Multi-stakeholder Dialogue: A trend to watch

Bringing ‘stakeholders’ around a table to forge partnerships in sustainable development is a growing UN trend, but there are pitfalls in the process.

by Yin Shao Loong and Chee Yoke Ling

JANUARY 2002 was a curious month for global democracy. In New York the global business and political elite gathered in the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Waldorf Astoria hotel whilst some 20,000 people gathered in the streets to protest the unaccountable power of the WEF. In Porto Alegre in Brazil, 45,000 activists converged on the World Social Forum to explore new alternatives to globalisation, confident that ‘another world is possible’.

Immediately preceding the WEF, another experiment in global democracy was underway. Instead of being at opposite ends of the Americas, governments, non-governmental organisations, indigenous peoples, women, youth, farmers, local authorities, trade unions, scientists and business were grouped in the UN headquarters and engaging in a Multi-stakeholder Dialogue on the future of sustainable development.

They had convened in the second meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom 2) for the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. The WSSD is the post-10-year follow-up to the historic 1992 Rio ‘Earth Summit’ - the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

UNCED significantly bridged the conceptual gap between development and environment by championing the concept of sustainable development and outlined an action plan for implementing sustainable development in the 21st century, Agenda 21. World leaders politically committed themselves to 27 principles in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. A Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was set up to continue policy discussion and to monitor the implementation of the agreed action plan.

In 1998, the Multi-stakeholder Dialogue (MSD) was introduced as a feature of annual CSD meetings, designed to promote greater involvement for ‘Major Groups’ as outlined in Agenda 21 (women, youth, indigenous peoples, NGOs, local authorities, trade unions, business and industry, scientific and technological community and farmers). This was envisioned as an opportunity for governments to be involved in a dialogue where Major Groups held centrestage. It was also an attempt to stimulate the official talks as there was general agreement in a five-year review in 1997 that implementation of Agenda 21 had been weak and disappointing.

Previous CSD sessions had focused on specific areas, such as sustainable agriculture, energy, tourism and business/industry, and involved only three to four Major Groups. It was decided that for the WSSD process, all nine Major Groups would participate in the three planned MSD sessions.

It was a politically significant symbol that the first session of the PrepCom 2 MSD was held in the UN General Assembly, which is normally reserved for governments.

What NGOs said

The number of issues raised in the MSD was considerable, and these were grouped around the session themes: assessing overall progress since Rio; identifying hotspots and failures; applications of integrated approaches to sectoral and cross-sectoral areas of sustainable development; multi-stakeholder participation in sustainable development institutions; and new partnership initiatives in light of the preceding discussions.

These were furthermore influenced by themes arising from the Secretary-General’s Report on Implementing Agenda 21, which the CSD Chairman Emil Salim of Indonesia had condensed into five overall themes:

·        Making globalisation work for sustainable development

·        Poverty eradication and sustainable agriculture and livelihoods

·        Changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production

·        Strengthening governance for sustainable development at the national, regional and international levels

·        Means of implementation - Finance, Technology and Science, Education and Capacity-building.

Among the issues raised by NGOs were:

1.      Making globalisation work for sustainable development:

·        A new vision is required based on the positive aspects of Rio (the environment-development link, North-South partnership, common but differentiated responsibilities, equity in and between countries and generations, the precautionary principle). This requires structural changes to tame the forces of globalisation and recapture the sustainable development paradigm.

·        A legally-binding framework convention on corporate accountability that includes corporate duties and obligations, liability and implementation mechanisms, monitoring.

·        Phasing out subsidies harmful to sustainable development and redirection of such resources towards sustainable development.

·        Improving peace and stability.

·        Ratification of existing conventions and agreements including the Kyoto Protocol, Convention on Biological Diversity, Basel Convention Ban Amendment, etc.

·        Developing sustainable development indicators.

·        Reversing negative trends set in motion by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in its Doha Ministerial Conference.

