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writing for godot

MULTISTAKEHOLDERISM AND HUMAN RIGHTS: A CRITICAL LOOK. (Part 1 of 2) (adapted and summarized from Nick Buxton, editor, TNI)

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Saturday, 26 October 2019 20:42

Human rights: Food for a behind the scenes thought  ‘Multistakeholders under the lens’


Human Rights Reader 501


-As public-private partnerships (PPPs) mushroom, core human rights mechanisms established since the late 1940s are being underfinanced and weakened.


Defining multistakeholderism


1. Multistakeholderism is a slippery term, because it is applied to many different forms of governance; it is also an evolving form of governance. For many, multistakeholderism is a new emerging global governance system that seeks to “bring together global actors that have a potential ‘stake’ in an issue and ask them to collaboratively sort out a solution.” It diverges from the idea that governments, as representative of their citizens, take the final decisions on global issues and direct international organizations to implement these decisions.


2. In multistakeholderism, ‘stakeholders’ become the central actors without any clear procedure to designate them. There are countless possible stakeholder categories and each depends on who the specific multistakeholder convenor is.


3. Multistakeholderism has emerged, in part, because of seeking diversity in existing governance mechanisms. It is radically different from public consultative arrangements focused on influencing governments and intergovernmental bodies, because, in multistakeholderism, participating business and civil society are treated as equal actors as if they had governmental authority. Many are applied at local and national levels in the form of PPPs.


4. As we know, there is no agreed definition for a stakeholder. Theoretically, it means anyone with a ‘stake’ in the issue has a right to be involved, but that does not explain how they are chosen or why someone is legitimately considered to have a ‘stake’ and someone else is not. In the case of the internet, for example, every user is a stakeholder, yet how are we represented in internet governance? In other cases, one person can be said to represent many categories, e.g., special issues, gender…; yet, at the same time, does any of those identities mean that they represent all in that category? Does a public interest civil society representative signify that civil society in all its complexity is fully represented?


5. The treatment of diverse stakeholders as equals is problematic as it does not recognize the power imbalances or legitimacy on any given issue. Their authority, legitimacy and power vary. For example, the aim of business actors is to work for profit for their specific company. It is not a coincidence that the term ‘stakeholder’ emerged from business and management strategies that sought to downplay power differentials in order to advocate an increased role for business in decision-making. Yet the decisions about stakeholders --who is chosen, who is excluded, whose voice is heard, whose is not-- is ultimately a deeply political choice with ramifications for everyone. It is further the rising power of transnational corporations, particularly as a result of neoliberal economic policies, that poses the major long-term challenge to multilateralism. Neoliberal policies and globalization allow corporations to expand enormously. The adoption of PPPs for financing and delivering ever more public services is a patent example.


6. Public interest civil society organizations have also gained political strength and push for increased participation in arenas of global governance, playing key roles in major UN summits. This has led to a range of strategies including confronting corporations. Yet while civil society became more prominent and vocal, their political power never matched that of business due to the profound imbalance of available resources.


This all sets the stage for multistakeholderism


7. Multilateralism has faced increasing challenges to its effectiveness as it has proven unable to address governance gaps caused by globalization. Frustration has grown at the inertia within the UN to which multistakeholderism seemed to offer advantages of efficacy and efficiency.


8. The UN’s SDGs made partnership with businesses a central element in its implementation strategy. In 2011, the business-led World Economic Forum advocated for a Global Redesign Initiative where multistakeholderism would effectively overtake multilateralism. Since even before that, the power of corporations has consistently blocked regulations to advance their influence within national global governance, basically to serve their ends. This proved very advantageous to corporations.


9. The multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) were initially seen by participating NGOs as a way of holding corporations accountable, improving the human rights (HR) situation for communities and preventing environmental degradation. But this was not to pan out. Why?


10. As public interest civil society engaged with corporations, the transparency promised failed to deliver the anticipated results.


11. Standard-setting is frequently dominated by companies and large Northern NGOs with little or no representation of claim holders in impacted communities. There is no labor union or indigenous community representation. It is hard for any civil society organization to have the resources and capacity to effectively scrutinize and challenge corporations.


12. A few MSIs allowed all parties a veto --including public interest CSOs. But the latter were often steam-rolled and this slowed down decision-making and progress.


A ‘blitz’ look at the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) initiative


13. The establishment of SUN allowed unprecedented corporate involvement in discussions around nutrition. Established by the IMF and World Bank with funding from the Gates Foundation, SUN has the appearance of a UN body yet without the approval of states. In fact, in India, SUN bypassed the national government by approaching and working with state-level governance bodies. The corporate domination of SUN is demonstrated by its emphasis on new nutritional products rather than on structural changes in food systems. Studies of SUN operations in Guatemala and Uganda revealed that 8/10 interventions are product-based and have led to short-term solutions and fragmented policies. The governing by consensus has led to incremental changes that benefit corporations and a that fail to exclude even bad-faith actors, while critical NGOs are excluded and stigmatized.


Accountable to whom?


14. The question of lack of accountability keeps re-emerging under the different MSIs. For most MSIs, the presence of different stakeholders in a room has been considered as sufficient evidence of accountability. But what power do CSOs really have through just their presence…?


15. In many MSIs, public interest civil society representation is limited in weight and in involvement. Frequently, certain constituencies are excluded altogether.  And then, the question is who should be represented, particularly when facing giant global companies. When a company has such power and global presence, it is a serious challenge to bring all the affected communities to the table and to hold TNC partners accountable.


16. Without any clear criteria, most NGOs that participate in MSIs are hand-picked or self-selecting (smelling funding?) and do not even need to prove accountability to impacted communities.


17. Most MSIs are highly technocratic which makes them resource-intensive as a platform for engagement, so that it is only the very big NGOs who are able to do the work --and, not surprisingly, HR fall through the cracks. Those ‘stakeholders’ with greater technical expertise, access to capital and time, and capacity to influence governments are able to exercise much more power and influence over the direction and decisions a MSI makes. The interests of the big NGOs cannot simply be considered the same as those of the affected communities. Donors and influential policy-makers frequently hold more influence than the impacted communities they purport to represent. There have been attempts to include affected communities, but these have often been tokenistic.


18. The trend is towards less civil society involvement, as more and more public interest CSOs leave multistakeholder platforms either due to discontent in the progress on the issue(s) of concern, or because they are unable to keep up with the resource requirements.


19. The presence of government representatives in multistakeholder arrangements provides no guarantee that communities are represented either, given that many governments are intimidated by corporate power and frequently fail to comply with their duty to protect the public interest from industry.


20. Accountability can simply not be imposed at global level by self-selecting actors! It is an organic process that must be built from the ground up by autonomous actors and/or democratically accountable states, tied to communities and constantly monitored and challenged. Under international law, states remain the principal holders of the obligation to protect HR and this requires holding corporations legally liable, territorially and extraterritorially. For a number of reasons, governments have not adequately taken on this role. MSIs’ marginalization and exclusion of states weakens accountability and replaces binding obligations on corporations with voluntary guidelines that fail to adequately protect HR.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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