How Multistakeholder Partnerships Can Accelerate the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Chapter 2

What Is Transformation in the Partnership Context?

Transformation has certainly been a buzz word as of late, but what does it actually mean in a partnership context? This chapter explores the three characteristics of transformation and presents a transformative partnership continuum, both of which can help partnerships frame their transformation journeys and set an impact-oriented pathway forward.

Viseo: Storyblocks/Red Cup Studio

The idea of transformation is very alluring. At first blush, transformation suggests a dramatic shift, the unveiling of something new or different from a prior form. In some ways, transformation has become the rallying cry in this Decade of Action. It is a warning, a plea, a necessity.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment, for instance, notes that “the world needs transformative change if life on Earth is to be safeguarded and people are to continue to receive the services and benefits that nature provides" (UNEP and CBD 2019). This sentiment is echoed by numerous other sustainable development–focused publications, including the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report, which cautions that “much more needs to happen—and quickly—to bring about the transformative changes that are required” (UN 2019), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that, in order to put the world on a 1.5°C climate trajectory, the world will need “fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations” (IPCC 2018).

What is transformation? Definitions abound across fields of study and sectors (Clarke and Crane 2018; Maassen and Galvin 2019; Mersmann et al. 2014; ICAT 2019; GeSI and Accenture, 2016; UN 2019; TWI2050 2018; WBCSD 2020), and we recognize that interpretations of transformation are diverse and often discussed, especially as of late. However, research on transformative partnerships is still limited, making it easier to offer an early viewpoint. And so, through an assessment of recent research and reports, three key commonalities of transformation emerge:

  • Transformation is systemic.
  • Transformation is long-term and sustained.
  • Transformation disrupts the status quo.

    Box 2 | Transformation Concepts and Characteristics

    Transformation vs. Systems Change: A Clarification

    Transformation and systems change are frequently referenced terms associated with the sweeping transitions required for 2030 action. The first term is often used by the sustainable development community, whereas the second is seen more often in the academic literature. These terms are often conflated. Transformative change is frequently referenced as being systemic (ICAT 2019; Gass 2011; Cummings and Worley 2014), and systemic change is referenced as being transformative (Kania 2018; Clarke and Crane 2018). Some recent publications even make reference to the SDG change required as “systems transformation,” further combining the two terms (WBCSD 2020; GeSI and Accenture 2016). Given the circular relationship between the two terms, this report considers them the same. Overall, transformation is similar to “systems change” in that both refer to an action that happens to a construct, the system, and fulfill the same three characteristics identified in this report.

    What Is a System?

    Broadly speaking, systems comprise elements and interconnections, with a function or purpose (Meadows 2008). Elements can include an array of diverse actors, institutions, and geographies operating across multiple levels and scales that, together, often form a whole greater than the sum of the parts (Holland 1998). Interconnections are the relationships and power dynamics among elements that ultimately define the characteristics of the system or the pathways by which the function or the purpose of the system is achieved.

    Take, for example, the global food system, which aims to feed the world’s 8 billion people. Elements are the actors and institutions operating across multiple scales and levels, such as farmers growing crops; agricultural conglomerates buying, processing, and distributing food products; research labs developing new seed varieties; governments setting agricultural trade policies; consumers purchasing the food; and animals farmed for consumption. Interconnections include the relationships among these various elements, such as the markets and value chains that make connecting consumers with farmers possible (WBCSD 2020).

    A system is also full of complexities. Systems may overlap, nest, and network (Von Bertalanffy 1955; Barabasi 2002). For example, pig farming and soy farming can be independent practices with their own dynamics and markets, although soy is also produced for pig feed, in which case soy farming may also be nested within the animal farming subsystem. Or, consider also that food systems are intricately connected with water systems.

    The characteristics and strength of a system’s elements and interconnections determine how well a system is aligned with a sustainable development pathway. For example, although the food system keeps billions of people on our planet nourished, market and governance failures have resulted in severe issues of malnutrition and/or issues of food loss and waste in many parts of the world.

    A helpful transformation framework is offered by Kania et al. (2018), which discusses three conditions of a system (explicit, semi-explicit, and implicit) that need to be changed for transformation to occur (Figure B2-1). Explicit conditions—that is, tangible changes in policies, practices, and resources flows—are the easiest the shift. Semi-explicit conditions—the interconnections like relationships between actors and institutions or power dynamics among elements—are more difficult to shift. Implicit conditions—mental models or cultural mind-sets—are the most difficult to change. Shifting all three leads to true transformation within a system.