2.      Poverty eradication and sustainable agriculture and livelihoods:

·        Poverty and impoverishment was a central concern. It was pointed out that the crippling effect of debt prevented partnerships or other initiatives from emerging. Calls were made for: a global consumption tax; the launch of a global initiative on community economic development responding to urban and rural poverty; increased implementation of integrated land resource planning management (ILRPM) systems recognising rights of aboriginal and indigenous peoples; joint global eco-village development with the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI); a global initiative on urban poverty through redistributive spending on housing for the poor; linking national job creation strategies to sustainable development and implementation of Agenda 21.

·        There was strong reiteration for implementing sustainable agriculture and rural development (via legally secure rights to resources for the landless, farmers and farm workers, indigenous peoples and women). Such resources include land, water, credit, information, genetic resources and appropriate technology.

·        The hazards of genetic engineering were raised and there was a call for a formal ban on genetic seed sterilisation technology.

·        Food security and food safety were also priorities.

3.      Changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production:

·        Sustainable production and consumption patterns can be addressed by building on and implementing the UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection, with special emphasis on confronting barriers to change; the ecological footprint concept needs to be integrated into policy.

·        The precautionary principle and risk assessment can coexist.

·        The mining industry and unsound foreign direct investment create huge sustainable development problems, and the situation in Africa was highlighted.

·        Massive subsidies that promote and perpetuate unsustainable production and consumption, especially in developed countries, were emphasised as an area for needed action.

4.      Strengthening governance for sustainable development:

·        Strengthen the CSD as an institution of global sustainable development governance.

·        Institutionalise multi-stakeholder processes at all levels (global, regional, national) to take a diversity of interests into account. Capacity-building for public access to information and decision-making. MSD is more than a consultation, and resulting partnerships need power in particular for the marginalised in society. There was a call for a clear definition of the multi-stakeholder approach and how to measure it: a clear structure, objectives, indicators and a sufficient budget.

·        Integrating the multi-stakeholder process into other areas of the UN.

·        Appraising the role and importance of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

·        Distinguishing between small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and large companies.

·        Anti-corruption and global governance reform (in the economics and social sphere, in addition to the environmental arena).

·        Regional and national sustainable development strategies; national councils for sustainable development (NCSD) were also called for.

5.      Means of implementation - Finance, Technology and Science, Education and Capacity-building:

·        Resolution of the debt problem, including debt cancellation, along with sound investment in developing countries.

·        Moving the UN Financing for Development process towards Financing for Sustainable Development.

·        Increase official development assistance (ODA) to accommodate access and participation.

·        Identify innovative alternative financing.

·        Education and training for sustainable development.

6.      Specific sectoral areas (health, energy, oceans, transport, etc.):

·        Climate change and ratification of the Kyoto Protocol were emphasised; calls were made for energy efficiency and an international sustainable energy fund.

·        Public transportation and its cross-cutting links with land use, energy, pollution, technology and social equity were highlighted.

·        Water: Community-based and -controlled integrated water resource management should be given priority; and governments should recognise access to water as a human right. Action programmes should build on the Bonn Water Conference that was recently held.

·        Forests: Ratifying the Convention on Biological Diversity, investing in conservation and regeneration of forests were among issues discussed.

Some common ground

Since NGOs represented a wide area of interests, there were numerous instances of complementarity with most other Major Groups and several governments. The least complementary relationship was with Business and Industry due to the fundamental disputes over the latter’s production paradigm and claims to be practising sustainable development (through ‘sustainable mining’ and ‘sustainable tourism’). Mining was particularly highlighted by industry and this evoked strong reactions especially from the representatives of indigenous peoples who are directly confronted by huge mining corporations on their ancestral lands.

The following were some key common synergies developed between NGOs and other Major Groups:

·        Farmers: Food security, sustainable agriculture and rural development; writing off the debt of least developed countries (LDCs) and helping small resource-poor farmers implement sustainable development; respecting the precautionary principle.

