Partnerships perpetuating the global North-South divide

To accelerate a meaningful delivery of sustainable development by 2030, we need to address the growing existential threats to all our futures.

Did you know that partnerships between countries addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may lead to greater inequalities globally? In our study, we explore the extent to which partners from Northern and Southern countries are involved in different SDG partnerships, and what they focus on.

Sustainable development is a concept that seeks to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. In 2015,  the United Nations Member States unanimously adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which focuses on the achievement of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The goals of the agenda include ending poverty and hunger everywhere, combating inequalities within and among countries, building peaceful, just and inclusive societies, protecting human rights, promoting gender equality, and ensuring lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources by 2030. 

In doing so, the member states have pledged that “no one will be left behind”. Agenda 2030 specifically identifies multi-stakeholder partnerships as a key tool for mobilising and sharing knowledge, expertise, technologies, and financial resources to support the achievement of the SDGs in all countries. 

Our study explores the extent to which these member countries engage in various partnerships to implement the Agenda 2030. Contrary to what we expected, our findings suggest that partnerships between countries may be perpetuating global inequalities.

United Nations Office at Geneva

The divided world

The access to resources, data and scientific capabilities has created a global divide between developed “Northern” and developing “Southern” countries. The poorest countries, often referred to as developing countries, have substantially less investment in research and development. This leads to a lack of influence in impacting development and the implementation of global policies

Although these countries often have little to no capacity for leading research, it is essential for them to develop effective policies that are credible and legitimate and to implement them on the ground. They also require an in-depth understanding of local socio-political and cultural circumstances and the involvement of all key stakeholders in knowledge production.

Partnerships, a vehicle for SDGs implementation

To achieve Agenda 2030, different stakeholders and actors must work together and bring their inter-disciplinary expertise to address cross-sectoral issues. 

For example, SDG 17, which is about partnerships for the goals, specifically includes targets to strengthen the implementation of Agenda 2030 through private and public multi-stakeholder partnerships within, amongst and between Northern and Southern countries. It highlights that these partnerships can “mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technology, and financial resources to support the achievement of the SDGs in all countries”. 

All actors and stakeholders are encouraged to register partnerships that support the implementation of the SDGs on the UN Partnership Platform. To date, over 6,500 partnerships have been registered. These partnerships vary widely in terms of the number of partnering countries (i.e., one country to more than 20 countries), the nature of relations between partners (i.e., North-North, North-South, or South-South), as well as their geographic and thematic focus (i.e., focal SDGs).

Our study of partnerships for SDGs implementation

Despite increasing recognition by UN member states and leading international development institutions of the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development, there has been little research published on the focus of SDG partnerships and relationships between them. Hence, our research explored the extent to which partners from Northern and Southern countries are involved in such partnerships globally and different regions of the world, and their focal SDGs. 

Our analysis identified that most partnerships registered to the UN Partnership Platform only focused on one country (i.e., were domestic partnerships) and that partners from the poorest countries participated in the fewest partnerships,  compared with partners from wealthier countries. This is presumably due to the poorest countries lacking the necessary resources and capacities to be involved. 

In addition, we found that partners from the poorest countries focused more than partners from wealthier countries on SDGs about poverty, hunger, health, gender equality, and energy (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7). Those from wealthier countries focused more on economic growth (SDG 8). We also discovered that the partnerships did not include many North-South relationships between partners. 

Instead, most multi-country partnerships had South-South relationships, most commonly between partners in Europe & Central Asia and East Asia & Pacific, and between partners in Europe & Central Asia and Latin America & Caribbean. 

More than half of South-South partnerships were between partners from countries within the same region, particularly East Asia and Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa. This may be due to a range of reasons, but ultimately, it suggests that partners from Southern countries may be unable to engage in partnerships elsewhere without Northern involvement. 

Also, the number of relationships between different countries differed depending on the SDG that was addressed by the partnership. For Northern countries, the highest number of relationships was associated with SDG 14 on oceans, followed by SDGs 4, 10 and 7. For Southern countries, partnerships with most relationships addressed SDGs 14, 8, 5 and 13.

A way forward

Our study highlights that the implementation of sustainable development by partnerships registered on the UN’s Partnership Platform is not currently distributed in ways that will bridge the global North-South divide in resources, access to data, and scientific capabilities. 

Hence, we recommend that everyone involved in establishing and promoting SDG partnerships (e.g., international funders and development organisations, national policymakers, research institutions, the private sector, non-governmental organisations, and potential partners themselves) prioritises challenges posed by global inequalities in designing and implementing partnerships. 

Building the capacities of partners from the poorest countries and encouraging their involvement in more multi-country, particularly North–South partnerships, seems urgent and vital if we are to accelerate the meaningful delivery of Agenda 2030 and, thereby, truly address the growing existential threats to all our futures.


Journal reference

Blicharska, M., Teutschbein, C., & Smithers, R. J. (2021). SDG partnerships may perpetuate the global North-South divide. Scientific Reports, 11, 1–11. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-01534-6

Malgorzata Blicharska is Associate Professor in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development and works as Senior Lecturer at the Department of Earth Sciences of Uppsala University, Sweden. Her research is focused on biodiversity and other environmental policy implementation, including
implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, public participation in environmental decision-making, conservation conflicts and global inequalities.

Claudia Teutschbein is Associate Professor in Hydrology at Uppsala University, Sweden. With a focus on modelling surface-water processes and an emphasis on hydrological extremes, risks, nexus-thinking as well as interactions between humans and their environment in a changing climate. Her lab conducts cutting-edge research to face current societal challenges in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Richard Smithers is Ricardo Energy & Environment's Technical Director and international lead on climate adaptation. Working in the environmental sector for almost 40 years, he has led many governmental projects at the science-policy interface in the UK, for the European Commission, and regarding more than 30 non-EU countries. His research relates to climate adaptation, biodiversity and sustainable development, and the global North-South divide’s influence on research, policy and practice.