Partnerships for the Goals

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Cross-Sector Partnerships: Role Toward Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Scott A. HipsherEmail author
Living reference work entry


Cross-sector partnerships have been used and advocated as an important type of arrangement to use in addressing social problems. And while “Cross-sector partnerships and collaborations are mostly uncritically presented as good and mutually beneficial,” the reality is much more nuanced (Battisti 2009, p. 96), and results depend to some extent on how these partnerships are formed and used. While there is no single accepted definition of cross-sector partnerships, the term is usually used to refer to partnerships which are formed by different sectors of an economy that are engaged on an ongoing basis, whether short or long term, and which are specifically formed to address social issues (Selsky and Parker 2005, p. 850). This entry is intended to explore the use of cross-sector partnerships in making progress toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were designed as a tool or as guidelines to use to make the world a better place with a specific focus on improving the lives of people living in poverty. When trying to improve the standards of living of individuals at a global level, it might be a good idea to take stock of the current situation and the amount of progress which has been made. There are many scholars and experts who tend to present the current world situation and levels of poverty in a very negative light (e.g., Boltvinik 2016; Leff 2016; Wallerstein 2013), despite statistical evidence showing significant progress having been made over recent decades at the global level in a number of measures of standards of living and specifically in reductions in extreme poverty (e.g., Bhagwati and Panagariya 2013; Milanovic 2016; World Bank 2017). The general public, as well as experts and scholars from around the world, tend to think many aspects of quality of life in less developed countries, and general trends, are much more negative than what statistics indicate (Rönnlund and Rosling 2018). These viewpoints which are not aligned with statistical analysis are most likely partially driven by being exposed to the more numerous negative stories in the news about life in developing and least developed economies than the positive stories and also due to the human tendency to place more weight on negative rather than positive information when developing opinions and attitudes (e.g., Davidai and Gilovich 2016; Kahneman 2011; Tversky and Kahneman 1973).

Despite the presence of so many stories of gloom and doom, in reality, according to available statistics, there has been substantial progress made in achieving many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals over recent years, although progress has slowed in many area in the last few years (UN 2018). Therefore when moving forward, a review of existing situations and expansion of practices which have contributed to achieving positive results may be as, or more, important than focusing primarily on designing totally new and innovative policies and practices.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals deal with problems, using the definition provided by Rittel and Webber (1973), which could be classified as “wicked problems.” Many of the issues and problems in which the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are trying to address share many characteristics with other wicked problems, such as people having difficulty in defining the specifics of the problems, a lack of reliable data with which to design solutions and measure progress, and there is often a lack of consensus over the priorities of addressing different problems or on the best processes to achieve specific goals.

The issues and areas covered in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are often interrelated, and at times some goals might be in conflict with other goals. For example, taking action on climate change by decreasing energy usage in developing and less developed economies could have a negative impact on economic growth and poverty reduction (Brand 2012), as there has been observed a strong and positive correlation between energy usage and increases in economic growth and decreases in poverty in developing and less developed economies (Kahsai et al. 2012; Ouedraogo 2013; Ozturk et al. 2010). While it has often been proposed economic growth and reduction in energy usage can go hand in hand and discussions of the issue would seem to indicate growth with few environmental trade-offs is a theoretical possibility, to accomplish this growth without increased energy usage would seem to require conditions and use of technologies which do not currently exist. Therefore, trade-offs between achieving these two possible conflicting goals might often have to be made, especially in the least developed countries struggling to free their citizens from extreme poverty. As can be seen in the example provided, people living in relative wealth in developed economies and individuals struggling to free themselves from extreme poverty living in the least developed areas of the world might see some of the issues covered in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals from different perspectives and might prefer to make different trade-offs when assigning priorities to these or other potential conflicting goals.

Furthermore, since there is no overarching organization controlling all global economic and development policies, the accomplishment of progress toward many of the UN’s goals will require contributions from a wide range of organizations and individuals. And naturally these organizations and individuals will possess widely differing goals and worldviews. These different organizations and individuals can work independently on separate goals or can collaborate to jointly try to achieve objectives. One suggestion to bring different organizations together to attempt to make progress toward achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals is the use of cross-sector partnerships.

