Achieving the MDGs through quadruple helix partnerships: university-government-industry-third sector collaboration

MALDONADO, Valtencir

Valtencir Maldonado Mendes (Brasil) 

“We must not fail the billions who look to the international community to fulfil the promise of the Millennium Declaration for a better world. Let us keep the promise. (…) Meeting the goals is everyone’s business”. - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  The MDGs Report - June 2010

Do HEIs really have a role to play in the achievement of the UN MDGs?

The past decade provides evidence that higher education and research contribute to the eradication of poverty, to sustainable development and to progress towards reaching the internationally agreed upon development goals, which include the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). We can see in the call for action of the final communiqué issued by the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education (UNESCO, 2009) a clear message that the global education agenda should reflect these realities.
Nevertheless, targeting 2015, when the goals are expected to be met, most countries are proceeding at a worryingly slow pace. It is clear that improvements in the lives of the poor have been unacceptably slow, and some important gains are being eroded by the climate, food shortages and the more recent world economic crises. “The MDGs are still attainable. The critical question today is how to transform the pace of change from what we have seen over the last decade into dramatically faster progress” (United Nations, 2010).
In the literature there is a dearth of information and research on how HEIs are tackling the MDGs. There are clear gaps where further research is required. To what extent are these goals a subject of concern for the HEIs and the other actors who may engage in a quadruple helix partnership (university-government-industry-third sector)? How can HEIs take heed of and participate in the debate surrounding these issues? In what ways can they take an active and participatory role in the face of these challenges?
Responding to the UNESCO call for action (UNESCO, 2009), the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU)’s 2010 Conference of Executive Heads, held in South Africa from April 25-27, focussed specifically on the contribution of universities to the sustainable achievement of the MDGs. The conference heard concrete examples (see website: of how universities contribute towards these areas as diverse as poverty, agriculture, water sanitation, environment and sustainability, food security, gender equality, conflict resolution, education and health care. In the final session, delegates endorsed a statement where, among others, we can find:
The capacity of universities to achieve their potential had been seriously hampered by the failure of governments and international donors to recognise the value of their work over the past two decades. This continues through the lack of recognition of higher education in the current MDGs.
In terms of recommendations, the ACU highlighted some crucial points such as that future development goals, at national and international levels, should explicitly recognise the role of higher education; universities in developing and developed countries should establish clear strategies to support the MDGs, and more effectively share expertise through collaboration at institutional, national and international levels; universities should review their curriculum at regular intervals, to ensure that graduates have the skills and attitudes to contribute to the attainment of MDGs and sustainable development.
While more research and awareness campaigns are definitely needed, we can already see some positive steps forward with some organizations willing to engage with HEIs to seek to begin to work in this arena. For instance, the work developed by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) which created the Local Development Programme (LDP) that acknowledged the key role of partnerships between the United Nations, civil society and academia, local authorities and the private sector in the advancement and successful realization of the sustainable development agenda. The key objective of LDP is to develop the capacity of local actors, through exchange of experiences and dissemination of best practice, as an effective way of achieving the MDGs and reducing poverty at local level.
UNITAR develops new pedagogical tools and ideas for teaching bodies and an educational program that can be adapted to university standards and criteria. This program contains two parts: a didactic aspect (general teaching of the MDGs) and a secondary aspect that approaches the practical implementation of the MDGs (MDG Centre of Excellence, 2006).
Also under the United Nations umbrella the UN Millennium Project (MP) is an independent advisory board commissioned by the Secretary General to advise on strategies to achieve the MDGs. The MP views country-level changes as key to achieving the goals: improvements in governance; engaging and empowering civil society; promoting entrepreneurship; mobilizing domestic resources; increasing aid; reforming global trade policies that favour rich nations. Aligned to that, it is worth saying that the United Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has created new services in collaboration with a number of partners from the private sector, academic institutions, NGOs, and governments.
Another good example is the MDG World Center of Excellence. Instigated by the leaders of new or already existing organizations that have agreed to adapt training activities and transform instruction by taking the 8 MDGs into account.
Although they don't make explicit their alignment to the MDGs, it's possible to find in some outreach/extension programs of HEIs examples of good practice directly related to the MDGs. New research on that could give us a more accurate picture. For instance, this experience from Stanford University, USA (GUNI, 2008) is an interesting example of how sometimes universities can already be working on the MDGs and in a QHPs model even though this wasn’t the intention. The Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program (SIEP) is a real case of how the quadruple helix can work. The SIEP is carrying out projects with government agencies, utilities, the Red Cross and the private sector, such as Silicon Valley, among others. It develops innovative, technology-based solutions with a potential for social benefit on a global scale. For instance, Saving Lives in the Next Pandemic Project: innovative solutions against the avian flu H5N1 virus; The Light Brigade, created a cheap home lighting system with a solar panel that is being used in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
Quadruple Helix Partnerships (QHPs): a model of collaboration to support HEIs’ contribution to MDGs
