Recently there has been an increasing awareness that sustainable and resilient public-private partnership (PPP) projects should also be used as tools to enhance infrastructure development initiatives that are aligned with countries’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), in an environmentally responsible approach that also considers the needs of stakeholders and end users. Recent climate change and pandemic impacts have reinforced the need for a new mindset that focuses on identifying and promoting PPPs that strengthen economic activity and uplift vulnerable communities.

The United Nations Economic Commission (Unece) for Europe’s PPP Center of excellence took up this challenge by developing a new PPP paradigm concept called People First PPPs (PfPPs) through a global outreach to PPP practitioners – both in the public and private sectors. 

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Unece defines  People First PPPs as a public-private partnership model consistent with the SDGs so that it is “fit for purpose” and oriented towards meeting the needs of “people-first”. This requires a focus on delivering desirable and necessary outcomes from infrastructure investment that focus PPPs on delivering “value for people”. Value for people does not negate the concept of “value for money” but adds to it.  Additionally, to ensure future proofing of projects, “value for the future” is also embraced to ensure that governments identify PPP projects that are people focused, environmentally sustainable and resilient to future adverse events (i.e. pandemics, earthquakes, and climate change).

To enhance the practice of PfPPs, Unece is currently developing an impact assessment tool composed of a self-assessment and a certification scheme for evaluating PPP projects that aspire to be described as ‘people-first’. This evaluation methodology has three elements: benchmarks and evaluation criteria that demonstrate achievement in five people-first PPP outcomes; a weighting and ranking of these outcomes along with other issues pertinent to scoring; and a scoring system that can provide stakeholders with the evaluations needed to revise and adjust their project designs and operations to make them more compliant with the people-first outcomes and the SDGs. The five achievement outcomes include - access and equity; economic effectiveness and fiscal sustainability; environmental sustainability and resilience; replicability; and stakeholder engagement. 

Unece has indicated that the self-assessment tool would be provided free of charge as an international public good when completed. 

To achieve a PfPP designation, applicants (government entities, the private sector, lenders, civil society organisations) will need to demonstrate that the project complies with the Unece  people-first PPP evaluation methodology. The model will include a series of checks and balances to ensure the scheme is credible, reliable, accessible without excessive bureaucracy, while at the same time complying with the United Nations rules and regulations.  There is an increasing likelihood that evaluations performed by tools of this nature will be scrutinised in the future by investors who are increasingly becoming concerned about environmental and socioeconomic project risks and would feel more comfortable with this type of certification being performed before they invest in candidate PPP projects.

It is also likely that multilateral development banks  and donor-development organisations in future will require that governments perform a PfPP certification assessment before they consider investing or financing projects.  An added value of such an assessment will be that it allows governments to have an evaluation lens that will help them identify, select and prioritize projects that can efficiently help them achieve their SDG goals.  

Unece  over the last four years has developed a compendium of hundreds of PfPP case studies that exhibit the values of this new model (this can be accessed through Unece’s website).

Adoption of the PfPP model cannot take place in a vacuum.  Willing partners and champions have emerged that are promoting PfPPs.  This includes the World Association of PPP Units and Professions (WAPPP) which has made PfPPs the keystone of its advocacy of sustainable and resilient PPPs.  Furthermore, the International Sustainable Resilience Center (affiliated with Unece) has launched a PfPP pilot program in Mexico to bring broadband internet access to peri-urban municipalities which need partners to bridge the digital gap that exists in economically vulnerable communities.  This project will help Mexico achieve its SDGs goals of ending poverty (SDG 1); improving education (SDG2); economic growth (SDG 8); innovative infrastructure (SDG 9); and building sustainable communities (SDG 11).

David Baxter is an international development consultant at the International Sustainable Resilience Center of PPPs (ISRC) and a steering committee member of the World Association of PPP Units and Professionals (WAPPP).