Center for Governance and Sustainability

at the University of Massachusetts Boston

Multi-stakeholder, Voluntary Governance

For WEF, the multi-stakeholder concept is centered on the corporation with the 'stakeholders' as constituent bodies associated with the corporation. As Schwab outlined the idea in 1971 and restated it in 2010 in the First Forty Years, the “management of the modern enterprise must serve all stakeholders (die Interessenten), acting as their trustee charged with achieving the long-term sustained growth and prosperity of the company.” 1

The First Forty Years emphasized this corporate-centered view with a graphic from Schwab’s 1971 book. The graphic shows the “company” in the center with ovals from top to bottom that read “shareholders (owners),” “creditors,” “customers,” “national economy,” “government and society,” “suppliers,” and “collaborators.” 2  The three crucial elements of what WEF means are embedded here – first that multi-stakeholder structures do not mean equal roles for all stakeholders; 3  second, that the corporation is at the center of the process; and third, that the list of WEF’s multi-stakeholders is principally those with commercial ties to the company: customers, creditors, suppliers, collaborators, owners, and national economies. All the rest of the potential stakeholders are grouped together as “government and society.”

At the founding of the United Nations, governments in the UN Charter created a category of non-governmental organizations in consultative status to the ECOSOC. 4  ECOSOC does not actually 'consult' these organizations; rather, it gives them permission to attend their meetings, to distribute position papers, and to engage one-on-one with delegates inside the ECOSOC chamber. 5   The phrase “non-governmental organizations” was clear to the founding governments. It was any organization that was not a government. ECOSOC early on established a committee to receive applications from “non-governmental organizations (NGOs)” and to recommend which ones should be granted the privilege of ECOSOC consultative status.

The committee immediately encountered differences about which candidate organizations were truly independent from governments and which were not, and whether new NGOs should be approved based on their own merit or based on merit and the need to maintain geographic balance within the accredited NGO community. 6  Over the past 60 years the “non-governmental organization” concept has  been stretched to include everything from religious bodies to sports organizations, and from regional community groups to municipal, state, provincal, and regional governmental agencies. 

By the 1980s and 1990s, two other processes challenged what was the supposed to be the clear definition in San Francisco. First, the Conferences of the 1980s and 1990s authorized their ‘own NGOs’ participants, giving up on the ECOSOC committee battles about State-funded organizations and geographic balance. Second many of these “non-governmental organizations” themselves were unhappy to be called what they were not, rather than what they were. The combination of these two processes produced a variety of new names - “civil society organizations,” “multistakeholder organizations,” and “Major Groups” to name a few.

The multistakeholder consultation process gained wide support as an umbrella term that allowed women, workers, academics, community organizations, and others to be able to meet and advocate their joint positions to governments. It also provided a way to share resources in monitoring government positions during intergovernmental negotiations. The Rio Conference in 1992 7  created nine major non-state groups which could, as part of the official process, address governments and have all of the ECOSOC privileges. At the Rio+10 Johannesburg conference in 2002, 8  projects involving these multistakeholder groups gained additional recognition as official "type II conference outcomes." 9

By 2007, the report of the Helsinki Process could summarize the diversity of purposes of multistakeholder consultations in the following manner:

Numerous past initiatives stand to demonstrate that multi-stakeholder cooperation – bringing together representatives of government, civil society, the private sector, religious organisations, academia and media – may take a range of different forms and contribute to global governance and problem- solving in various ways:

  •    multi-stakeholder initiatives can help to broaden discussion and identify global public needs. As such, they create a transnational public discourse around complex problems that require a global approach and open up alternative solutions;

  •    multi-stakeholder cooperation can introduce the element of global issue interest into intergovernmental negotiations, alongside the traditional national interest;

  •    successful multi-stakeholder initiatives facilitate negotiation, and may thus help to overcome stalemate in highly conflict-ridden policy arenas;

  •    multi-stakeholder cooperation helps to gather and disseminate knowledge by bringing together actors with different views on and approaches to issues;