Cross-Sector Partnerships

Cross-sector partnership is a fairly generic term used to describe a wide range of collaborative efforts. Selsky and Parker (2005) found cross-sector partnerships created to address social issues usually took one of four forms, business-nonprofit, business-government, government-nonprofit, and trisector, which include business, nonprofit, and government actors all contributing.

Cross-sector partnerships have become an increasingly popular, one might even say trendy, method to address complex problems, and it has been suggested these partnerships can be a key component of many companies’ corporate social responsibility programs (e.g., Ashraf et al. 2017; Meinharda et al. 2016; Stadtler 2018).

The logic underlying the creation of cross-sector partnerships is an attempt to collaboratively leverage different resources, expertise, and competitive advantages from different sectors of the economy in an attempt to solve complex problems or to accumulate the resources needed to solve large-scale problems for which no organization possesses the resources to handle single-handedly (e.g., Battisti 2009; Schuster and Holtbrügge 2014; Stadtler 2018). Cross-sector partnerships have been seen in child welfare programs (Collins-Camargo et al. 2013), new immigrant adjustment programs (Meinharda et al. 2016), the health-care sector (Rein and Stott 2009), and in many other activities directly or indirectly related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, from the perspective of an NGO or other type of civil society organization, a partnership with the government can often help to create a public perception of the legitimacy of its operation which can increase the organization’s effectiveness (Rueede and Kreutzer 2015); while a partnership with an NGO or other type of civil society organization can help to verify the philanthropic nature of specific types of activities carried out by for-profit organizations.

Other advantages of engaging in collaborations such as cross-sector partnerships, as opposed to straight contractual agreements, include increasing the probability of stakeholder buy-in and acceptance of decisions; the creation of new visions and perspectives therefore discovering new opportunities to implement strategies; having public officials exposed to ideas coming from different perspectives; and people in the private sector understanding the constraints and values underlying practices in the public sector to a greater extent (Wanna 2008).

While the theoretical arguments of the effectiveness of bringing resources together in cross-sector partnerships are often compelling, there are also many theoretical arguments pointing out the limitations of the effectiveness of these types of arrangements. Belonging to different sectors often results in having differing priorities and worldviews (Ashraf et al. 2017). These differences can result in each partner in a collaboration viewing solutions to problems from differing time horizons (long-term versus short term) (Meinharda et al. 2016); having a lack of understanding of the organizational structures and logics of partners, thus increasing the difficulties in establishing joint governance structures and systems (Cairns and Harris 2011); encountering problems from leaders of different types of organizations operating under different reward systems, therefore often having differing priorities and perspectives (O’Regan and Oster 2000); and creating an environment where there is a lack of trust of the motives of partners (Schiller and Almog-Bar 2013).

Wanna (2008) believed additional challenges, or disadvantages, of using collaborative activities, such as cross-sectorpartnerships, as opposed to contractual agreements, included decreasing the probability of political or bureaucratic buy-in due to the increased complexity of projects and less direct control by public sector employees or officials. Thereby increasing the blurring of lines of accountability; and these partnerships can often result in slowing and watering down decision-making as individuals involved are often more interested in defending their turf than in finding the best possible solution to a problem.


Despite the hype and promotion of cross-sector partnerships, the ability of these partnerships be used effectively to make progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals remains uncertain. There has been a minimal amount of large-scale research about the outcomes of cross-sector partnerships on helping societies improve the lives of people in different parts of the world, and much of the evidence supporting using these types of partnerships is anecdotal in nature. For many organizations, the primary emphasis is on participating in a partnership and attempting to be seen as working towards socially beneficial outcomes, as opposed to assessing and adjusting practices based on the actual results of the partnerships to achieve specific goals (van Tulder et al. 2016). However it should probably also be acknowledged the wicked problem nature of some of the issues being addressed and the impact of other factors on the results which are outside of the control of the partnership. The factors associated with tackling a wicked problem are likely to make evaluating the effectiveness of most cross-sector partnerships somewhat problematic.

