Newsletter No 2 June 2013

Partnerships for Sustainable Development: Global Diffusion and Local Adaptation


Sander Chan*

Partnerships for Sustainable Development were once presented as universally applicable implementation instruments. They promised greater effectiveness and participation. Critics argued that partnerships would lead to green-washing and privatization. More than a decade after their introduction, the effects of PFSD on governance are limited, neither hopes nor fears have been substantiated.

epa groot                                                          

World leaders gathered at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg to discuss how global sustainable development could be realized. The gathered leaders agreed that there is no lack of international action plans, treaties and agreements, however, manemptyy commitments were not implemented. To address this implementation deficit, Partnerships for Sustainable Development were introduced. Partnerships would attract new resources and engage new actors in sustainability governance, leading to greater effectiveness and participation. However, critics pointed out that PFSD could negatively affect governance in developing countries. PFSD would strengthen the role of already powerful actors such as multinational corporations and traditional donor countries. Moreover, partnerships would be used to introduce neoliberal governance in developing countries, by substituting governmental authority by private authority.

The Chinese implementation context for partnerships is an interesting case because of its restrictions on civil society, and the general lack of experience with collaborative policy instruments that seem to put considerable constraints on the development and operations of partnerships. Many partnerships in China, are not really embedded in China’s sustainability governance. They make scant references to local and national policies, and they fail to build local partnership networks. The isolated existence of partnerships from other governance institutions prevents systemic impacts on governance.

Even when partnerships aim at more fundamental reforms in China’s sustainability governance, they have to redefine these aims to better fit the local context. For instance, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a global biodiversity conservation program aimed to build alliances between private actors, in particular corporations and civil society. Broad civil society alliances should replace seemingly ineffective (government-centered) approaches in biodiversity hotspots. CEPF’s approach, at face value, seems to confirm the idea that PFSD introduce neo-liberal governance. However, CEPF contradicted its own neoliberal approach in its China operations, for instance, by redefining civil society to include government agencies and by granting programmatic influence to local government authorities. Instead of empowering local civil society, and strengthening business, CEPF supported the functions of already more powerful actors in China’s sustainability governance, in particular, international organizations, science and research organizations and local governments.

More than a decade after its introduction, PFSD have been implemented across the most varying implementation contexts. Diffusion did not lead to convergence in sustainability governance approaches. Rather than introducing global approaches, or neoliberal governance, the effect of partnerships on local governance was very limited, either because they existed too isolated from other governance institutions in the local context, or because they needed to adapt considerably to operate locally. Even when a global partnership avowedly aimed to introduce neo-liberal governance, in reality effects on governance are contingent on the local implementation context.


*Sander Chan is a researcher and PhD candidate at the Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University Amsterdam. He is currently finalizing his PhD thesis, titled: ‘Partnerships for Sustainable Development: Global Diffusion and Local Adaptation’.

Contact: Sander Chan