    Figure B2-1 | Three Levels of Systems Change

    Source: Adapted from Kania et al. 2018.

    It is important to note that systems can exist at multiple scales (Hargreaves 2010). That is, a food system could refer to a specific country’s system or to a specific commodity. A local food system would also influence a regional and global food system. Given the complexities, it is important for partnerships to establish boundaries in their system of focus.

Three Characteristics of Transformation

1. Transformation Is Systemic.

Earlier, we presented the many complexities of a system. Transformation means that changes have percolated through any given system, altering the interrelationships and interdependencies of its parts to influence new paradigms (Denoncourt 2017; IBRD 2016; Puri 2018). For example, to shift the food system to a more sustainable model, there need to be changes in food production itself, but also in the surrounding ecosystem—that which is related to technology, policies, infrastructure, education, and more. Each of these changes involves different actors at different levels and geographies. Change must permeate through all these layers, adjusting the three layers of aforementioned systems conditions in a way such that society ultimately values and views food in a manner fundamentally different than before. And while one partnership or actor is never solely responsible for driving the entire transformation, it can make contributions to influence a movement. These complexities add an element of unpredictability to transformation; actions at one level can have disproportionate impacts elsewhere (Olsen et al. 2018; Larson 2018).

We will see the immense importance of systems understanding in Chapter 4, which provides guidance to partnerships on how they can better think about transformation by adjusting or building their performance tracking system to include “systems thinking.”

2. Transformation Is Long-Term and Sustained.

Transformation cannot be rushed. Many actors across different roles, levels, and geographies work over time to create positive systemic change (Olsen et al. 2018; Westphal and Thwaites 2016; IBRD 2016). The rate at which transformation takes place also varies. Acceptance of novel technologies, business models, products, or practices can move slowly at first, then leap forward as windows of opportunity emerge or when the adoption of a new approach reaches a tipping point. Some events—such as a rapid change in public opinion, a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, or the overturning of a regime—can create conditions to accelerate this change. Alternatively, there could be moments of lagging even after a point of acceleration. Regardless, true transformational change needs to last if it is to effectively deliver on the goals of this Decade of Action and set the world on a more sustainable pathway.

Understanding this characteristic for partnerships, it will be important for partnerships to identify important windows of opportunity, closed doors, and a potential timeline for how their activities will fit into a larger systems transformation. Chapter 4 and Appendix B explore the importance of this in relation to vision setting.

3. Transformation Disrupts the Status Quo.

Transformation starts with the introduction of something novel into an existing system. This could be represented by a different approach that improves on the existing state, an innovative technology that brings about unexpected change, or a shift in ideology or culture that represents a new framing for action (Puri 2018).

Inevitably, introducing a new way of doing things will result in winners and losers (Dentoni et al. 2018). As such, transformation can encounter resistance, particularly from those who have benefited from the existing system, stand to lose from changes, or perceive that they will be left behind. These tensions are to be expected and must be addressed in order to equitably implement sustainable development transformations in line with the SDGs. Identifying how transformative action will affect different populations, particularly vulnerable groups, and mitigating potential conflict early on is essential.

Disruption of the status quo is evident in greater detail throughout this report. In Chapter 3, for instance, we will discuss the new technologies and innovations that businesses bring forth in partnerships, as well as signals to spur innovation and scale up action brought about by governments. In Chapter 4, we further discuss the role of 21st-century technologies as an enabler of partnerships.

Box 3 | Transformation Characteristics in Action

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the World Bank, brings together private-sector vaccine manufacturers, local governments, and CSOs to provide equitable access to vaccines in low-income countries. The partnership focuses on the entire vaccination life cycle to address the root causes of low vaccination rates in developing countries. This involves upstream strategies, such as shaping vaccine markets by pooling vaccine demand and securing long-term funding, and downstream strategies, such as addressing health infrastructure weaknesses and social factors that negatively affect immunization access. The partnership is widely acknowledged as innovative and highly effective (Treichel et al. 2017; Stern et al. 2015). Founded in 2000, the partnership has helped to vaccinate almost half the world’s children, preventing over 13 million deaths to date through routine immunization programs (Gavi 2020). Three of its programmatic elements in particular illustrate the characteristics of transformation in a partnership context.