  •    multi-stakeholder initiatives help to create and correct markets my mobilising multi-stakeholder “coalitions of the willing;”

  •    multi-stakeholder initiatives may help to broaden participation in global governance  10

WEF proposes to take the multi-stakeholder concept of “engagement” and "consultation" into "multi-stakeholder governance." There are some sharp differences between "multi-stakeholder consultations" and "multi-stakeholder governance," some of which are often blurred by the loose use of the term 'multi-stakeholder.' In the Rio process there are, as noted above, nine categories of stakeholders, including one category for sub-national governmental units and one category called just ‘NGOs.’ In the Helsinki Process paper cited above, there are seven categories on stakeholders including ‘governments’ as a separate group.

The selection of the categories of major participants is a crucial element in the transformation from a consultative system to a governance system.  Any number of categories of stakeholders can advise or lobby a central Actor. When those categories are given governance authority, those particular institutions take on a special leadership role and potentially displace other categories into secondary status. 11

Also crucial is the relative roles assigned to each category. In a multistakeholder governance system, the various actors can vie for the leadership role and the nation-state is but one or many potential candidates for that role.   WEF's therefore moves from a system where non-state Actors influence a state-centric governance system into one where the state is only one Actor and not necessarily the dominant one. Rather than a corrective to a rigid state or inter-state structure, WEF envisages in Step One that “multistakeholder governance” could be a replacement for primary state-centric international structures. 12  This is consistent with Schwab's founding principles for the World Economic Forum forty years ago. 

 

Related Ideas: Limitations of universal frameworks; Anchoring G20 inside the UN; G20 + ECOSOC; Public-private; Fisheries; Dual-oversight agency; Multidimensionality; Repositioning; Results-oriented coalitions; Nuclear fuel

The Readers' Guide welcomes comments with alternative examples or counter examples and commentary – critical or otherwise – of the above interpretation of GRI’s perspective.

  • 1. ^ The First Forty Years, pg 7.
  • 2. ^ The First Forty Years, pg 7.
  • 3. ^ “The principal objective of all the Forum’s activities is to strengthen the future force of its constituents and, ultimately, their impact power in the world community.” “Our Leadership Concept: Entrepreneurship in the global public interest.”, The First 40 Years, pg 119.
  • 4. ^ These non-governmental organizations are accredited only to the ECOSOC, not to the General Assembly nor the Security Council
  • 5. ^ “The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) was one of the first “NGOs“ to receive consultative status at the UN in 1946, and the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) followed a year later.  However, individual companies had no formal participation opportunities in UN bodies until [the Financing for Development Conference in 2002] “,FES – Multistakeholder pg 12
  • 6. ^ The government-supported or not debate was a reflection of the Cold War while the geographic balance debate was a reflection of the North/South split.
  • 7. ^ Formally the World Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
  • 8. ^ Formally the World Conference on Environment and Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.
  • 9. ^ Final UN conference outcomes are generally inter-Government agreements about what Governments and international organization are expected to do. At Rio +10, these normal outcomes were labeled ‘Type 1’ outcomes, while newer corporate-government-NGO-government project agreements were called ‘Type II” outcomes.
  • 10. ^ Helsinki Process, pg 20.
  • 11. ^ “In this new paradigm of international cooperation, 'global partnerships‘, 'multistakeholder initiatives‘, 'global public policy networks‘ and governance concepts of 'variable geometry‘ (Helsinki group) are perceived as the future of international cooperation, moving beyond traditional nation-state,  FES - Multistakeholder,pg 7
  • 12. ^ Samans, Schwab, and Malloch-Brown introduction pg 10. “. . .while experimentation with individual public-private and multistakeholder partnerships has flourished over the past decade, including in many international organizations, they continue to play an incremental, even experimental, role in the international system rather than a systematic one. For this to change, policy-making processes and institutional structures themselves will need to be adapted and perhaps even fundamentally repositioned with this in mind.”

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