·        Scientific and Technological Community: Sustainable production and consumption patterns; biopiracy; health; capacity-building in science and technology.

·        Local Authorities: Balanced decentralisation; meeting internationally agreed targets and decisions (such as the Kyoto Protocol); water as priority urban issue; public procurement as a sustainable development tool.

·        Trade Unions: Social indicators for sustainable development; stronger corporate accountability, where voluntary approaches must supplement, but not replace, regulatory activity; sustainable energy fund; build on the Bonn Water Conference; called for a review of investments and corporation involvement with regard to export-credit guarantee agencies.

·        Indigenous Peoples: Criticised the mining industry; called for corporate accountability through a binding agreement with independent monitoring; pointed to problem with ‘global deals’ with the rights of the less powerful not being respected; importance of peace; called for differentiated statistics with indigenous peoples in mind; prior-informed-consent principle to be applied to indigenous peoples and resources.

·        Women: Reassess the UN Global Compact; the importance of peace; globalisation’s effect on women as small traders and majority of the poor; greater corporate responsibility toward achieving economic justice; supported an international sustainable energy fund; minimise corporate influence on government delegations; CSD to chronicle best practices of collaborations.

·        Youth: Sustainable development based on human rights; a global centre for science, technology and sustainable development; a plan of action and timetable of implementation for the WSSD; children and educators were proposed as new Major Groups; remove harmful agricultural subsidies; green taxes to be imposed; minimise corporate influence on government delegations and support corporate accountability initiative; poverty eradication; education in sustainable development and appropriate employment policies.

What some governments said

Many government delegations spoke in support of the MSD, but were generally non-committal on substantive issues.

Egypt fully associated itself with the NGO opening statement and stressed that the WTO should contribute to sustainable development. South Africa, host to the WSSD in August, called for the establishment of a global regulatory framework to address and change the current economic power relations. The delegation said that it was necessary for the Summit to come out with a global plan of action with concrete, time-bound targets for implementation.

Malaysia, having first-hand experience of the currency speculation that shook Asian economies in 1997 (and other countries since then), called for more controls on volatile short-term capital flows, so that sustainable development objectives will not be undermined.

The Pacific island state of Tuvalu emphasised social and spiritual values as additional conditions for the success of sustainable development, while Ghana spoke critically about biopiracy.

The European Union talked about changing production and consumption patterns; an inclusive participatory process with common but differentiated responsibilities; finance for partnerships and a global deal. The notion of a global deal was first mooted by former Danish environment minister, Svend Auken, as a reaffirmation of governments’ commitments to sustainable development which had fallen by the wayside since Rio. The EU has endorsed the idea but its content is still not well defined. However, the overall thrust of European delegations seems to be in favour of partnerships with the private sector, especially big business, though at PrepCom 3 in March, the EU spokesman said that these were no substitute for government commitments.

More worrying, the EU was promoting the WTO Doha work programme as a ‘development agenda’ - something that is contested by many developing countries at the WTO due to the controversial conclusion of the Ministerial Conference last November. Most NGOs, especially from developing countries, are campaigning to check the expanding mandate of the WTO which the EU, Japan, US and Canada want to enlarge into even more non-trade areas.

Both the Netherlands and Germany stressed the importance of stronger consumer organisations. Hungary challenged business on the use of natural resources and changing production and consumption patterns.

Japan made a generally weak statement and called for continuing dialogue regionally and nationally before the WSSD, a far cry indeed from the Rio commitments already made and unfulfilled.

Some advantages and drawbacks

There are concerns among many civil society organisations that the separate MSD sessions that are being followed in other international fora may isolate groups from making critical interventions in the subsequent governmental sessions since ‘they’ve already had their say’ - in effect eroding the different practices and opportunities for NGO involvement in actual international negotiations, especially as has developed in multilateral environmental agreements and the CSD itself. 