Core to Gavi’s theory of change Articulates how a partnership’s strategy and actions will lead to its transformation goal. A complete theory of change requires an understanding of the system of interest and the underlying assumptions about how partnership actions will change system conditions is the idea that effective and sustainable immunization programs require functioning local health systems. Gavi works to understand and address system failures across health care delivery systems by partnering with national governments to invest in health care worker training, logistics, data collection and management, and health leadership. These activities contributed to a 7 percent increase in the number of Gavi-supported countries meeting the partnership’s integrated health service delivery metric between 2015 and 2018—meaning that antenatal care and neonatal tetanus, pentavalent, and measles vaccine rates are all within 10 percentage points of each other and above 70 percent (Gavi 2020). Gavi also addresses social factors and mental models affecting vaccination access by helping countries identify gender-related immunization barriers and implementing strategies to mitigate them. For instance, because the burden of children’s health care often falls on women, Gavi works to involve men in caretaking activities so that both men and women are equally responsible for ensuring children’s access to vaccinations.

Long-term and sustained

Gavi’s long-term goal is for countries to fully support their own vaccination programs. Countries finance an increasing proportion of their vaccine costs based on national income and enter a five-year transition out of Gavi financial support once they reach an eligibility threshold. Since 2016, all transitioned countries have continued to buy vaccines at the same price previously available through Gavi. Countries also benefit from the partnership’s focus on strengthening health care systems. Sri Lanka, for instance, was one of the first countries to transition out of Gavi support. It has maintained a vaccination level of 99 percent and is now working to expand its vaccination schedule (Berkeley 2019). Market-shaping activities also have lasting effects. The cost of fully immunizing a child with all 11 WHO-recommended childhood vaccines is now at $28 in Gavi-supported countries, compared to about $1,100 in the United States. Additionally, nearly all countries that have transitioned out of Gavi support continue to purchase vaccines at the same price negotiated by the partnership. To date, 15 countries have transitioned out of Gavi support, and an additional 4 are on track to do so by the end of 2020.

Disrupts the status quo

Gavi aims to remove commercial risks that prevent vaccine manufacturers from serving low-income countries. It does this by pooling country vaccine demand, giving the partnership strong negotiating power, building competition, and driving down overall vaccine costs. Through its Advance Market Commitment (AMC) scheme, for instance, Gavi secures donor purchasing agreements and establishes predictable demand, incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to supply affordable vaccines to developing countries, thereby accelerating the development of novel vaccines. Under usual market conditions, it takes 10 to 15 years for a vaccine introduced in a high-income country to be available in a low-income country. In a pilot with pneumococcal vaccines in 2009, AMC enabled new formulations of the vaccine to be available to low-income countries within a year of being introduced in high-income countries. More recently, Gavi committed to purchasing doses of an Ebola vaccine before one was approved, incentivizing manufacturers to invest in development despite the low purchasing power of countries most likely to be affected. This reduced the vaccine development timeline from five or six years to just two (Gavi 2020).

Transformative Partnership Continuum

We have observed that partnerships with transformative ambitions broadly achieve their transformation goals through policy and practices (enabling partnerships) and/or the launch of a commercial product or service (market-driven partnerships). We have developed a continuum (Figure 1) to capture a typology of partnerships in accordance with these intermediate goals. The partnerships found on this continuum are the more complex partnerships that this report is interested in (and also highlighted earlier in Figure B-1)—that is, partnerships comprising multiple stakeholders working together through collective action to tackle complex challenges through systems transformation. Partnerships that wouldn’t fit on this continuum are ones with more straightforward and direct goals without an eye for systemic changes, such traditional development partnerships that focus on a singular, time-bound project, or infrastructure-focused public-private partnerships.

Although we recognize that it is challenging, or perhaps even impossible, to develop the perfect framework to capture every transformative partnership out there, our hope is that this continuum, based on our research and observations, is a starter to help partnerships understand the potential pathways of transformation that they can follow as they mature in their partnership journeys.

Figure 1 | Transformative Partnership Continuum

Source: WRI Authors.

Enabling Partnerships

Enabling partnerships largely work through the power of convening stakeholders within an industry, supply chain, sector, or issue area to exchange knowledge and set standards of practice or commitments to move actors more quickly to a sustainable development pathway. There are a few types of enabling partnerships:

  • Those focused on sharing knowledge—collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information —to support activities that advance a more sustainable world.
  • Those focused on convening stakeholders to set standards or create new practices that foster more sustainable practices. Often in the form of roundtables and voluntary commitments, these partnerships encourage good governance around the SDGs and help engage businesses in SDG action by reducing risks of being the first mover in a sector.
  • Those that create market conditions to transform a system such that commercial approaches or investments are feasible in the future. These partnerships themselves may not have a business model, however.

