In the wider sense, the rationale for multi-stakeholder collaboration is simple. Today, the world is faced with a set of very difficult issues: the over-use of natural resources; climate change; continuing poverty; and the psychological and health-related ‘downsides’ of modern living. Quite simply, our existing ways of making decisions, along with our mechanisms of governance – from the local to the global level – are failing to cope with today’s challenges.
At the most basic level the reason for an MSP is that a group of actors realise that they are unable to achieve their own objectives and ambitions without working with others. Sometimes it is government which realises that to create and implement effective policy it must seek the advice and work in partnership with other actors. Increasingly business is having to work with ‘triple bottom line’ thinking and balance profit with environmental and social outcomes. To do this it has to engage in new ways with its clients, policy makers and environmental and social activists. NGOs are very diverse and some very deliberately take a confrontational approach, however, many others are learning that they can best achieve their objectives by creating, or being involved in processes where they constructively help business and government to make change.
In a globalised world neither government, business nor civil society is all powerful, yet each has the power to at least partially subvert actions of the other spheres to which they are opposed. Progress, particularly in relation to sustainable development, hinges on a social capacity for different sectors and interests to be able to constructively engage with each other.
When looking across many examples of MSPs five main reasons can be seen for why actors engage in a multi-stakeholder partnership:
- Learning and idea generation
- Joint problem solving and decision making
- Overcoming conflicts
- Collective action
In many MSPs, stakeholders engage for a combination of these reasons. However, the primary purpose for a MSP does have significant implications for how it is set-up, structured and facilitated and for its legitimacy. In this sense consultation and shared learning processes are less complex and less difficult to manage than those aimed at joint decision making, conflict resolution or collective action.
Complex Adaptive Systems
Ecosystems, human societies and our economies are complex adaptive systems. They evolve and develop in unpredictable ways that cannot be fully managed, directed and controlled. They can be seen as a collection of vast numbers of interacting elements with a myriad of interconnections. All the different elements are constantly reacting and adapting to what is going on in the rest of the system. While some coherent patterns of change and behaviour can be observed, how these complex systems evolve and change cannot be fully predicted. They are full of surprise and uncertainty. As a result, small changes in inputs can have very large impacts on the overall system.
Over the last several decades a much better understanding has developed about the nature of complex adaptive systems, which has significant implications for how we try to govern and bring about change in our human societies. It is impossible to use simple linear cause and effect relationships to understand and intervene.
Instead of trying to fully control outcomes through rigorous upfront analysis, hierarchical top-down management and detailed plans we need to focus more on creating the conditions for human systems to adapt and evolve in desirable directions.
Adaptive and innovative change in such systems is enabled by increasing the shared understanding, feedback, relationships and networks between the different the actors in the system. This is precisely what multi-stakeholder partnering processes make possible. In an increasingly complex world, multi-stakeholder partnerships are turned into an important mechanism of governance. They complement the more formal workings of national governments and international relations.
When one acknowledges that human societies are best understood as complex adaptive systems, a well-considered engagement in multi-stakeholder partnership can open up ways to contribute to transformative change in the direction of sustainability and equity.