Stakeholder engagement: The case for a more strategic approach
After the isolating and unkind years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shrank our networks and reduced social interactions, it was heartwarming to witness our colourful United Nations Conference Center in Bangkok brimming with life and fully crowded again during the 10th Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development, bustling with over 1,000 delegates and representatives from across Asia and the Pacific. The crowd represented a wide range of sectors and age groups, who had come to share their experiences, voice their opinions and help formulate solutions and regional actions to try to bring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) back on track or “rescue the SDGs.”
After years of virtual meetings, the halls, exhibition and engagement and dining spaces were buzzing with the hum of new and renewed connections. A development partner shared his appreciation for the many engagement spaces and opportunities as he “networked non-stop.” Glimpses of many lively discussions were a reminder of the immense value of broad and inclusive partnerships – from hearing about the “power of We,” the reminder that the “right partnerships are transformative,” can “up the game” or about the key role of civil society organizations in strengthening evidence-based policies, for example.
Such partnerships indeed provide us with a crucial feedback loop on our work and the relevance and effectiveness of the development solutions ESCAP champions. Partnerships allow for a vital reality-check on the situation on the ground, in particular with regard to the extent of disparities and inequalities faced by vulnerable groups. They also play a central role for evidence-based policies, including to support the voluntary national review (VNR) and voluntary local review (VLR) processes, as well as regular in-depth review/assessments of the progress (or lack thereof) against goals and targets. Not to mention the role partnerships also play to ensure wider reach and faster uptake of the good practices identified and policy recommendations ESCAP meetings and projects may bring forth. For example, ESCAP’s support of city-to-city cooperation between Melbourne, Australia and Suva, Fiji for their upcoming VLR. Melbourne deployed new data techniques which supported Suva, while Suva shared information on community-based disaster risk reduction and climate action with Melbourne. Additionally, Tajikistan’s second VNR has been informed by consultation with private sector partners, nurtured by ESCAP’s innovative VNR twinning programme, and the country is now sharing this approach with other VNR countries.
In short, partnerships turbocharge our role as convener of intergovernmental forums and lead promoter of regional cooperation among countries in Asia and the Pacific in the pursuit of solutions to sustainable development challenges. We may be less complete without that rich patchwork of partners (including civil society organizations and other stakeholders); without their voices, enthusiasm and drive as they relay precious experience and the diverse views from the ultimate beneficiaries of our work. The long-standing partnership and pioneering engagement model with the Asia-Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism is a great example and key element in this patchwork.
Beyond ESCAP’s multiple, current partnerships - spanning from the private sector through ESCAP Sustainable Business Network, with local governments through CITYNET and United Cities and Local Governments Asia-Pacific, and with CSOs, academic and research and training institutes, think tanks, the VNRs and the well-oiled process leading to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development - let us hope we keep making steady progress to efficiently harness such wide networks of partners. In this connection, further reflections on ways ESCAP may be even more “fit for partnership” could help, as well, perhaps as a collection of good practices and other considerations at different stages of the partnering continuum - potentially leading ultimately to the formulation of an ESCAP wide engagement strategy. For example, how can we be “institutionally optimized” to facilitate partnership? Are there any innovative partnership opportunities that we can explore further? How should we forge new partnerships? How may we optimize a partnership potential?
Amid the compounding crises the region currently faces, it is an opportune moment to capitalize on our role as knowledge broker, as we serve as a neutral meeting ground and interface between different target audiences and spheres (oftentimes considered as highly disparate, if not polarized, for example, that of research conducted by subject experts and that of decisions/actions by policymakers). For in such intensely social and interactive processes lie one of our core strengths.
In light of the Decade of Action and call by the Secretary-General for all sectors of society to mobilize at different levels “to secure greater leadership, more resources and smarter solutions for the SDGs,” at midpoint in the pursuit of the 2030 Agenda, establishing such broad partnerships is an imperative to keep forging ahead when the SDGs are still several decades away from being achieved in the Asia-Pacific region. Any given stakeholder alone cannot achieve the SDGs.
Partnerships would help get the region back on track to achieve the goals, also building essential bridges and shedding light on some of our blind spots and undo – not the precious progress towards the goals - but the bricks of some looming ivory tower. Building upon our former Deputy Executive Secretary Kaveh Zahedi’s remarks at the APFSD VNR session who stated that “stronger partnerships make for stronger VNRs”, we would like to venture that stronger stakeholder engagement would make for stronger ESCAP and the region it strives to serve.