In reviewing the results of cross-sector partnerships, Koschman et al. (2012) reported, “the collectives that seem to have the potential to address society’s most complex problems often appear to produce little of value” (p. 333). Rein and Stott (2009) reported on the problems and lack of effectiveness of cross-sector partnership in providing effective health care in South Africa and Zimbabwe; Schiller and Almog-Bar (2013) found a cross-sector partnership between a for-profit pharmaceutical company, and an Israeli NGO “yielded mixed results” and required more time and resources from the NGO than originally expected; Ashraf et al. (2017) found in investigating cross-sector partnerships involving the creation of a carbon-offset market that operates under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, there were significant problems and challenges; moreover the authors did not report on any substantial reduction in carbon emissions resulting from forming these partnerships.

But there are also some anecdotal evidence showing cross-sector partnership can provide benefits to communities and contribute to making progress in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in some specific circumstances. For example, Wadham and Warren (2013) found an NGO/business collaboration in Gambia involving the agriculture sector often had a positive, if indirect, effect by changing the perceptions of the parties involved and in generating innovative ideas and new ways of thinking even if the specific original goals of the partnership were not completely accomplished. Therefore the authors felt the partnerships had more of a long-term and evolutionary impact on the intended beneficiaries rather than a significant short-term impact by finding solutions and solving immediate problems.

In a study in the UK involving 13 NGO and government cross-sector partnerships in planning and implementing welfare services, it was found participants on both sides generally found cross-sector partnerships had the potential to deliver improved services, although it was also reported for the partnerships to be effective, many problems and challenges needed to be overcome. Furthermore, many respondents of the study felt the creation of many of these partnerships was driven by political concerns from the government’s side and the fact cross-sector partnerships were currently fashionable, as opposed to the partnerships and partners being careful selected as the best approach to meet current and specific problems (Cairns and Harris 2011).

Schuster and Holtbrügge (2014) found partnerships between businesses and NGO could have a positive impact on providing services and goods to customers in “bottom of the pyramid” markets where access to markets was restricted by an excessive number of government regulations or lack of private sector interest due to the low potential for profits. However, creating business-government partnerships to provide consumers with specific products or services can have an impact on reducing competition, which in the long-term could contribute to higher prices and reduced customer service. Thus a business-government partnership operating in a competitive market often has the unintended consequence of restricing the entry of competitors.

Factors and Practices Leading to Successful Cross-Sector Partnerships

In creating successful cross-sector partnerships, it has been suggested a number of factors or characteristics of potential partners should be considered. For the most part, suggestions include trying to find partners with similar, although not exactly matching, worldviews and goals for the partnership. For example, Ashraf et al. (2017) found cross-sector partnerships in which there was some level of shared values, goals, and institutional logic as well as a high level of mutual dependency were more likely to be sustainable and successful in achieving complex and difficult goals.

Soubliere and Cloutier (2015) focused on the need for trust between partners and warned against a complete reliance on contractual obligations to ensure partnerships have the flexibility to survive and thrive. Battisti (2009) believed successful partnerships need to begin at the individual level where leaders get together and negotiate agreements which then can be implemented at the organizational level; and the joint setting of objectives between leaders was usually found to be beneficial. In addition, Babiak and Thibault (2009) felt it was important for the leasders of a cross-sector partnership to focus on structural and strategic issues in order to avoid many potential problems and difficulties.

Once a partnership has been created, it appears it needs to be nurtured to prosper and accomplish its intended purpose. Soubliere and Cloutier (2015) felt it took time to build trust, and therefore keeping the partnership going through the tough times, which can be expected, will help to build the trust needed to develop a successful long-term partnership. Schiller and Almog-Bar (2013) felt open and honest dialogue between participants was of vital importance, as well as displaying substantial amounts of patience and tolerance; while Ashraf et al. (2017) focused on the importance of maintaining mutual dependency and a power balance between partners to maintain harmony and good will. “Stubborn determination seems to be central in achieving some success from partnerships and collaborations” (Huxham and Hibbert 2008, p. 48).

