.

Langevang illustrated this approach with a case study on a partnership between a Ghanaian NGO employing women to produce beads and a Danish jewelry producer, whose overarching goal was poverty alleviation through the employment of single mothers. While the partnership achieved certain outputs and targets, assessing it through this new framework revealed critical limitations. For example, the women who were being employed were not the “poor and marginalized,” but rather women who already had resources to start a small business or find employment.


developing Measurement Approaches that Work

While presenters shared numerous methodologies and an incredible number of indicators relevant to their research questions, the discussion among the conference’s audience centered on how to systematically and sustainably measure the SDGs, given this proliferation of methods and indicators.

The Performance Measurement and Improvement team at WDI tried to reflect that focus in our own presentation at the event – through a private sector lens. We collaborate closely with private sector partners to co-create a theory of change framework for a market-based intervention – or even for the entire business unit – in order to measure the impacts of their interventions. Then, based on this framework, we develop the other components of a monitoring and evaluation plan – including determining the intervention’s key performance indicators (KPIs) and linking them to the SDGs.

WDI’s presentation at the conference gave examples of KPIs that can measure SDGs, and shared key lessons learned when conducting measurement activities with the private sector. We also made the case that measurement should be used not just for accountability and reporting, but also for the continuous improvement of projects. This is especially necessary because private sector actors cannot wait for years to get results and insights from an impact evaluation.


Finding Meaningful Ways to Work with Local Communities

Many panelists at the conference echoed a key point: For work in sustainable development to be successful, organizations – including those in the private sector – must engage with local communities. But this engagement must happen in meaningful ways.

Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte of the Copenhagen Business School highlighted this through a comparison of Starbuck’s Kahawa Bora initiative and a Rikolto project, which both involved smallholder coffee farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their research categorized Kahawa Bora as a top-down partnership, involving a lead firm (i.e., Starbucks) upon which much of the success of the project hinged. The panelists found that the Congolese coffee farmers involved were essentially “sidekicks,” and their livelihoods depended on Starbucks purchasing the coffee. On the other hand, they described Rikolto’s project as a bottom-up partnership centered around cooperatives, in which the livelihood needs of the smallholder coffee farmers were front and center to the design and success of the project. They found that the volume of coffee production had grown over time for the Rikolto project, but was relatively stable in the Kahawa Bora project.

Another persistent challenge mentioned at the conference is the need to give weight to underrepresented or neglected local voices. The lack of perspectives from indigenous populations is a prime example of this shortcoming. Their engagement is especially critical in protecting natural resources – something these populations have often done for generations, in ways that are more sustainable than current approaches.

Similarly, there is a growing emphasis on incorporating smallholder farmers into solutions related to poverty alleviation and climate change. This is, in part, due to the multiple negative effects that industrial farming has on the environment. It’s also because smallholder farmers number around 500 million people, and they produce about 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. However, in one panel, Madhura Swaminathan of the Indian Statistical Institute raised the concern that development actors tend to romanticize the role of smallholder farmers in relieving stress on climate change and improving food security on a broad scale. She shared an example from India, where her research found that there is much yet to be understood about the heterogeneity of these farmers, and the nuances of their needs and opportunities in different contexts.


Bridging Gaps Between Academics and Practitioners

The gap between academics and practitioners is a perennial challenge in development, and the composition of attendees at SDC 2019 clearly illustrated this issue. Practitioners represented a very small number of the roughly 500 attendees at the conference, and organizers hope to draw more to next year’s event.

The gap persists in part because many academics indeed do produce relevant and actionable research, which often goes unnoticed by practitioners. And in some cases, both academics and practitioners focus on single-issue interventions, rather than researching or implementing systematic solutions – as a result, they cannot find a fit with one another. This is especially true when academics use randomized control trials to identify causal inferences, since these findings cannot be used in a generalizable manner.

What’s more, the two groups often speak different languages, with each using specialized jargon that can lead to misunderstandings or disengagement when interacting with each other. And much academic research sits behind paywalls, where many practitioners lack the time or access to read them. Finally, as Diana Mitlin of the University of Manchester recognized in her plenary session, there is still a sense of elitism among some academics, which creates a barrier to engaging in debate with people who have different perspectives.

Many, including our teams at WDI, are conscious of the need to bridge this gap. In WDI’s case, the organization is situated at an academic institution, which makes this need even more urgent. We make an effort to apply rigorous methods and approaches, backed by academic literature and working in concert with leading faculty experts – but our partners and clients are largely practitioners. So we take great care to ensure that our communication methods, findings and reports are actionable, easily digestible and accessible to these audiences.


Next Steps: Time for a Professional Sustainable Development Society?

Most of the ideas and challenges highlighted during SDC 2019 will take time, iteration and commitment to address. The event concluded with a discussion about the need to create a professional society for sustainability and development professionals. Some key questions on the society remain to be answered, such as what its goals should be, how to engage stakeholders beyond academia so research can be actionable, and how to organize active participation. But through the work of the conference organizers and others, interest and momentum seems to be building for this concept, which is an exciting development for such a diverse, multi-sectoral field.


Did you attend the conference, or are you interested in exploring these topics in more detail? Feel free to reach us at if you’d like to discuss anything in this article.


Yaquta Fatehi is a program manager on the Performance Measurement Initiative and Dana Gorodetsky is a senior project manager on the grants management team at the William Davidson Institute. NOTE: WDI is NextBillion’s parent organization.


Top image: After drying in the sun, coffee is given a final sorting to remove defects as part of the USAID/Starbuck’s Kahawa Bora initiative in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image by USAID Democratic Republic of Congo




Agriculture, Environment, Impact Assessment
academia, global development, human rights, impact measurement, SDGs, William Davidson Institute