The Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives Mid-Life Crisis - time for a support group?
The sun is shining here in Sydney and a thousand attendees are gathered for the Global Conference of the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – a multistakeholder effort bringing together stakeholders from government, civil society, oil, gas and mining companies and investors in support of transparency to help ensure citizens see the benefits from their country’s natural resources.
The healthy attendance figure suggests that EITI retains strong commitment and interest over a decade after the concept was launched. So does the formal adoption of a revised EITI Standard that, as Jonas Moberg, head of the EITI International Secretariat notes, should produce more reliable and more detailed information. However, the path to this point has not been an easy one. Not all multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have been able to retain commitment or relevance. This has me pondering the life cycle of such initiatives and whether there are lessons emerging from the more mature collaborative efforts that could helpfully shape design of new initiatives.
The extractives industries form a good sectoral basis for study. There has been a proliferation of efforts designed to help ensure that oil, gas and mining investments translate into better development outcomes. The number of initiatives has reached the point where it risks becoming problematic – governments bewildered by the offers of support, industry overwhelmed by demands to participate, civil society capacities over-stretched and donors struggling to ensure that support to multiple initiatives does not diffuse impact. Plus, no self-respecting initiative comes without an acronym. Mastering those alone is a challenge (or perhaps the basis of a good drinking game).
In reflection of the trend, this week saw the launch of a new database of extractives initiatives developed by the World Bank Institute with support of the International Council on Mining and Metals, World Economic Forum and Rio Tinto. It is housed within the Extractive Industries Source Book, a free online, interactive resource capturing good fit practices for the sector. The initiatives database at launch contains over thirty regional and global efforts alone. Not all are multi-stakeholder in nature but many at least strive to be.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. There is no shortage of needs to be addressed and so room for many initiatives. A weekly trawl of the newspapers reveals a regular supply of stories that highlight the opportunities and the problems that extractives represent. The new Africa Progress Panel report highlights many of the issues that span the value chain from award of licenses and contracts through to whether the investments from resulting revenues yield positive outcomes for citizens.
Given the high attention that oil, gas and mining receive, the multiplicity of interests and sheer size of investments involved, it is no surprise that the sector has been a testing ground for collaborative action. Thorny problems – from corruption to lack of local skills to environmental impacts - are cross cutting in their impact but hard for one actor to solve alone. MSIs offer potential to facilitate necessary collective action.
Given the context, it is perhaps less of a surprise that three major MSIs were initiated within months of each other. EITI was launched on the global stage by then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2002. The process to develop the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights focused on the energy and extractive sectors began in 2000. The multi-stakeholder steering group was constituted in January 2003 – a month that also saw the launch of the Kimberley Process - a multi-stakeholder effort to address conflict diamonds through an international governmental certification scheme. Their experiences can be a good source of learning for multi-stakeholder initiatives regardless of sector.
A decade on and all three of these initiatives have achieved traction – perhaps of varying degrees – and all are in the midst of a period of introspection, reflecting on their progress, role and vision going forward. Not all have initiated formal review processes, but some common questions are arising. Does this indicate a natural crunch point in the life cycles of such initiatives? The enthusiasm and likely confusion of the initiation phase gives way to concentration on an institutionalized process through the implementation phase, but that can only go so far before questions of effectiveness arise, before there are calls to adjust for changing circumstances, and a range of potential destabilizing factors kick in such as turnover of players involved (individuals and organizations). Does this mark the equivalent of an MSI mid-life crisis?
Judging by the conversations within EITI, the Kimberley Process and Voluntary Principles, common points of contention include in no particular order:
Of course, this is not to imply that the dynamics in these MSIs are all the same. Far from it, but it does suggest that there could be some value in looking at more systematized learning across these efforts. How do we advise MSIs on retaining a shared vision? If an initiative adjusts its mandate, how does it ensure the structures are still fit for purpose? What is the optimal process to assess whether the original purpose has been met or not, and in what timeframe? It is hard for initiatives to put themselves out of business - but are there ways to assess when it is better to close shop rather than gradually fade away?
A 2007 survey of MSIs in the oil and gas sector by consultancy TwentyFifty specifically made a number of recommendations for successful implementation:
- a clear understanding of expectations re direct and indirect impacts
- clear promotion of the standard
- evolution of the governance structure
- development of practical guidance to aid implementation
- establishing multi-stakeholder collaboration at implementation level
- a strong secretariat with independence and ability to mobilize all stakeholders
- continuing political support of home countries and producer countries
- continuing ethos of leadership
These recommendations still resonate. Yet, this study aside, the literature to date is quite light. More dedicated analysis seems merited, although we can learn more from the field of networks analysis. Julia Roloff has documented how companies are key actors in many multi-stakeholder networks and suggests such participation is worth it when the problem being addressed is relevant to the business, urgent and complex. The life cycle models for networks offer promise for MSI learning. Roloff suggests a seven step model: initiation, acquaintance, first agreement, second agreement, implementation, consolidation and institutionalization/extinction. The group iScale simplify to a four stage model: catalyzing, launching, enhancing/expanding and transforming/transitioning. Taking the case of EITI one might see the catalyzing phase beginning in 2000, the launching phase covering the creation of the International Advisory Group, EITI Board and International Secretariat (2005-2007), and the expansion in the period since 2008 as membership grew to 21 compliant and 16 candidate countries. This Conference and the adoption of the revised standard could mark the start of the transition period.
One valuable element from the networks field is the emphasis on continued learning informing an evolving structure and process. Given the significant resources devoted to MSIs, investment in cross-learning should pay dividends. Pooling learning might help avoid newer initiatives reinventing the wheel or repeating mistakes of others. Established MSIs might benefit also from exposure to newcomers, who may be prototyping newer models of engagement. Noting how difficult it is to run an effective MSI – a platform for shared learning could form the equivalent of a mutual support group.
It might also be useful in helping manage the inclination to overburden MSIs. The newly established Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity (MSI Integrity) is dedicated to examining the impact and value of voluntary business-related human rights initiatives and has done some interesting case studies, including of EITI. However, this begs the question of how much can we ask of MSIs in managing issues that may go beyond their core purpose? Success breeds typically leads to demands to do more and more, which can test even the most effective MSI. A platform for cross learning could help pinpoint the real value and the limitations of MSIs.
For those of us here in Sydney, the mood is generally positive with the EITI revised standard agreed. That does not mean that that the process has not left bruises. Would the process have been any easier with a mechanism to compare notes with other MSIs and draw on their experiences and learnings? It seems worth finding out.