The diversity of the organizations and individuals in these partnerships while having differing resources and worldviews which make cross-sector partnership so potentially effective in addressing complex problems may also be the sources of most conflicts and challenges in successful implementation to tackle the problems and issues associated with achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “Even when a partnership seems to be robustly successful for one partner, it’s possible that others might disagree” (Huxham and Hibbert 2008, p. 48). Successful partnerships are created with the hopes of achieving win-win results, but reaching this outcome can be difficult if goals are not well aligned.

The literature would seem to suggest successful cross-sector partnerships will usually be between organizations with varying access to different resources but have at some level, structures, strategies, and worldviews which are not completely incompatible. Also once a suitable partner has been found, maintaining the partnership and establishing and maintaining trust between partners require a high level of effort, time, and commitment to the partnership.


In the world of development, certain structures and practices come into fashion, but often produce less than spectacular results. For example, the use of foreign aid has often been, and continues to be, advocated and has been used extensively to fight poverty as well as achieve other specific social goals, especially in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Ravallion 2016; Resnick and van de Walle 2013; Sachs 2005), despite the empirical evidence showing no positive correlation between receiving foreign aid and sustained poverty reduction. Strong arguments having been made that foreign aid in reality has often contributed to sustaining high levels of poverty and corruption (e.g., Easterly 2013; Moyo 2009; Sowell 2015) despite its popularity and widespread use.

Micro-financing became a very popular development tool used in poverty reduction programs and has been promoted as an effective means to improve the standards of living of the poor by many scholars and experts (e.g., Newa 2010; Tedeschi 2010; Yunus and Weber 2007). The popularity of these programs even resulted in awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 to Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunnas, for developing a micro-financing system in Bangladesh. Yet despite the hype and initial excitement, the impact of micro-financing on poverty reduction has usually been less than spectacular (e.g., Banerjee et al. 2013; Bylander 2015; Duflo and Banerjee 2011). And a little more than a decade ago, the creation of social businesses was advocated as an effective means to alleviate poverty around the world and make progress toward achieving many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (Yunus and Weber 2007), yet the impact of social businesses on development and poverty reduction has up to the present time been quite minimal.

Because these tools which were fashionable and trendy did not turn out to be magic bullets to end poverty or greatly change the lives of the majority of people living in poverty does not imply they do not have their uses. The only consistent method shown to reduce poverty around the world has been economic growth (e.g., Acemoglu and Robinson 2010; Bhagwati and Panagariya 2013; Collier 2007). The most successful wide-scale rapid reduction of poverty seen in the history of mankind has occurred recently in China. This reduction in poverty was accomplished in an environment almost entirely without any foreign development aid, and the most significant portion of the reduction in poverty occurred before China had even created any official policies to directly address poverty reduction (Yan 2016). The reduction in poverty was driven almost entirely by economic growth driven by private sector activities and the country’s economy reengaging with the global trading system.

Yet despite the less than impressive results in tackling a complex issue such as poverty reduction, foreign aid has shown it can be an effective tool in addressing very limited and well-defined problems in specific locations, such as in providing clean drinking water, vaccines, and increasing educational opportunities for vulnerable populations (Skarbek and Leeson 2009). While micro-financing has not proven to be a very effective tool in creating and growing sustainable businesses owned by people currently living in poverty, it does seem to provide a number of limited, but significant, benefits to many individuals living in least developed countries (e.g., Chansathith et al. 2015; Habib and Jubb 2015; Khan and Sulaiman 2015). And while the creation of social businesses which do not operate on a profit basis has not been shown to be an effective response to accomplishing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in most situations, it is likely these social businesses can and will be useful in some very specific circumstances.

It might be helpful to keep in mind the lessons from the implementation of previous development fads and consider the use of cross-sector partnerships as a tool which can produce limited, but sometimes significant, results in achieving very specific objectives related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals when used by organizations and individuals dedicated to making a difference and when following established best practices. But use of these types of partnerships should probably not be considered the single best approach to achieve progress in the majority of programs designed to make progress toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The results achieved are more important than the organizational form used to address the social issues.

