Date Posted
8 May 2024 10:05 BST
Article Author

The problem with multistakeholderism

In September 2024 world leaders will attend the Summit for the Future, where the United Nations intends to forge a new consensus on “multilateral solutions for a better tomorrow.”

With preparations already well underway, the UN Secretary-General and many OECD countries are emphasizing “multistakeholderism”, a doctrine which enables transnational corporations (TNCs) to play a part in aspects of international governance as self-declared “stakeholders”.  

This approach by the Secretary-General aligns closely with the recommendations from the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Redesign Initiative. In fact the two agreed in 2019 to work in partnership on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including on issues of financing, climate change, gender, digitalisation, health and education.

Proponents of multistakeholderism argue that including TNCs would make for a more effective multilateralism. Similar claims are made for the global delivery of COVID medications and for solving the climate crisis. But arguably the opposite is true: multistakeholderism undermines multilateralism, limits the role of civil society in global governance and strengthens – as if it needed any strengthening – the dominant role of corporations in the inequitable global economic system.

Since the founding of the UN, TNCs have lobbied directly or via their home governments to influence UN policies and programs. Multistakeholderism adds a new, important and complicated strategy.

Multistakeholder bodies include at least one corporation or business association and a group of other ‘stakeholders” selected by the participating TNCs or the founders. These other ‘stakeholders’ can be willing government officials, industry-friendly civil society organizations, cooperative scholars, invited Secretariat staff and business-friendly public figures.

Collectively this multistakeholder team serves as the new corporate interface with multilateralism and the broader public. Multistakeholder bodies are anti-democratic from the very beginning of their public life because they give a privileged role to TNCs and severely weaken the one-vote-one country premise of multilateralism.

The UN Secretary General has recommended, as part of his proposals to reform the UN, that multistakeholder structures should be used not only to organize the Summit for the Future but also for a range of cutting-edge global governance issues including outer space, the digital divide and “reduc[ing] violence worldwide and in all its forms, including against women and girls”.  

In the first two cases, the justification has been that TNCs need to be involved as they best understand the technology, ignoring the reality that they probably least understand - or don’t want to recognize - the social, economic, and environmental consequences of these technologies. In the case of violence against women and girls, no argument is even presented as to why TNCs should have leadership in this area, except that the transition to multistakeholderism is to be welcomed in all important areas of global governance.   


Multistakeholderism limits the response to global crises

Many global crises are systemic in nature and require systemic interventions. By giving TNCs and their affiliated organisations a privileged role in decision-making, multistakeholderism effectively prevents the solving of systemic crises where the behavior of a commercial sector and its corporations are a significant cause of the crisis, or where they are beneficiaries of its ongoing negative impacts. As a practical matter, corporate leadership in a multistakeholder group narrows the range of policy directions to those which are compatible with a commercial return or sit within the current, unfair rules of globalisation.

Because multistakeholder governance projects are voluntary for individual participants, these participants can pick and choose which projects they want to identify with and which they don’t. The net result is an opt-in-opt-out governance regime whose outcome does not even bind or constrain the behavior of other TNCs in the global market.

Multistakeholderism has allowed TNCs to present their activities as part of the implementation of international programs or to claim that they are more capable of implementation than OECD governments and the UN system. For example, some TNCs use the UN’s multi-colored logo for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in product ads that tout their contribution to meeting an SDG, while omitting any reference to how their firm may be benefiting from the crises behind other SDGs.

Multistakeholderism poses other serious problems for CSOs, NGOs, and social movements.

In the multilateral system, there is a presumption that socially concerned organizations should have access to global decision-makers and international secretariats. However, organisations, which are not selected to join a multistakeholder group lose any meaningful ability to influence the significant role that the group is playing on a global issue.

Another problem is that issues of global governance are public-agenda items. Outsourcing them to a multistakeholder group marginalizes governments and socially concerned organisations, which may even be deprived of regular public reports.

Multistakeholder groups can decide who can join them, which undermines the democratic practice of sovereign equality between states and the ability of CSOs to meaningfully represent their constituencies. The selection of “representative” CSOs can exacerbate splits within civil society by granting selected (typically larger CSOs) privileges and power over others.

In the multilateral system, intergovernmental organizations publish regularly how money is being spent and what it is being used for. In multistakeholderism there generally is no formal method of accountability, no requirement to disclose financial flows and even no standard of disclosure for commercial conflicts of interest.

A fundamental problem of multistakeholderism is its vocabulary. Governments, NGOs, labor movements, corporations, university faculty, social movements and the UN Secretariat itself are all labelled as equivalent “stakeholders” without differentiation. This blurring of lines distorts the core concepts of responsibility and obligation in global affairs and corrupts diplomatic language by masking the real and legitimate differences between governance actors.

CSOs would be well advised to keep a sharp eye out for corporate capture of intergovernmental processes via multistakeholderism.  They should also keep a watchful eye on any corporate-led group that says they are ‘implementing’ the Sustainable Development Goals in order to make sure that these groups and firms are not misusing the United Nations name.


Harris Gleckman is the author of Multistakeholder Governance and Democracy : A Global Challenge ( 2018, Routledge). He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston in the United States and Director of Benchmark Environmental Consulting.


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