How can you tell whether a Multi-Stakeholder Initiative is a total waste of time?

March 10, 2014 9 By Duncan Green

Exfamer turned research consultant May Miller-Dawkins (@maykmd) tries to sort out diamonds from dross among the ever-proliferating ‘multi-May Miller-Dawkins smallstakeholder initiatives’.

Have you ever had to decide whether or not to join a multi-stakeholder initiative? When I was at Oxfam there was a disagreement about whether or not to join a fledgling MSI. Some staff believed that the industry was going to use the process as greenwash while others thought this was a real chance to influence the private sector, when other strategies had led to stalemate.

As MSIs proliferate, NGOs face these decisions more frequently. In the absence of a crystal ball or a track record, how can NGOs distinguish between the potential (ethically sourced, of course) diamonds, and the misleading twinkle of a cubix zirconia?

One familiar way in for NGOs is to look at the forms of participation that are being proposed – asking the same questions as in so many development programs. Who gets to participate? Who gets to decide?

As it turns out MSIs tend to legitimate their enterprise on the basis of participation. A study (ungated version here) by Phillip Pattberg and Klaus Dingwerth found that even in their own communications, MSIs emphasise their multi-stakeholder composition and the participation of particular groups even more than actual results. Of course all MSIs have “participation” (at a minimum of the private sector and civil society) as a key feature. But digging deeper, you see that the types of participation vary in important ways.

First off there are “representative” forms of participation. These focus on stakeholder representation (for example into the common chambers structure seen in Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), Roundtable on Palm Oil Sustainability and Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials) and internal representation of the scheme’s members through elected Boards  (e.g. 4C Association, FSC, and many others).

Secondly, many schemes are “deliberative”. These schemes focus on dialogue and frequently make decisions by consensus (for example, the Roundtable on Responsible Soy “aims to facilitate global dialogue”, the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol was developed through dialogue amongst a forum and then moved to an ongoing chambers structure). Some recognise the particular experience and knowledge of marginalised or oppressed groups and try to ensure that they are heard and respected  (the World Commission on Dams, an early form of MSI, invested in getting the testimony of dam-affected people as well as having them represented on the Commission).

A third strand of participation is more decidedly “functional”. Here the focus is on solving problems, drawing on expertise (whether narrowly or widely conceived), or resolving conflict (for example the Alliance for Water Stewardship and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation). The extreme of functional forms of participation would be co-option that defuses opposition without delegating real authority.

Lastly, it is important to note that participation in MSIs is not limited to those who voluntarily choose to join. Groups participate in schemes as “outsiders” in a range of ways – by refusing to join, campaigning and monitoring (for example, the Bank Information Center’s monitoring of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or campaigning against the Fair Labor Association). In fact, some experience from social change campaigning demonstrates that civil society are more effective at influencing change in corporate practice when different groups play insider and outsider roles in MSIs.

A stakeholder you can believe in

A stakeholder you can believe in

So, how can better understanding the types of participation in MSIs guide decisions about joining or starting MSIs? Here are a few ideas:

– If the most important principle to your organisation is that people who are likely to be affected by a scheme are involved in its creation then you’ll want to have a representative design, but one which pays adequate attention to who actually participates. This can mean minimum proportions of “chambers” or voting rights to particular groups (eg producers or workers – for example the Fair Labelling Organization has 4 Producer seats on the Board) and adequately resourcing the participation of southern civil society and groups that directly represent workers, producers, Indigenous peoples and other constituencies.

– If you think the conflict between an industry and civil society is a fundamental clash of world-views, then a deliberative approach may work, provided that the process allows adequate time and respect for the kinds of knowledge and expertise that sit on either side of the divide. This may require going beyond international meetings and technical documents, to include visits, immersions, testimony and ensuring a balance of participants and presenters from all sides. Deliberative schemes can be a way to get an industry that is highly reluctant (and maybe battle weary) around the table. However, a lack of focus on the process of deliberation and decision-making in the beginning can lead to a situation where NGOs become locked into a process they have sunk significant time and energy into. To avoid this, NGOs should at least have their own exit strategies – potentially agreed with their partners or allies – if the dialogue does not produce sufficient results.

– Where you think there is genuine commitment to change in an industry, a collaborative approach may be the way to go – by starting small on pilots and programs, and agreeing to stay focused on solving specific problems. The dangers of the collaborative route can be overlooking the political dimensions of the issues at hand – including disagreements between different groups within the amorphous categories of “civil society” and the “private sector”. The fights between the NGOs and companies that get involved in MSIs can pale in comparison to the disagreements between civil society groups about the right strategy.

– Problems with scientific dimensions – such as sustainable fisheries – require expert advice. The terms of expert advice are important (is the expert committee’s advice binding on the decision-makers?). However, be wary of schemes that construe civil society input itself as “expert” input or relegate it to an expert committee with no decision-making authority. This can show that sustainability is being seen as a technical problem to be solved and different views of what sustainability may look like could be brushed aside.

– If you want to work inside a scheme but also understand that it is important that other groups are able to campaign and monitor from the outside you’ll want to make sure that the MSI is fairly transparent – that documents, minutes of meetings, and results of assessments (if they exist) are published, that there is regular consultation, and that reporting and monitoring can be verified by third parties unaffiliated with the scheme.

There is no perfect design for an MSI. However, with a couple of decades of MSI experience under our collective belts and a better understanding of their potential and limits, careful attention to the different forms of participation at the front end can hopefully lead to better results at the other.

MSI veterans and observers – what’s your experience? What forms of participation do you think means that MSIs are more likely to deliver?