The importance of collective action

By Kavita Prakash-Mani, Global leader of WWF’s Markets programme

© Jaap van der Waarde / WWF-Netherlands

The 2018 UN High Level Political Forum to review the Sustainable Development Goals is underway and next week 47 countries will present voluntary national reviews, to demonstrate their progress in meeting goals 6, 7, 11, 12 and 15. All eyes and ears will be on the ministerial representatives as we urgently need to see more encouraging reporting of success on the SDGs, especially environmental goals, including those (such as Clean water and sanitation, Responsible consumption and production, and Life on land) being reviewed this year. However, we can not expect governments alone to achieve the goals. It is a job for multiple stakeholders, from the private sector and financial institutions to civil society and the general public. But as powerful as it would be for everyone to take individual responsibility we need to go a step further — we must coalesce to drive success. We must bring to life SDG 17 on partnerships.

WWF has a long history of tackling problems through partnerships — for decades we have understood that we can not be successful acting alone. Our work with governments takes place at both the local and national level, for instance in Colombia where the Chiribiquete National Park has been protected and declared a World Heritage site. In the private sector we work to transform business operations and improve sustainability, from individual action with companies like Wal-Mart and Ikea, to multi-company platforms like Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA) and Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN). We engage with farmers and producers from China and Pakistan to Kenya and Zambia, working to improve farming and fishing practices and improve food security for smallholder farmers. We even support 200+ community enterprises to provide financial incentives for conservation.

The most impactful partnerships however, come from multi-stakeholder approaches, involving several different actors, often with conflicting views.

Multi-stakeholder approaches are needed to ensure that we develop systemic solutions that address the root cause of issues. Many conceptually brilliant solutions fail when it comes to implementation as a key stakeholders are not bought into the process. Bringing parties together in structured dialogues helps to generate common visions and get to solutions on contentious issues, often creating unusual allies along the way. Furthermore, as with any partnership, a multi-stakeholder approach supports learning across organisations, geographies and sectors. With more parties involved, there is even greater opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas. Lastly, multi-stakeholder approaches may actually be necessary to stimulate cultural change in decision-making and governance. We see this in progress on the SDGs themselves, where a business-as-usual scenario will not see us achieve any of the goals or targets by 2030 — and fresh voices, debate and tension is required to advance a shared mission.

The coming together of multiple parties to create landscape-based approaches, in areas like the Mekong, Sabah, Sumatra, the Amazon and Cerrado have proven extremely successful in improving law enforcement, creating market linkages and reducing threats to wildlife and forest habitat. Integrated action at landscape scale is much more effective than traditional approaches of working through small scale projects and single sector approaches. Another, perhaps more established, example of multi-stakeholder approaches has been the formation of several certification and standards bodies — for instance the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, of which WWF was a founding member alongside Aarhus United UK Ltd., the Malaysian Palm Oil Association and Unilever. The group now consists of oil palm producers, processors and traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and NGOs and has successfully implemented global standards for sustainable palm oil. The risk, of course, is that in finding common ground we often do not achieve the ultimate outcome we seek in environmental and social sustainability. And sometimes, we may even consider the establishment of a multi-stakeholder forum e.g. a certification scheme, as the end game rather than a step towards the final outcome.

This need for collaboration is being recognized and various platform are being developed, such as the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) co-developed by a number of organizations; the Friends of Ocean platform from the World Economic Forum; the New York Declaration on Forests which brings together companies, governments and NGOs in a common commitment; and even the We Are Still In coalition of the willing in the US bringing together state and city governments with businesses and NGOs to commit to stop climate change.

All actors have a responsibility to collaborate and to advocate and act for meaningful change. And to take everyone along — we do not have the luxury to slow down our progress. It’s imperative that we work together to transform the laggards in different sectors and value chains. We must recognize the inter-dependence, the role that everyone plays, and invest in a common vision to achieve meaningful progress.

If we don’t find and embrace ways of working together, we will likely be in the same place come 2030; meeting to review a set of goals we are failing to meet.

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