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

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?

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9 Responses to “How can you tell whether a Multi-Stakeholder Initiative is a total waste of time?”
  1. P Baker

    Had MSI experiences? OMG,LOL,WTF have I ever?

    They want your ideas, your time (free of course) and your logo.

    You may be called to a meeting at which a declaration is made. After which they can claim to donors that they have global support and carry on with their original agenda, which you quickly find out depends on an incestuous inner cabal.

    They may even stage web-based calls for project concepts, where you are expected to cough up your best ideas (for free again) and never hear from them again.

    Well they are not all so bad, but someone should do a study on them…

    Perhaps they need an ISO number all to themselves … perhaps there already is one.

  2. Tim Bishop

    MSIs will increase in numbers and this article is very well received.

    Accountability is key, and the point about publishing results – and perhaps increasingly looking at social media as a way of communicating externally – would help keep MSIs more in check.

    Regular recruitment of Board members (or the equivalent) and the type of meaningful representation mentioned above (ie that of producers being decision makers in the FLO case) in the governance of MSIs needs to be more the rule rather than the exception.

    The point about the distinction between civil society and private sector (perspectives, cultures, ways of working etc) is a much larger issue that needs acknowledging, and which permeates other aspects of the much broader “development” agenda. These are not differences which need resolving, they will always exist, but the more we recognise their existence, the more it can be the role of MSIs to help create working environments where we find opportunities that can be harnessed by embracing the differences, rather than the opposite. This would give more hope to the idea that in the future cross sectoral initiatives can more effectively work towards shared objectives, and deliver measurable results.

    • May Miller-Dawkins

      Tim, I’m interested in the idea that the differences can be harnessed rather than resolved. Do you have examples of where this has happened? Some of the differences can be so pervasive – or the interests so divergent – that I think you have difficulty achieving any agreement without some movement from one or both sides.

      • Tim Bishop

        Hi May. The Water Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) programme (from what I can recall over 3 years back when I was more involved in it) strikes me as a multi stakeholder initiative that – whilst it took time – delivered outcomes in such a way that didn’t compromise the different partners’ ways of working and, in particular, promoted the power of collaboration between private sector and NGOs in terms of jointly engaging local municipality service providers…that, and a groovy acronym to boot.

  3. Johan Verburg

    Thanks May and Duncan for an interesting read. The article puts a lot of emphasis on process, which is partly justified.

    However, when you ask when MSIs are “more likely to deliver”, I would start from the content matter and objectives. If the problem at hand is too complex to be solved by single stakeholders, a more complex setting is required for solutions.

    For example: to solve some labour or price issues within a supply chain may require tough negotiations between buyer and producer, or between producer and labour force, but would not always require a broader multi-stakeholder initiative. However, if dealing with externalities beyond the supply chain, where individual stakeholders have limited control, more stakeholders are required to start a larger transformation. Deforestation, climate change, land grabbing are such externalities that require a combination of governance and incentives by markets and by formal regulation.

    The theory of change is then that a combination of stakeholders may bring a broader segment of a sector towards a tipping point, rather than improvements in the niches of individual companies or isolated supply chains.

  4. May Miller-Dawkins

    Johan, you are right that MSIs emerged to involve a wider group of stakeholders in issues that are complex, cannot be addressed in any one regulatory jurisdiction, and may be unlikely to be governed effectively internationally. However, we have to understand that motives for joining an MSI can vary significantly – from trying to raise standards, save costs from improving, or move towards stronger regulation, to trying to preclude regulation and achieve better reputation without necessarily having to significantly change practice (say if you can ensure that your practice levels fit within the standards that are agreed). As such there are MSIs that are significantly incrementalist and may never move to a tipping point where a whole sector shifts. Rather they may cement certain segments of that sector as good social actors but lack the drivers to change behaviour in other segments. All of this to say that the MSI form – in my view – doesn’t express one theory of change and the reason for the process focus is that it sheds a fair amount of light on the level of aspiration and likelihood of widespread change.

  5. Johan Verburg

    Right, May. Of course it is a waste of time to join such “incrementalist” MSIs, but none of these initiatives will present themselves as such. So it will be hard to tell the diamonds from the dross at surface.

    For Oxfam to consider worthwhile advocating or even joining such MSI should therefore be based on a proper balance of the opportunity to bring about significant lasting change towards the risks of wasting resources while trying.

  6. Stephen Sherwood

    Personally, I think most stakeholder assessments are a waste of time. I find it is far more useful to study actors and discourse in the context of social networks and processes of social networking, which can seamlessly cross organizational boundaries.

  7. Yusef Salehi

    Thanks for an interesting read May.

    Your distinction between ‘representative, ‘deliberative’ and ‘functional’ MSIs is a very apposite one from my perspective. I work on the set up of lots of Oxfam’s consortium programmes (though not specifically in relation to advocacy), and a constant tension in member/partner selection is between achieving ‘representativeness’ vs improving functionality/ability to efficiently & effectively achieve programme goals.

    But in fact, the most common scenario I see is where we’re expected to show how our consortia are achieving greater functionality through being more representative. Certainly there are situations where one of the key objectives of the consortium is itself to bring new combinations of stakeholders to the table or generate new dialogues, so that representativeness is an ‘end’ in itself, but I find in most cases representativeness is valued more as a means to achieving greater functionality – e.g. more sustainably achieving programme goals, achieving broader and more comprehensive buy-in to solutions and approaches, or just engaging/capturing all relevant expertise within the scope of the consortium.

    Certainly donors encourage us to generate consortia which combine varied skillsets and achieve greater representativeness of relevant stakeholders, but I’ve found they still predicate that on the assumption that this will lead to greater functionality for the programme, and they want us to make the case for that (perhaps a clearer link in an advocacy context?). But it isn’t always (or even usually) a correct assumption: as you suggest above, often representativeness and functionality are entirely separate (and even mutually exclusive) characteristics for an MSI, meaning what’s needed is a kind of balance between the two. So perhaps, for one type of MSI anyway, finding the diamonds is a case of finding that overlap – where a more ‘representative’ mix of perspectives and skills will actually improve rather than obstruct functionality?