Market-Driven Partnerships

Market-driven partnerships use the power of market signals and forces to drive sustainable change by launching a commercially viable product or service. Although these partnerships can be motivated by drivers that go beyond making short-term profits, (e.g., strengthening relationships with other stakeholders, helping a local community, etc.), these partnerships ultimately strive to develop a model that launches a commercial new product or service and are often reliant on innovative policies or concessions or innovative combinations of both.

By executing against a successful business model, these partnerships can then work to scale up their solutions to achieve transformative impacts.

Partnership Movement along the Continuum

A partnership’s place on this continuum can be fluid, meaning that it might start off at one place, but end up at another. For instance, a partnership with the goal of launching a commercial product or service may start out as an enabling partnership in order to shape the policy or market conditions needed to operate successfully. A partnership can also remain firmly in place. For instance, a roundtable or voluntary commitment-based partnership may just want to develop the practices and standards to encourage a sustainability, without aim to become commercially viable itself or shape a specific policy. Most partnerships balance some elements of both enabling and market-driven activities.

Placing Partnerships along the Continuum

Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy: The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE, Figure 2), hosted by WRI, connects public- and private-sector leaders with cutting-edge knowledge on the circular economy and catalyzes new initiatives to pilot and scale best practices that drive the transition toward a circular economy. PACE then captures and translates lessons from these projects into replicable frameworks and approaches. Although new projects and partnerships stem from PACE, the primary goal of the partnership is knowledge sharing, with the long-term aim of transitioning all actors across multiple sectors, including plastics, textiles, and agriculture, to circular practices (WRI 2020).

Figure 2 | Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy

Source: WRI Authors.

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil: The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO, Figure 3) is a coalition of members across the palm oil supply chain, including businesses, governments, and CSOs. RSPO seeks to transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the new status quo. RSPO operates on principles of commitment, collaboration, and accountability. Among other activities, RSPO works to achieve its transformation objective by creating a supportive policy environment through government engagement, getting businesses (e.g., palm oil producers, processors, traders, manufacturers, retailers, and investors) to align on standards and commitments across the supply chain, and getting CSO support to help develop standards and monitoring The process of systematically and regularly collecting information and data to track a partnership’s progress on its activities and evaluation processes to ensure accountability. RSPO also works to match supply and demand to shore up the long-term security of supply.

Figure 3 | Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil

Source: WRI Authors.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance: Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Figure 4), seeks to transform the vaccine market to increase access to vaccines in emerging economies. Although the partnership’s ultimate goal is to transition Gavi countries out of Gavi support, the partnership itself is not seeking to become commercially viable. Instead, it focuses on market-shaping activities, including bundling demand among countries and working closely with governments and local CSOs to strengthen health care delivery systems.

Figure 4 | Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance

Source: WRI Authors.

Zero Emission Rapid Bus-Deployment Accelerator: The Zero Emission Rapid Bus-Deployment Accelerator (ZEBRA, Figure 5) aims to transform public transportation systems in Mexico City, Medellín, and São Paulo by transitioning public bus systems from diesel to electric buses. The partnership, led by the International Council on Clean Transportation and C40 Cities, started by working with local governments to address underlying policy barriers to electric bus implementation. In Medellín, for instance, these efforts resulted in the city committing to shift to zero-emission bus purchases by 2030. As these efforts have progressed, ZEBRA has become more involved in the commercial aspects of the partnership, working with developers, electric bus suppliers, and operators that meet local needs and are financially sustainable over time.

Figure 5 | Zero Emission Rapid Bus-Deployment Accelerator

Source: WRI Authors.

Africa GreenCo: Africa GreenCo (Figure 6), a partnership among African governments, the private sector, and international financial institutions, aims to address Africa’s energy deficiencies by taking a regional approach to improve the bankability of renewable energy projects. By establishing a creditworthy intermediary offtaker and power service provider, Africa GreenCo will reduce the investment risk and cost of renewable energy projects, attracting private-sector investment, and shifting investment focus from single project development to the regional energy sector as a whole. Africa GreenCo leverages the interconnected nature of the regional electricity grid and demonstrates the benefits of regional trade. The economic and development benefits of this model incentivize public and private stakeholders to coordinate in creating an enabling environment for the partnership. Once operational, Africa GreenCo will allow governments to earn dividends from equity ownership, reduce the need for energy-sector subsidies, and support country governments in attaining their Nationally Determined Contributions and SDG targets. Private investors benefit from reduced risk and shorter development lead times through offtaker arrangements, and utilities reduce their operational costs while increasing installed capacity.

Figure 6 | Africa GreenCo

Source: WRI Authors.

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