Multi-stakeholder Governance in Practice

Outside the UN system, there are four large-scale, multi-stakeholder structures: ISO (the International Organization for Standardization), CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), ICANN (International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).  The current ISO, a post-WWII body, prepares technical product and process standards. While its membership is country-based, the national standard setting bodies, which ‘represent’ countries, are themselves  a mixture of individuals designated by vendors, manufacturers, governments, consumers, professional bodies and academia.  CGIAR, which was founded by the Ford Foundation in 1971, now has sixty-four public and private institutional members working on agricultural research, thirteen international organizational members including the World Bank and four private foundations (Ford Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture). 1

In the case of the IUCN, there are six categories of members. Governments can be represented by their ministry of foreign affairs and separately by individual agencies of the same government. IUCN’s non-governmental category is divided into separate groups for national NGOs and international NGOs. IUCN’s lists of endangered species and recommendations on nature and biodiversity are highly regarded and often formally recognized in domestic law and regulations. ICANN has nationally designated participants from the private sector, government, academia, and civil society. Its structure is an unusual compromise, as ICANN moved from a Pentagon-supported project to a “private market-based” organization. 2  All four of these non-UN bodies have different concepts for membership, for decision-making, and for self-financing. And all four continue to struggle with governance matters and the appropriate role of the different constituencies.

A series of smaller, sector-specific multi-stakeholder governance bodies have been created often to assist in accrediting and standardizing practices in socially responsible sectors. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council is a multi-stakeholder body that defines standards for sustainably managed forests. It also oversees an international certification and labeling program for trees harvested from these forests. The Marine Stewardship Council seeks to protect fish and marine resources outside national territorial waters. Its Stakeholder Council has two 20 members chambers, one chamber for commercial interests (e.g. those involved with catching, processing, supplying, retailing, and fish food service sectors) and one chamber for the public interest (e.g. those with fishing concerns from the academy, science, management, and the marine conversation communities). 3  These specialized international accrediting and standardizing bodies now support an international self-support organization, ISEAL 4 , to help them share experiences about governance, certification issues, and the international standard setting process.

The longest standing UN-based multi-stakeholder governance organization is the ILO. The ILO addressed the issue of state/non-state governance back in the 1920s. It has a formal tripartite governance system wherein each constituency (Governments, Employers, and Workers) separately meet to agree to a common position. The actual members of the Employer and Worker groups are selected by two mutually agreed bodies, the International Organization of Employers (IOE) and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).  When all three groups agree, it is a formal ILO outcome. While there are more positive references in Everybody’s Business to the ILO than to any other organization in the UN system, the ILO governance structure is not presented as multi-stakeholder prototype by the GRI.

There are also significant new multi-stakeholder experiments within the UN system.  In 2009, the FAO Committee on World Food Security transformed itself into the “foremost inclusive international and intergovernmental platform dealing with food security and nutrition.” 5  Besides governments, its formal members now include UN agencies, international agricultural research institutions, and “civil society and non-governmental organizations, particularly organizations representing  “smallholder family farmers, fisherfolk, herders, landless, urban poor, agricultural and food workers, women, youth, consumers and indigenous people.” 6   Similarly the participants in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) include a diverse collection of institutions in their decision-making system.

The newest multi-stakeholder governance form is the Financial Stability Board (FSB). The FSB structure is unique in that its stakeholders represent multiple parts of the same governments. Each government has a separate and independent seat at the table for its economic and monetary officials. The FSB, located in Basel alongside the Bank for International Settlements, was created at the instigation of the G20 to help them develop a coordinated response to the 2008/2009 financial crisis.

GRI’s recommendation is to elevate these international multi-stakeholder governance arrangements into a generic system to replace nation-state based governance as the norm.  The potential – and for the currently operating multi-stakeholder organizations the actual – complexities of this form of international governance are not addressed in the GRI report. One example of these complexities is the number of categories of lead actors and how this number is selected and how individual actors are assigned to their categories. In some instances in the GRI report, the number can vary from two to an indefinite “many.” And in some case the ‘many’ no longer includes nation-states. 7 In other cases, the ‘many’ means only many corporations and business associations with token civil society and government presence. 8

In essence, WEF wants the world to move from multilateralism to multi-stakeholderism.


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. ^ FES - Multistakeholder pg 12-14. The formal governance document for the CGIAR as revised in 2011 is available at (accessed July 28, 2012)
  2. ^ An online governance diagram for one of ICANN key committees indicates the complexity and uniqueness of this particular multi-stakeholder structure. See (accessed July 22, 2012)
  3. ^
  4. ^ “The ISEAL Alliance is the global association for social and environmental standards. Working with established and emerging voluntary standard systems ISEAL develops guidance and helps strengthen the effectiveness and impact of these standards... ISEAL members are leaders in their fields, committed to creating solid and credible standard systems that give business, governments and consumers the ability to choose goods and services that have been ethically sourced but most of all help the environment and guarantee producers a decent living.” Website of ISEAL, visited May 5, 2012,
  5. ^ Global Platform for food security Revitalized : Member countries agree to reform Committee on World Food Security, FAO media center, seen at (June 2012)
  6. ^ Ibid
  7. ^ “ Participants in a first phase of this dialogue would include key officials from relevant multilateral institutions (e.g. WTO, FAO, UNEP, OECD), representatives from multinational companies committed to sourcing sustainable seafood products, representatives from IGOs that can speak to developing country interests (e.g. Pacific Islands Forum, CARICOM, the Commonwealth Secretariat, or the ACP Group of States), and leading thinkers in the field (e.g. WWF)”  Ocean Governance Initiative : Global Agenda Council on Ocean Governance and YGL Restoring Ocean Health Task Force, pg 103.
  8. ^ “A scalable platform to enable worldwide progress on energy efficiency within individual industry sectors. Specifically, the May 2009 agreement among G8+5 countries to create an International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC) at the International Energy Agency8 should be given an explicit, new private sector dimension, providing an officially sanctioned and supported global platform for voluntary intra-industry discussions and cooperation on energy efficiency within many sectors. . . .  The process would be open to companies from all countries.” Enabling Architecture for Low-Carbon Energy Transformation: Task Force on Low – Carbon Prosperity, pg 120
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