In the WSSD PrepCom 2, numerous issues raised during the MSD were incorporated in the discussion papers put out to the governments.

However, those issues which did not find their way through into the chairman’s official report often happened to be precisely the most critical or controversial ones, such as the suggestion raised in the NGOs’ opening statement that: ‘Perhaps the greatest single achievement that the WSSD can attain is to reverse the disastrous trends in the WTO that Doha has set in motion.’ The Secretary-General’s Report on Implementing Agenda 21 had already welcomed the ‘success’ of the Doha meeting which it claimed ‘augurs well for the future of the trading system and the potential it offers to developing countries’.

Nonetheless, a proposal by the NGOs for a framework convention on corporate accountability received support from several other Major Groups and found its way into discussion documents for the second week, where it was promptly quashed by the US and others. The majority of governments remained silent on this point.

It became apparent that the MSD served a particular function which in no way was a substitute for other advocacy and lobbying efforts by concerned groups in the UN system. For particular issues it served a highly useful complementary function, clearly indicating to governments and the UN that many Major Groups could be united (and moving ahead having already strategised amongst each other) on key sustainable development issues. The sustainable agriculture and food security issue was one which had drawn NGOs, farmers, trade unions and indigenous peoples into considerable agreement. The maturity of the issue enabled it to have a successful ‘showing’ at the MSD and sent a strong message that further action and commitments from government and UN agencies were needed to turn rhetoric into reality.

In the case of the proposed framework convention on corporate accountability, the MSD provided a highly visible platform for this critical issue to be raised in front of other Major Groups and governments. Although it was struck off the list of items for discussion by the next week, it had already generated considerable discussion and interest. Its low staying power was due to the lack of support amongst the governments though a number of officials privately agreed to the need for corporate regulation and the Enron scandal was a major talking point in corridor discussions. It also flew in the face of the ‘Washington Consensus’.  Nonetheless, the MSD provided a platform for this issue because it touched upon an already present widespread desire for such a mechanism and NGO pressure for corporate accountability will continue.

Another drawback of the heavy emphasis on producing partnerships through stakeholder processes is that it can easily slip into substituting or marginalising the obligations and commitments of governments. The failure of developed countries to honour their Rio commitments and the rejection or dilution of environmental agreements by the US and some others can be hidden behind the veil of partnerships. Abdication and privatisation of the role of the state (as has been the trend with globalisation) can further jeopardise the goal of sustainable development.

Moreover, contentious barriers to sustainable development such as the negative trends within the WTO or the structural problems in international financial flows cannot be resolved by partnerships. The MSD thus leaves little space for raising these important issues if there is a demand for an immediate product that must necessarily take the form of a partnership.

So, while NGOs acting in concert with other like-minded civil society groups can generate significant impact in consultative fora such as the MSD, larger challenges remain for continuing efforts in global democracy.

The nine Major Group Dialogue Papers prepared for the WSSD PrepCom 2 are available on: Papers for the PrepCom 4 MSD (24 May to 7 June in Bali, Indonesia) are also available.                                             

Yin Shao Loong is a researcher with Third World Network. Chee Yoke Ling coordinates TWN’s environmental programme.

Ten years after Rio

THE first session of the Multi-stakeholder Dialogue at the WSSD second preparatory meeting took place in the UN General Assembly on 29 January 2002.

The MSD was introduced into the UN system in 1998 by the Commission on Sustainable Development as a means for major groups to interact among themselves and with governments. The aim is to generate ideas and debates that can feed into the subsequent inter-governmental negotiations on implementing sustainable development.

Representatives of the nine major groups (defined in Agenda 21 as women, youth, indigenous peoples, NGOs, local authorities, trade unions, business and industry, scientific and technological community, and farmers) presented their assessments of progress in the decade since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. Below is the NGO opening presentation delivered by Third World Network Director Martin Khor.

