Rethinking multi-stakeholder forums for marginalized groups

Fostering ‘counter power’ to ensure accountability
Transporting wood downstream on the Arajuno River, Ecuador. CIFOR/Tomas Munita

Researchers have long agreed that fixing the challenges surrounding the way land and resources are used and managed requires collaboration. But getting it right is not easy.

How to bring people together from diverse backgrounds and interests – and access to power and capacities – and create a conducive environment to implement lasting change is the subject of perennial debate. So, we decided to carry out research to dig into the subject to see where the pitfalls lie and how they might be overcome.

Our new paper published in the journal World Development  examines what Indigenous Peoples and local communities (abbreviated as IPLCs) and marginalized actors within those groups (e.g. Indigenous and local community women) think about the “multi-stakeholder forums” they are engaged in and their potential for equitable change.

This research is important as multi-stakeholder forums (or platforms, initiatives and processes) tend to be idealized as imagined spaces for collaboration among equals, based on the idea that ‘we’re all in this together’ – we all occupy this unhealthy planet together.

But that simplified notion is an obstacle to meaningful change. If such collaboration provides an opportunity for change – which many believe it does – then it means working from an understanding of inequity to challenge the foundations of that inequity, assuring all voices are heard

The research findings resulted in clear recommendations for ways forward.

Participatory processes: the research

Our research project defined forums as an organized, interactive process that brings together a range of stakeholders to participate in dialogue, decision making and implementation of actions seeking to address a problem they hold in common or to achieve a goal for their common benefit. In recent years, to be more inclusive — and in some cases to respond to international agreements — they have included smallholders and IPLCs.

As noted throughout some 40 years of experience with participatory processes, such forums are preferable to top down, unilateral structures, but they do not promote equity by simply extolling diversity and bringing in more participants.

To date, however, there has been little comparative research published on Indigenous Peoples’ and local community men and women’s views on the forums they engage with – inspiring a new line of investigation.

Using a mixed methods approach, the research involved a series of interviews with participants of 13 subnational multi-stakeholder forums (and one national) in four countries that were designed to address land-use concerns; 11 of those had men and women from Indigenous Peoples and local communities and are the focus of our analysis.

Research participants were asked a series of questions and their responses were analyzed and compared. Over 50 of those were from IPLCs, and most of the remaining 185 participants were from national and subnational government institutions, 33 from non-governmental organizations, and the rest from the private sector, academia and donor organizations.

The findings

We identified some common weak spots as well as exceptional cases, both good and bad. We learned that organizers need to engage more strategically with IPLCs to ensure they feel included and empowered. Inclusion and empowerment are important, as the forums we worked with are framed by deep histories of inequality and conflicts over land. Two of the case studies analysed provide strong evidence regarding specific measures implemented to ensure IPLC inclusion, resulting in positive perspectives about their opportunities to contribute.

Our article also revealed that many IPLC representatives, like other participants, are reasonably optimistic about the potential of MSFs even if they are participating in forums they consider problematic or inadequate. This finding has a caveat, however, as our sample of interviewees focussed on those who were participating in multi-stakeholder forums rather than those who were never invited or who chose not to attend.

Of greater concern were some of the mixed responses and critical perspectives on the forums involved in the study, which suggest there is considerable room for improvement. Overall, we are alerted to the fact that individual IPLC representatives to a forum can have very different experiences and opinions in the same context.

Conditions for empowerment – and ‘counter power’

Despite overall optimism, IPLC representatives were far more skeptical than other participants about the potential of the forums to empower, assure voice, prevent those with more power from dominating dialogue and avoid placing their ancestral rights to land at risk. The nature of these responses gave us insights into questions of voice, accountability and power relationships.

Most concerning – but also most enlightening – are the findings associated with prior research on accountability for marginalized groups in multi-stakeholder processes. This specifically refers to multi-stakeholder forums as ‘invited spaces’ or ‘induced participation spaces’, which have long shown great weaknesses with respect to representation and voice.

Researchers have highlighted the importance of fostering ‘counter power’ for accountability in participatory processes. What this means is finding ways to reduce the power advantages of more powerful groups. Two key mechanisms are finding allies, and collective action. And the differences between IPLC respondents and the other participants were the largest on these two questions. On the former, IPLC respondents were far less likely than other respondents to see multi-stakeholder forums as a place to find allies. On the latter, the same respondents were far more likely to see fighting for their interests through some other kind of social action as a preferable option to such forums.

What can be done?

Our findings suggest concrete actions that forum organizers can take to facilitate equity and accountability, beyond the use of good facilitation tools. We found that many organizers think that inviting people to the table is the most important step to support equity and voice, but this just glosses over differences.

Instead, a commitment to equity, voice and empowerment of marginalized groups must create the conditions to challenge the status quo. For this, organizers should:

First, assure a critical mass of representatives of IPLC men and women – having only one or two representatives at a forum will make it very difficult for them to be heard, or to represent the different groups (e.g. women and youth) in their communities.

Second, discuss openly and strategically with those representatives about their needs, and how to facilitate accountability.

Third, foster alliance building with other participants.

And finally, support spaces for self-organizing, learning and discussion among IPLCs, and women and other groups with less voice and influence.

The need to work together to face environmental challenges will only continue to grow. Inviting diverse actors to participatory platforms is not enough: we need to actively challenge inequality to foster the transformative changes needed.

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

For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at a.larson@cgiar.org or Juan Pablo Sarmiento at j.sarmiento@cgiar.org.
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