You are here: Mrinalini Singh considers the UN and the private sector - do such partnerships work?

The UN is well recognised for its contributions in myriad fields ranging from ensuring peace and security, to providing humanitarian assistance and meeting poverty reduction, and disaster risk management targets. With positive economic growth in the world, the private sector is a key player contributing to employment, trade and income generation.             

Despite seemingly divergent approaches, the UN and the private sector are nonetheless united by shared and aligned goals. For example, the UN is the architect of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); and the successor post-2015 development agenda and the private sector serves as a catalyst for economic development through job creation, tax generation and infrastructure improvement. Moreover, the private sector can help the UN achieve its development goals by making crucial contributions through its expertise, and financial and technical know-how. Equally, partnering with the UN, which is a leading global development actor, helps the private sector bolster its own credibility.    

Recognising the scope for such collaboration, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has remarked that “the United Nations and business need each other”. This also stems from a more fundamental recognition that the challenges confronting the world today are better addressed by collaborative effort, rather than by any one sector alone.     

Indeed, development partnerships between the UN and the private sector have become a popular trend in recent years. These partnerships can assume different forms, such as through extending financial support, provision of humanitarian assistance, committing to UN objectives and supporting the UN Global Compact – a UN initiative encouraging corporates to embrace universal principles on issues such as human rights, labour and environment.

Between 2009 and 2013, the private sector supported United Nations Development Programme projects amounting to $135 million. Similarly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees partnered with IKEA Foundation, to provide sustainable lighting solutions to refugee camps in Ethiopia, Chad, Jordan and Bangladesh. And the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has collaborated with a leading corporation to produce mapping technology which will help it anticipate disaster risks in target areas.   

In 2009, the UN re-released the ‘Guidelines on Cooperation between the United Nations and the Business Sector’, which serve as the basis for engagement between the UN and the private sector. The Guidelines lay emphasis on “ensuring integrity and independence of the UN” during any collaboration. The UN also has designated UN Private Sector Focal Points - personnel from UN bodies who facilitate meaningful engagement between their offices and the private sector. Additionally, since 2008, the Secretary-General has convened an annual UN Private Sector Forum to coincide with the General Assembly opening session, in order to enable the private sector to voice its opinion on key intergovernmental negotiations. The United Nations Office for Partnerships works with corporations, civil society and philanthropic foundations to help achieve the MDGs and other UN initiatives. The UN Partnership Facility is another recent effort of the Secretary-General to promote a range of multi-stakeholder partnerships, including with the private sector.    

Despite such impressive avenues for collaboration, there are several difficulties plaguing the UN’s engagement with the private sector. Time and staff constraints, bureaucratic obstacles and lack of specialised skills and know-how are common problems affecting such partnerships. For instance, partnership approval processes can often encounter high costs and time delays. UN agencies have also reported facing steep learning curves when working on complex business and financing models in their partnership with corporates. There is also concern about lack of formal evaluation processes to measure a partnership’s impact.

Perhaps the overarching concern is ensuring that the values of the UN are not compromised during partnerships. The Guidelines, for example, provide detailed information about use of the UN name and logo. This needs to be harmoniously balanced with the expectations of the business partners who have complained about lack of UN visibility during such collaborations. Critics have also suggested promoting more transparent communications about a partnership’s risks to stakeholders, so that pre-agreed commitments are not reneged on.  

Notwithstanding such challenges, there is tremendous scope for the UN and the private sector to develop a symbiotic relationship, where they both contribute not just to each other’s prosperity but also aid global development. The past successful partnerships between these two groups bear testimony to that vision.                 

Mrinalini Singh is UNA-UK’s Research Officer.