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Can multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships live up to their promise?

Scientists examine the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships
Multi-stakeholder forum in Peru. Photo by Marlon del Aguila/CIFOR.jpg
Multi-stakeholder forum in Peru. Photo by Marlon del Aguila/CIFOR.jpg

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Multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships, which bring together people from different interest groups to discuss shared challenges, opportunities, policy actions and advocacy strategies, are “seen as central to virtually every global initiative there is,” said Anne Larson, team leader on Gender, Equity and Wellbeing at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

Larson made the comments during the opening of a session on the subject on 6 June 2022 at Science Week, a hybrid, internal CIFOR-ICRAF conference bringing together 500-plus scientists from across the world.

“For us as an organization, for all of our work on climate restoration, biodiversity, Sustainable Development Goals, and food systems, these kinds of platforms and partnerships are key,” she said.

However, researchers and practitioners have found that uncritical optimism towards the planning and implementation of multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships is unhelpful.

“There’s a general assumption that these are easy or obvious in terms of bringing people together,” said Larson. “There’s also often an assumption that multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships are the answer: that they’re the best and perhaps only way to bring about change.”

In practice, there are many challenges for effectively implementing multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships: there is little comparative or rigorous research on how they work and many other things that need to happen alongside, and outside, them to enable truly transformative solutions.

In addition to researching multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships, CIFOR-ICRAF has considerable collective experience in using, organizing and participating in them in a wide range of settings and at multiple scales.

The session was conceptualized as the beginning of a wider effort to take stock of the organization’s collective experience in this area and produce outputs that could establish it as an important knowledge broker towards more effective and equitable multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Lisa Fuchs, who leads the Asset-Based Community-Driven Development team at CIFOR-ICRAF, shared experience with engagement for ownership and impact at various scales. She described the development of a group selection tool which supports development efficiency by helping external actors to identify people who are interested in what they have to offer, in advance.

Fuchs also shared a six-step landscape-level engagement process for sustainability planning that can be adapted to the specificities of each context in which it is applied.

She also spoke about the OneCGIAR Agroecology Initiative’s principles for stakeholder engagement.

Getting the engagement right in the beginning is fundamental for the likely success of an activity,” she said. “In order to have a really transformational approach, it’s important that we come up with a way of doing things that is context specific but comparable.”

CIFOR-ICRAF scientist Emily Gallagher discussed their team’s work on jurisdictional approaches to multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships for multifunctional landscape governance and zero-deforestation commodities in Ghana. In the west of the country, the team is studying the implementation of a jurisdictional approach to reducing deforestation and forest degradation in the cocoa sector as part of Ghana’s sub-national REDD+ strategy. Together, CIFOR-ICRAF and SNV are developing collaborative learning platforms which bring forest users together with cocoa cooperatives to learn about climate-smart agriculture and land-use planning.

In the east of the country, Gallagher and her colleagues are working in a dynamic commodity landscape with oil palm, rubber, cocoa, mining, and other minor crops.

“In this landscape, we act as a boundary or bridging organization to create horizontal linkages between jurisdictional level stakeholders and vertical linkages to enable local influence and knowledge sharing with regional and national decision makers,” she explained. “Our role is this translation between science, policy, and planning spheres… and in this case, we’re using multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships as a framework for participation embedded in jurisdictional or administrative structures.”

Kimberly Merten, knowledge assistant coordinator at the Global Landscapes Forum discussed building the worldwide coalition over the past decade. The Forum is a knowledge-led platform, which is similar to a multi-stakeholder platform or partnership but works across scales, disciplines and sectors.

Merten said that a key challenge facing the Forum is that “we’re a little bit like the ‘middle woman’ and we can be something of a bottleneck in terms of collaboration and integration between stakeholders.”

She said they are employing strategies to address this, such as regionalization, capacity development and helping funders and finance experts connect with restoration practitioners.

Valentina Robiglio, senior land-use systems scientist with CIFOR-ICRAF, discussed the use of multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships to enhance engagement and collective learning under the SMART initiative to promote agroforestry development in San Martín in the Peruvian Amazon. Robiglio and team used the Stakeholder Approach to Risk Informed and Evidence-based Decision-making.

“The vision that was developed consisted of integrating agroforestry into the regional social and economic growth agenda of San Martín,” she said. “But it emerged through our engagement with stakeholders that there was a major barrier to being able to do so: lack of knowledge, which is a critical factor that impacts the capacity to articulate a regulatory, technical and social context favourable to scaling agroforestry.”

Accordingly, SMART participants have collectively developed a platform that catalyses building knowledge through collaborative learning and the integration of data and information.

Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti, a scientist with CIFOR-ICRAF, explained his team’s work to support equity and social inclusion in multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships.

In CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+, a study of 14 different multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships across four countries showed renewed attention to participation and collaboration as a means of urgently transforming developmental trajectories.

“This is the idea: that if we only get together, things will change. But the organizers of the different multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships recognized that there were very clear power inequalities between participants and very few of them had strategies to deal with such inequalities,” said Sarmiento Barletti.

So, the research team worked with participants in multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships to design an adaptive, reflexive social learning tool called ‘How are we doing?’, which is designed to be used by participants themselves. They’ve published it as a generic tool and are also developing specific versions for particular contexts, such as to support the participation of Indigenous women in the management of their territories, to enable inclusive participatory management of protected areas and to support the co-management of communal reserves in the Peruvian Amazon.

CIFOR-ICRAF scientist Linda Yuliani discussed using multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships in Indonesia for both facilitation and research.

For facilitation, her team used them to develop principles of good governance; promote learning; foster mutual understanding and solutions; create networks for collective action; ensure the relevance of the issues; and help build adaptive capacity and resilience.

As a research tool, they have been used as a means for data collection and triangulation as well as to assess staff perceptions and the knowledge of stakeholders.

Yuliani reflected that “there is still a lot of mismatch between the goals and methods used and there is a common assumption that organizing multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships will directly ensure participation, equality and/or action.”

She recommended facilitators move from problem-based approaches, which can sap morale and motivation, to strengths-based methods such as Appreciative Inquiry, which “helps to build self-confidence and realistically plan for achievement of the goals.” She also noted that “building from existing local mechanisms has contributed and added value to strengthen capacity and led to more relevant regulations and programmes.”

Larson noted her colleagues’ plans to consolidate a network of CIFOR-ICRAF staff working on multi-stakeholder platforms and partnerships; carry out a stocktaking process; and collaborate in publications setting out their comparative evidence.


This research is part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+. Funding partners that have supported this research include the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Grant No. QZA-21/0124), International Climate Initiative  of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety (Grant No. 20_III_108), and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry with financial support from the CGIAR Fund Donors.


For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at a.larson@cgiar.org.
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