Why do we need a Quadruple Helix partnership for the achievement of the MDGs or for human and social development as a whole? What next for the classic Triple Helix culture (university-government-industry partnerships)? For many years we have seen how higher education institutions (HEIs) have been, first, working in double helix partnerships with either industry, government or civil society. For instance, in some countries we have a growing movement of collaboration between universities and the third sector in areas such as community-based research, teaching, service learning, etc., and we have seen growing evidence (Watson, 2008, Maldonado, 2009a & 2009b) that civic engagement and social responsibility are becoming an essential learning goal for institutions throughout higher education around the world.
Second, in the last decades it is possible to observe how many HEIs have been adopting a new partnership route based on the Triple Helix model, defined by Henry Etzkowitz (2008) where the university-government-industry relationship has been moving from the traditional top-down, government-controlled system of innovation to non-linear and interactive approaches.
In any case, an innovation system formed only by the university, government or industry must by necessity provide only a limited source of ideas and initiatives. According to Etkowitz (2008) “a flourishing civil society of individuals and groups, freely organizing, debating, and taking initiatives, encourages diverse source of innovation.” So a question raised in this article is why Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are not included in the institutional mechanisms that enable the development of new forms of knowledge production to counter the world's most challenging problems? This issue has not been explored significantly in the discussion of the current “triple helix” model. Therefore, the author suggests the inclusion of a new helix, the CSOs (the third sector), in the current triple helix field interaction model creating a new quadruple helix. The intention of such a partnership would be to solve the “increasingly complex challenge that exceeds the capabilities of any single sector” (Kolk, Tulder & Kostwinder, 2008).
While criticism of the negative impact of industry and profit sector when tackling the MDGs continues to be heard, most literature tends to focus on their potential added value in contributing to human and social development. Maybe if we were living in the “Brave New World” envisaged by Aldous Huxley, we wouldn't need it. Every sector, public, private, non-profit, industry, higher education, etc., would have their defined function and wouldn't be allowed to go further. Nevertheless, fortunately the reality is that in our real world we have the freedom and the responsibility to solve our problems through innovative, creative and ethic means.
In this sense it worth to say that the MDGs include a specific objective for global partnerships. In Goal 8 “Develop a Global Partnership for Development”, there is an explicit call for the private sector/industry join with the other societal actors – such as the HEIs – to fight for global human and social development. The MDGs represent human needs and basic rights that every individual around the world should be able to enjoy—freedom from extreme poverty and hunger; quality education, productive and decent employment, good health and shelter; the right of women to give birth without risking their lives; and a world where environmental sustainability is a priority, and women and men live in equality. The international community also pledged to forge a wide-ranging global partnership for development to achieve these universal objectives.
The actors in the proposed Quadruple Helix could work together to advance human and social development without abandoning their core values and competencies. According to Altbach (2008), universities are linked as never before to the practical needs of society as dictated by governments (for public institutions) and by the market (for both public and private institutions). At the beginning of the 21st century, Altbach suggests that the pendulum has swung way too far towards the government and the market, at the expense of the autonomy of academe and, I would assert, the needs of society as a whole and in many cases represented by CSOs. Society would be better served by a more balanced academic environment in which HEIs could initiate the QHPs and could be more attuned to the broader public interest.
Moreover, since many CSOs and industry (business, profit sector) are separated by sectoral, social, or political differences, the literature emphasizes the importance of intermediary actors in linking prospective partners (Ashman, 2001). It is here where universities can play an important role. HEIs can be the promoter and driving force for the multiplicity of actions and relations established among the QHPs.
As we can see it is necessary to encourage, nourish and support critical debate to find out new routes for the interchange between a new ‘Quadruple Helix’– adding civil society to the existing university – industry – government triple helix. We also need to frame this debate by questioning the ways in which HEIs support and facilitate human and social development mainly in the current context of the urgency of the MDGs within the framework of current and emerging understandings of Sustainability.
With only five years left until the 2015 deadline to achieve the MDGs, we must have a call for action from the HEIs, exercising their social responsibility, fostering a Quadruple Helix Partnership that can make a difference for millions of people. The UN has called on world leaders to attend a summit in New York on 20-22 September to accelerate progress towards the MDGs. What will be the HEIs message there? We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to be proactive actors on such an important and relevant issue. More than before, HEIs themselves need to learn to engage with and to encourage dialogue in a wide range of social sectors and bring their voices to the international forums and to the people of the world.
MDGs and Higher Education Institutions Survey – Take action!
To what extent has your university been engaged in partnerships with the aim of contributing to the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? The deadline for the completion of the MDGs process is fast approaching and there is general concern about whether or not they will be achieved and a lack of evidence in the literature of how HEIs are engaging with the process.
Different social agents from around the world are working to undertake a comprehensive review of progress and chart a course for accelerated action on the MDGs between now and 2015. However if we analyse the last UN MDGs Report launched in June 2010, we can’t find any significant reference to the contribution of Higher Education Institutions to the achievement of the MDGs.
This survey*1 launched by the author in a broader research framework at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Barcelona, aims to examine whether Higher Education Institutions are aware of the MDG’s targets or consider them as any part of their responsibility; whether they adopt a targeted approach in achieving these goals; whether they are working in Quadruple Helix Partnerships; whether ICTs have a role to play in it; and, which are the main areas in MDG teaching, research, operation and extension (outreach) within HEIs.

