Initially, my articles classified under this SDG were solely related to my international volunteering experiences with environmental NGOs. Such partnerships are only a minor subset for the partnerships – it comes under target 17.17 – but it’s probably the most likely way that travellers would be part of SDG 17.

But there are many more targets under SDG 17. This SDG is about narrowing the unequal capacity between countries to achieve SDG targets. If you’ve read my descriptions for the other SDGs before this one, you’ll understand that human societies are compelled to pursue basic needs and the ability to continue doing so for themselves. Societies still struggling at this level do not have spare capacity to focus on systemic and longer-term issues. However, since we need every nation to be on the same page on fixing global crises that threaten the habitability of the planet, it makes sense to help each other provide for human needs together, so that we can better collaborate on transboundary problems.

Partnerships to address inequality

From the SDG 17 targets, you can infer what kinds of inequality are actually the biggest obstacles. Most people think about it in terms of the symptoms. That countries are unequal in that some are poorer, and can’t provide schools and healthcare. Or that they struggle with famine and drought more than others. This line of thinking assumes that there’s something wrong with certain nations and maybe they just can’t provide basic societal needs to themselves.

But if you instead start from the premise that all nations who are still around must have provided these needs to themselves before, you’d be in a better position to understand what the actual inequalities are. And these are inequalities that prevent a society to respond to its growing population with the ability to provide basic needs at scale, which a normal society would naturally be able to do.

SDG 17 targets are almost entirely oriented around economics, finance, trade, and technology. They are about helping developing countries overcome the burden of debt, growing a tax base, increase revenue from trade and investment, obtain the technology and advanced knowledge they need. This SDG is about helping developing societies to acquire the ability to provide for human needs at scalethemselves.

That’s one reason I titled this page with a modified version of the SDG’s official title. Because this SDG is not actually about partnerships to pursue the sustainable development goals together, as if the countries have equal capacity. They’re actually partnerships to remove inequalities that obstruct countries’ ability to collaborate on sustainable development goals on an equal footing. They’re about facilitating the conditions for fairer relationships between nations.

Are the partnerships working?

For the longest time, I assumed this was the only SDG that doesn’t have sustainability problems of its own to solve. Every other SDG is about fixing something terribly broken, whether in food systems or energy systems, health or waste. SDG 17 seems to be the one created to help with the fixing of the rest. Surely there’s nothing to fix in that.

But the SDG 17 targets are not new. They pre-date the UN SDGs. The UN and similar forums such as the WTO, World Bank, IMF, have worked on it for decades.

But the debts of African countries get ever more unsustainable, and re-financing efforts often means the foreign privatisation of public assets for delivering basic development goals, such as healthcare and energy. Partnerships for technology transfers rarely result in actual technology transfer, and often with significant delay. Access to financing may come with restrictions on internal matters, which is actually against target 17.15. Foreign aid often turned out to have ulterior connotations. And instead of expansion of global trade and capacity building, unilateral trade sanctions are increasing.

21st century developments

For the longest time, I thought this was just because such problems are really complicated and difficult to solve. But then in the 21st century, countries explored South-South partnerships (previously these partnerships were always North-South; i.e. between developed and developing countries). And developing countries generally discovered that strangely, some things got done relatively easily when it’s just between them, even though they still had to work around having insufficient resources.

Even more strangely, the developed countries’ reactions are not as welcoming as you’d expect. Instead of funding what’s working with more resources, the response is to create zero-sum competing partnerships.

And then there came the online and independent media age. Nowadays, the UN posts entire speeches online, in all their pedantic and boring glory. So with enough attention fortitude, anyone could watch them and listen to what is said by other countries directly, without having to depend on news media choosing which one to feature and summarise for you. Which I occasionally began to do.

And I began to realise that you can’t understand SDG 17 from the targets alone. And that perhaps, actually the SDG about international partnerships is the most broken SDG of all.

What caused the unequal conditions?

You see, the part that is left out of this SDG, are the origins of the unequal conditions its targets are trying to reduce. Like a few other SDGs such as SDG 5 and 10, SDG 17 is an SDG about relationships, and therefore also about power balance. And there’s clearly imbalance, because the SDG’s whole thing is about narrowing those gaps. But why we have such worldwide gaps in the first place matters to how successful these partnerships will be.

Most people working in these efforts assume the partnerships will be fair and in good faith. But the kind of partnership you really get when two parties come together, is heavily influenced by their past history.  A colleague mentoring an upcoming peer has a different dynamic if they are strangers, vs if they were college roommates, vs if one used to bully the other in school. As with people, nations have a history of relationships that inform the way power imbalance plays out in their new partnerships.

UN partnerships need to believe in the UN Charter

There may be a few places here and there, where the issue of unequal capacity has a different reason. But in the majority of cases, the root cause is the exploitation of colonies and the destruction of any native means of providing for themselves. This includes a society’s culture and connection to its ancestry and history. It’s one reason why every previously colonised developing country, even ones that reached a near-developed stage using colonial cultural “software”, seems to periodically “pause”. The society instinctively becomes interested in recovering pre-colonial history and reviving its ability to create an independent and living identity, before continuing its development with that cultural software restored and updated for the future.

Today, in the United Nations era, nations under the UN Charter affirm that all nations are equal. Yet all throughout the post-UN 20th century, the majority of the world were fighting independence struggles against colonial empires who did not believe that. To this day, voting records on topics related to this most basic tenet of the charter consistently show a split between the countries who once carved up the world into colonies, and the countries they believed deserved to be carved up. If this is still a belief, then there is a conflict of interest with countries benefiting from inequality, in partnerships intended to decrease it.

So I also classify under this SDG those articles that touch on colonial and post-colonial relationships, as well as neocolonialism and unfinished decolonisation. Without recognising that colonialism is an unsustainable ideology, we can’t form sincere global partnerships. But it requires that we unconditionally desire the diversity and equal value of nations, rather than making others into your image while being dominant over all.