1.      Assessment of 10 years since Rio 

(a)  Positive:  Rio built the conceptual and political link between environment and development, and forged the basis of a potential new North-South ‘deal’.  ‘Sustainable development’ was born as a concept and value which includes equity, rights of people to fulfil their needs in this and future generations, environment and development. It called for changing production and consumption patterns. This simple statement is extremely revolutionary. It spurred many groups to action, including in an integrated environment-development-rights manner. 

(b)  Shortfalls:  Rio did not have a programme to regulate transnational corporations (TNCs) and companies which are the main source of environment problems. It failed to address global development governance, and only used an inadequate proxy (financial resources, technology transfer) as a framework for policy. It did not have a clear implementation or compliance plan. It had a weak follow up mechanism compared to the task.

(c)  After 10 years the situation has deteriorated on both the environment and development fronts.  There is more deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, threats to water supply, more resource exploitation. There is more absolute poverty, higher inequality, an increased threat of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.  Aid volume has fallen.  Technology transfer went into reverse due to tighter intellectual property rights (IPRs) regimes resulting from the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement. The environment fell down the priority policy agenda. So did development, whose principle is now being challenged in international forums by many developed countries. 

A major reason for this deterioration is the ascent of globalisation as policy, practice and law, transmitted through more corporate power as governments deregulate and privatise, as the IMF’s power expanded to more countries and its restrictive macroeconomic policies combined with external-liberalisation finance, trade and investment policies were wrongly applied even to the hitherto successful developing countries.  Most important, the WTO and its rules came into being, thus institutionalising ‘globalisation’.  But whilst developing countries were pressured to free their ,with devastating results to small industries and farms, rich countries continued to protect their markets through tariffs, subsidies and high IPR regimes. Many communities and families became more impoverished, even as a few became much richer. Due to market expansion without enough regard for the environment, the environment deteriorated.  Despite the end of the Cold War, there is now a rise in conflict within and among countries.  The military budget is rising rapidly again. The US military budget is enough to fund sustainable development needs. Thus, from all three aspects of sustainability (environment, social, economic), the situation is worse than 10 years ago.  Some institutions for sustainable development were set up, especially the CSD, but have been disappointingly weak in the face of the globalisation forces.

2.      Vision needed  

To redress this, Johannesburg must have a vision of structural changes in the future. With this vision, to be sketched out in this and remaining PrepComs, we can draw up the political statement and plan of action accordingly, otherwise the documents may be only general or technical without a framework.  The vision should be based on: building rapidly on the good things from Rio: the environment-development link; the North-South partnership; the government-nongovernment dialogue; equity in and between countries, for the present and future generations; and expanding rights of communities and people - both the human right to fulfil basic and development needs and the human right to a clean, safe environment. We need strong institutions to turn vision to plan and plan to implementation. We need an implementation plan.  

3.      These are some proposals: 

(a)  The hallmark principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ should be operationalised in all areas and issues:  it should have an operational plan in all sectors and cross-sectoral areas. (Similar to an exercise in the WTO on looking at and strengthening the special-and-differential-treatment principle, there must be one for environment and development.)  

(b)  The environment and people must be brought into harmony.

(c)  The North-South compact that started at Rio but failed must be revived.  The key development needs of the South should be listed and a clear programme initiated on aid, debt relief, terms of trade, technology assessment and transfer, IPR regimes appropriate to development, etc. A programme for social development (health, education, information, culture) with the spelling out of needs, targets, resources  and implementation should be agreed to.  A listing of the environmental imperatives, with a priority agenda of the most critical things that need to be done immediately, should similarly be done, with a clear implementation plan with targets and commitments. 

(d)  The North must take the lead: first, in having a plan to change its unsustainable production and consumption models to set an example for the world (the move in Europe, however tentative, towards organic farms and safe foods should be applauded and accelerated); second, in helping the South in its transition to sustainability; third, in initiating global policy and governance reforms. 

