The United Nations have a long history of involvement with stakeholders and multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) for sustainable development, beginning with the Rio Earth Summit (1992) when 9 chapters on Major Groups (stakeholders) were integrated into Agenda 21.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 predominately saw partnerships as those between governments.

In preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD, 2002) there was a recognition that MSPs could play an important role in helping to implement global agreed goals and targets. The terrible action on Sept 11, 2001 focused governments away from setting new global goals and targets. WSSD had no new significant policy commitments. This contributed to a lack of clear focus for the multi-stakeholder partnerships created.

At the final preparatory meeting for WSSD, which was held in Bali, Indonesia, a set of Principles for partnerships were developed, which became known as the Bali Guiding Principles for MSPs. These guiding principles were not negotiated during WSSD but circulated by WSSD Bureau Members Kara and Quarless.

In 2003, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development agreed a set of Guidelines for Partnerships. This has been the major guidance the UN has had from member states on how to oversee partnerships registered with the UN.

However, the Bali Guiding Principles and the CSD-11 Guidelines remained something to note, and were not promoted strongly as THE guidelines for MSPs, nor did they become the basis of developing reporting, reviewing, or learning mechanisms.

A perceived failure to set up Guidelines and Criteria to deal with partnerships effectively in the wake of the Summit did not help to improve the standing, and understanding, of partnerships in UN processes.

At the Rio+20 Summit (2012), it wasn’t partnerships that were included beyond the intergovernmental process and agreements but ‘voluntary initiatives’, by individual organisations or coalitions.

In 2014, the Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action (Samoa Pathway) re-engaged in the discourse on MSPs and included strong reference to partnerships.

Building on this, MSPs were seen as a mechanism to help implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Development Agenda. SDG Goal 17 refers to a broader definition of MSPs than the MDGs did with their focus on government to government global partnership for development. Finally, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) also promoted multi-stakeholder partnerships.

It is also important to note, and learn from, the history of how UN institutions and their procedures have dealt with Major Groups and with partnerships in the past: the UN Commission on Sustainable Development held multi-stakeholder dialogues on specific issues, and introduced Partnership Fairs to present MSP contributions. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and processes in their wake led to the Annual Ministerial Review and the annual meeting under ECOSOC on partnerships for the MDGs as well as the creation of the UN Global Compact and the UN Partnerships Office.

The 2030 Agenda maintains partnerships as ‘a’ means of implementation (MoI), and the GA resolution “towards global partnerships” provides a mandate to “discuss best practices and ways to improve (…)
transparency, accountability and the sharing of experiences (…) the review and monitoring of those partnerships”; and to “develop (…) a common and systemic approach”.