The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

Creating a space for new voices

Multi-stakeholder initiatives: Is this a time for collective governance?

Extreme poverty, economic and social inequities, climate change, natural disasters and refugee crises are just some of the challenges facing the world.

International development cooperation has to address these issues in an efficient and effective way. To do so, the limited availability of money as well as political and geo-political challenges, among others, must be overcome – not an easy task.

As the complexity of global challenges grows, we must examine our options. 'Multi-stakeholder initiative' is a term bandied about a lot in development circles, but what is it exactly? And why is it well-suited for meaningfully addressing complex international development issues?

In short, it's a form of collective governance. Typically, it includes alliances of bilateral and multilateral donors, UN organizations, national and international non-governmental organizations and the private sector. It can also include actors that cooperate beyond the traditional distinctions between these groups.

Such a wide variety of partners can provide a useful vehicle for creating space for voices that don’t normally work in the development sector, such as private businesses and foundations, to join international development cooperation».

Official Development Assistance and other public interventions cannot achieve the desired impact on development on their own.  In this model, participants commit to a common agenda with set goals, combine their financial resources and complement their capabilities.

Of course, collective governance isn’t new. So what makes this version so special? An important consideration is what these initiatives are not. They shouldn’t replace or work in parallel to local, national, regional or global development efforts – they shouldn’t be competing with them or making them redundant. 

Keys to success

And that uniqueness must be taken into account when setting up and managing these initiatives for stakeholders1

Cooperation and inclusiveness is key. While partners must be willing to subordinate their individual interests under common goals, the role and responsibility of each partner must be clearly defined and emphasis must be placed on stakeholder participation.

Critically, they must have the capacity to evolve, as well as be flexible and adaptable to changes as they develop. 

Many multi-stakeholder initiatives operate in difficult environments such as fragile states. Rather than trying to avoid or ignore challenging contexts, good management approaches emphasize a risk framework and dedicated risk management approaches, including in the day-to-day management. 

No intervention can last forever. So an important element is also to consider exit strategies right from the start, being mindful of decisions on when progress becomes impact, and systematically managing and sharing the valuable knowledge gained, before making decisions on when to step back. 

Designing, setting up and managing multi-stakeholder initiatives is certainly not easy. But given their relevance to today's development agenda, could this be a model that has found its time? 

  • 1 UNOPS is proud to assist a number of multi-stakeholder initiatives. One of many examples is the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency. For this, UNOPS works with two bilateral donors (Germany and Italy), two NGOs (Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and ClimateWorks Foundation), a multilateral organization (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), and implementing partners (including Verified Carbon Standard, UN Environment DTU Partnership and World Resources Institute) on climate transparency. This initiative provides strong strategic direction and tailored governance, a complex set of highly specialized technical skills and adaptable management capacity at scale – all in support of greater transparency in emission reduction policies and actions.

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