(e)  The South must be more serious in devising the sustainable development approach by giving priority to the social and environmental agenda which until now in most countries is inadequately dealt with. It should prioritise the precautionary principle with respect to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

(f)   The forces of unfettered globalisation must be tamed by a collective effort of governments: to regulate companies through a framework convention of corporate accountability, not through the Global Compact; to regulate financial markets and restrain the free flow of speculative capital; to re-examine the dinosaur-age policies of the Bretton Woods institutions; to reform the WTO principles and rules so as to realistically suit the needs of communities and developing countries. It must be recognised that the Doha outcome, despite the attempts to portray it as pro-development, has the potential to be Everything But Development; the attempts to move the ‘Singapore issues’ (investment, competition, government procurement, trade facilitation) along the negotiation route to new agreements should be reversed, otherwise sustainable development will not be able to recover from the blow. Perhaps the greatest single achievement that the WSSD can attain is to reverse the disastrous trends in the WTO that Doha has set in motion. 

(g)  We need a review of global governance. We need changes in the institutions that have power. We need to build quickly a global sustainable development architecture, with the three legs (social, environment, economic) all developing strongly and evenly. A strengthened CSD is one obvious answer: how it should be strengthened and structured, according to which model in the UN family, and how it shall be financed and governed should be a critical point of discussion starting at this PrepCom. 

(h)  Finally we need to recognise the value, contribution and rights of the ordinary people, the local communities, indigenous peoples, the environment and development heroes, and the poor, and the social organisations and movements, and the NGOs that fight on their behalf, and on behalf of justice, equity and equality - between and within countries, between classes and between men and women, people and nature. Thus the rights of individuals, nature, communities and groups that are fighting for this cause, the cause of sustainable development and justice, must be recognised and expanded, and the WSSD process must accelerate this movement for rights.  In substance and procedure, the NGOs involved in this process are an important component and we will increase our part:  we hope all of you will also do yours.  


Stakeholders and partnerships

THERE is a proliferation of the concept of ‘stakeholders’ evolving from the Agenda 21 characterisation of Major Groups. Multi-stakeholder processes, following the MSDs initiated by the CSD, can be valuable but the term ‘stakeholder’ undermines those in society, especially communities and individuals, who are struggling for their rights. It also implies equality when the reality is the reverse.

The official WSSD process is now strongly promoting the notion of ‘partnerships’ in the face of the failure of governments to turn commitments to action. While collaboration and cooperation among different parts of society among themselves and also with governments are not new, and have often produced positive results, the current emphasis is on public-private sector partnerships, especially involving transnational corporations.

As critics (including government officials having engaged in privatisation programmes) increasingly stress, public-private sector partnerships often means the public gives the subsidies and the private sector pockets the money.

The reality is that corporations are a major part of the problem: corporate accountability and regulation are needed, not the further expansion of corporate rights and privileges. On the other hand, communities and citizens have rights that must be recognised and expanded as they are at the much weaker end of the scale of power relations.

Thus, while the CSD and other international processes have increased civil society participation to some extent, there is a false assumption that society, compartmentalised into Major Groups and stakeholders, can sit at roundtables to reach consensus. Often, the interests of industry and communities (and their organisations) are diametrically opposed. Mechanisms are needed to deal with  such conflicts, not diffuse or sideline them. Accordingly, governments have their due role to play.

The WSSD must reaffirm the role and responsibility of governments to fulfil their obligations to implement sustainable development by acting on government commitments under the UN summit action plans and multilateral environmental agreements. Governments have to be responsible to provide transparent and accountable frameworks for partnerships.

Such frameworks must extend to the global level as many UN agencies are already engaged in partnerships with transnational corporations. A fundamental review of such partnerships, as well as the UN Global Compact, is needed. Where they are contrary to sustainable development and public interest, these partnerships should be discarded.