In cross-sector partnerships, Wadham and Warren (2013) found “Partnership emerges as a constantly evolving relationship between a growing cast of characters with diverse, sometimes unconscious, motivations. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that it becomes a source of both anticipated and unexpected outcomes, although the latter in particular may take some time to emerge” (p. 60). Thus there is a question whether cross-sector partnerships should be primarily designed to tackle very specific problems or designed to address more general issues and allowed to evolve and figure out what the partnership is most effective in accomplishing after operating for a period of time. The answer to this question will help determine how partnerships are formed and the extent of the use of contractual agreements in operating these partnerships.

“Cross-sector partnerships are diverse, reflecting the different types of organisation involved, different underlying values of the people involved, different goals and different structures. There is no one standard partnership model. It must almost always be adapted to the given situation” (Battisti 2009, p. 106). These ideas indicate it might be more important to evaluate each individual situation as opposed to promoting a single type of organizational structure to improve social welfare. Bryson et al. (2015) felt practitioners in the field of development should not rely solely on research findings to develop their own cross-sector partnership programs due to the complexities and dynamic nature of each individual collaboration. Therefore, instead of evaluating the usefulness of the general form of cross-sector partnerships, it might be more useful to evaluate the appropriateness of each individual partnership for each specific situation. The current definition used by development organizations of cross-sector partnerships might be too broad and abstract to be useful in evaluating their potential effectiveness.

It is generally agreed that social welfare responsibilities in every society should be shared by the state, the private sector (the market), households, and civil society, but often in many least developed or politically repressive countries, one or more of these four core institutions may not be functioning effectively (Estes and Zhou 2015). These four core institutions each have an important role to play in making progress toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and in the development of societies that improve the lives of their members, although the mix of these four would be expected to be different in each location according to level of economic development as well as being adjusted for cultural and political factors.

While each country and society has somewhat evolved differently, in general the private sector has been shown to be the primary driver of economic growth and poverty reduction and to be the most effective means in meeting the needs of most consumers for products and services (Easterly 2008; Gilder 2012; Moore and Griffith 2015).

While there are some disagreements on the role a government should take in regulating or intervening in an economy when there are market failures, or what specific services the government should provide, there is a general agreement the government has a critical role in improving the lives of the citizens of a nation. Some of the activities often considered to be most effectively performed by governments include creating the legal system in which the private sector operates, safety and security, creating and regulating a currency, forming monetary and fiscal policies, and responding to natural or man-made disasters (Estes and Zhou 2015).

The role of households in providing social welfare is extremely important but is likely to vary based on the level of government-supplied social services and cultural factors. Households and families tend to provide more social welfare services to family or household members in collectivist societies which have fewer social safety nets and provide a lower level of service in more individualistic societies where the government has more social programs. However, as the size of families continues to shrink in much of the world, it might result in changes in the role of the household in caring for its members.

Civil society, which is made up of NGOs, religious institutions, and other nonprofit organizations, plays a variety of roles, but often works to advance specific causes or to provide services to specific types of vulnerable people. However, it is not clear whether the four core institutions acting separately in the areas in which each is best suited will in general produce more progress for societies or if forming cross-sector partnerships can be more effective in producing positive results for societies in some situations.


“We argue that a partnership approach which has proven successful in one context can be used as a valuable learning source. However, a partnership’s work, which includes all aspects of the partnership and its activities, cannot necessarily be transferred directly to another partnership without a thorough and locally informed analysis of the context in which it is implemented” (Rein and Stott 2009, p. 79). Cross-sector partnership should remain in the toolbox used to improve the lives of the most vulnerable individuals and help societies progress toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, but the use of this tool should be carefully and judiciously selected for use in very specific situations where other tools would be expected to be less effective.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bangkok Academic CentreWebster UniversityBangkokThailand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Monica Thiel
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Public Administration and School of Business AdministrationUniversity of International Business and Economics & China University of PetroleumBeijingChina