You can contribute to this research participating in a brief survey:


Altbach, P.G. (2007). Academic freedom: international realities and challenges. Tradition and Transition: The International Imperative in Higher Education. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
Aschman, D. (2001). Civil Society Collaboration with Business: Bringing Empowerment Back in. World Development Vol. 29, No. 7, 1097-1113, 1001.
Etzkowitz, H. (2008). The Triple Helix: University-industry-government Innovation in Action. New York: Paperback.
GUNI (2008). The Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program. Universities and Social Commitment Observatory. Retrieved July 11, 2010 from:
Kolk, A., Tulder, R.V. & Kostwinder, E. (2008). Business and partnerships for development. European Management Journal 26, 262– 273.
Kunungi & Schweitz, M. (1999). Codes of Conduct for Partnership in Governance: Texts and Commentaries.  Tokyo, Japan: The United Nations University.
Maldonado, V. (2009a). The role of Higher Education in a new quadruple helix context. Higher Education and Civic Engagement Partnerships - Create, Challenge, Change Conference (NUI Galway), Dublin: Croke Park Conference Centre.
Maldonado, V. (2009b). Higher education and the Quadruple Helix. Triple Helix VII Conference. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde.
MDG Centre of Excellence (2006). Report on the Questionnaire-Survey AICESIS NGO Universities. Retrieved July 11, 2010 from:
Sharma, S. (2007). People vs. poverty: Powering through partnership. Futures 39 (2007) 625-631.
Talloires (2005). Talloires Declaration on the Civic Roles and Social Responsibilities of Higher Education. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from:
United Nations (2010). Millennium Development Goals Report 2010.  New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
UNESCO (2009). World Conference on Higher Education Communiqué. UNESCO web site. Retrieved July 3, 2010, from:
UNESCO (2007). Partner Ethical Criteria. Partnerships for Education. Retrieved July 10, 2010, from:
Watson, D. (2008). The university in the modern world: Ten lessons of civic and community engagement. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice 2008; 3; 43
Survey developed for the research “Achieving human and social development through quadruple helix partnerships: university-government-industry-third sector collaboration”. Multimedia Engineering PhD Program. Barcelona Tech (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya), Spain, 2010, with the support of Dr. Hanifa Mezoui - AICESIS Représentante Permanente auprès des Nations Unies et de l'ECOSOC.


About the author

Valtencir Maldonado Mendes is currently enrolled in the last stage of a doctoral program at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. Applying for the European Doctorate Mention in Scotland, with a research about the University-Government-Industry-Civil Society partnerships, ICT and its contribution to social and human development and the MDGs within the framework of current and emerging understandings of sustainability. He is the former Observatory co-ordinator at the Global University Network for Innovation.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government