In Defense of Multistakeholder Processes

Posted on March 21, 2013

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I believe in multistakeholder processes.

I think along with my community informatics colleagues, that decisions should be made as close to those impacted as possible. I think that those impacted by decisions should be involved in those decisions. I think that multistakeholder processes potentially provide a means for the otherwise voiceless to have a voice in broader policy and programme decisions.

What I don’t believe in are multistakeholder processes that are surrogates for transferring additional power to self-appointed elites or insiders. What I don’t believe in are processes of decision making which are done without transparency, accountability, explicit procedures, or even-handedness in governance. What I don’t believe in is the transfer of otherwise democratic processes of decision making to multistakeholder processes because it seems easier to talk with a small group than with a larger one, to deal with one’s friends rather than with outsiders, to make decisions among those with explicit private interests rather than basing decisions on due and inclusive considerations that recognize and incorporate the public interest and the general good.

I’m currently, with others, working on behalf of the e-Africa Directorate of the African Union to find ways of further enabling the broadest base of participation in a series of multistakeholder processes which I consider to be very successful in their domain. I consider these to be successful because they are locally anchored and are re-nationalizing planning processes which had, to a considerable degree, been taken over by external donors; they have clear and transparent processes of internal operation and inclusion; they work to be representative and broadly based within contexts where this is extremely difficult do achieve.  These processes aren’t perfect by any means but they are striving towards improvement and are willing to engage in self-examination.

I think these processes are consistent with Anita Gurumurthy’s comments to the WSIS +10  Review where she said:

Multistakeholderism is a framework and means of engagement, it is not a means of legitimization. Legitimization comes from people, from work with and among people. We need to use this occasion of the WSIS plus 10 review to go back to the the touchstone of legitimacy – engage with people and communities to find out the conditions of their material reality and what seems to lie ahead in the information society. From here we need to build our perspectives and then come to multistakeholder spaces and fight and fight hard for those who cannot be present here.

Multistakeholder processes could and should enhance democracy by increasing opportunities for effective participation by those most directly impacted by decisions and particularly those at the grassroots who so often are voiceless in these processes. It should enhance democracy by ensuring that decisions made are reflective of and responsive to local concerns and to the broadest range of those who must bear the consequences. It should enhance democracy by making democratic processes more flexible and responsive, able to adjust to changing contexts circumstances, technologies, impacted populations.

To do this means shifting away from multistakeholderism as a “means of legitimation” to being one among many strategies for making democracy more workable in this era of enhanced communications, enhanced interactivity and accelerated change. But in order to do this these processes must be even more vigilant about ensuring that they operate within all of the requirements for effective democracy.  They must be representative and inclusive, they must be transparent to a fault, they must accept the highest standards of accountability. With sufficient creativity and imagination, digital and Internet based technologies I believe can provide additional means for achieving all of this even in ever larger contexts and ever more complex domains. It will take time and immense good will, but the outcome should be strengthened structures of democratic governance rather than hollowed out shells replaced by governance by self-perpetuating special interests.

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