Herman Brouwer and Joost Guijt on Power in Multistakeholder Partnerships
Welcome to Feed, a food system podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Matthew Kessler
And I’m Samara Brock. In this episode we examine power in Multistakeholder Partnerships. What are they? Do they work? And how does power play out in them?
Herman Brouwer 0:20
I don't think you can just by your power as a facilitator of a partnership, that you can level the playing field. I think that's a fantasy. So there will always be a little bit of inequality in the playing field. But there are ways how you can make it a little bit less skewed.
Joost Guijt 0:36
At the Cop26 recently, which you can see as a massive online version of an MSP, the largest representation of any particular stakeholder group was the oil and gas sector, that’s also an example of where we’re seeing that these kind of MSPs’ are places of influence in shaping mindsets, in shaping goals, and shaping intentions
The first voice you heard was Herman Brouwer and second was Joost Guijt, both employed at Wageningen University and Research and working in the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, or WCDI, an institute working to put knowledge into action in low and middle income countries.
Herman Brouwer is a senior advisor on multi stakeholder engagement in food, agriculture, and nature. He comes with decades of experience in facilitation and was the primary author of the WCDI report: Tools for Analysing Power in Multi-stakeholder Processes.
And Joost Guijt has 25 years of experience working with all facets of sustainable food systems, from farming to business to research, lobby and advocacy at the national and the EU level, and he is also the knowledge manager at WCDI.
We speak with Herman and Joost about power in MSPs, sometimes referred to as multistakeholder partnerships and other times as multistakeholder processes. So what are MSPs?
I would say, a multi stakeholder partnership would be a mechanism for collaboration and dialogue and actions between a couple of different stakeholders.
MSPs seem like a good idea, and they’re gaining traction among corporations, governments and civil society. But do they actually work? And if you’re really familiar with MSPs or this is the first time you’ve come across them, there is a lot to be learned from this conversation. We hope you stay tuned to the end where Herman offers some tips and tricks for how to address unequal power in MSPs.
As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions, comments, suggestions for guests, or if you strongly agreed or disagreed with our past episodes. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We're setting the scene for talking about how power operates in multi stakeholder partnerships. And to set that up, we wanted to talk to you about how you understand power.
In my work, working with farm organizations, with consumers, with businesses, whenever we start talking about power, and of course, I know that there's a whole academic breadth and depth to the concept of power, it’s one of the most complicated domains to operate in. But rather than to make it very academic, I often fall back on the definition of power, the one that Martin Luther King proposed at a certain moment in one of his speeches, which is the ability to achieve purpose and affect change. And I like that definition, because it moves a little bit away from the classic definition of power as the ability to coerce somebody or to make somebody else do what you want. But it's really talking much more about agency.
So I like the way Herman indeed connected his definition of power to agency, so that agency also has a sense of direction, I would add to that also reflection of the ability to influence, implicitly or explicitly, priorities and decisions. That's perhaps less direction oriented but more identifying, where does power lie?
There’s a lot of attention on Multistakeholder Partnerships currently. Where does the idea come from?
You have to think about the history of MSPs. I think they really started to become en vogue probably 20 or 30 years ago, but the majority of real action and also the acceptance of the idea of a multi stakeholder partnership as a preferred mechanism to solve complex problems. That's maybe not that old yet, I think it would be about 15 to 20 years maximum. And some of the origins and the roots of multistakeholder partnering as a practice or as a thing actually come from many different places in the world. I think one of the roots is actually from participatory rural appraisal, participatory methodologies, which are derived from Latin America, but also places like India, Bangladesh, where a lot of the methodologies around it were developed.
Herman emphasized how current approaches to MSPs builds on a long history.
There's also, of course, a whole tradition that goes way, way back, maybe 100 years or so of dialogue and conflict resolution, conflict transformation, mediation, and that's also a whole set of practices. That's really important, I think, in multi stakeholder partnering, because obviously as is our discussion for today, when we talk about power, a lot of times, these are not kind of love fest, quite often, they are power arenas where struggles and real struggles for people without livelihoods are being played out. So finding a way how to have constructive dialogues, and also manage conflict in a good way, that must be part of any multi stakeholder partnership facilitators toolkit.
I'm sure a lot of this is context specific. But can you talk about how many people or groups are usually a part of multistakeholder partnerships and who is typically involved in these processes?
I would say a couple of different stakeholders. And a couple it means two is the minimum but usually there are many, many more and of lately we've seen very large collaborative mechanisms where hundreds of organizations are trying to formulate new policies or drive innovation in certain spaces in the food system. So they can get as complicated as you want. But the minimum would be that would be a diversity of stakeholders. Usually it is governments, NGOs, researchers and private sector, but it doesn't necessarily need to be in that constellation.
Herman emphasizes that key to the definition of MSPs is that they must define a common goal or aspiration to work towards, and that these processes lead to some type of action.
And it would be also a space for dialogue and for action. So dialogue means to deliberate you listen, you learn to trust each other, you try to find out what the other parties have to offer. But action also means there needs to be a workable agenda towards change. There needs to be a certain ambition that people can buy into and that the MSP is going to deliver. Otherwise, particularly in the private sector, the interest in multi stakeholder partnerships is going to wane very soon.
So just to add what increasingly you also see in multi stakeholder partnerships is the role of finance. And I'm not sure if it's quite historically correct but you would start off with PPPs (Public-Private-Partnerships), back to the 40s 50s really have two different stakeholder groups in classic infrastructure kinds of activities, slowly, expanding then, as we get more into participation, as Herman described with civil society, bring in the element of knowledge, and now finance as a critical enabler of action.
So can you share some examples of MSPs in food systems and what different purposes of convening them might be?
Let me give two examples, and one is very much on a local level. So you might be in a district, in Rwanda or Uganda, for example. And different stakeholders have come to the recognition that trying to improve, let's say, access to nutritious food is hampered and it's not in anybody's ability to actually do something about it on their own. So traditionally, maybe you would say, well, this is the task of the government to enable that access to nutrition. But I think increasingly, also governments recognize that they can't do that alone as well. So a multistakeholder partnership on a very local level, it could be a district based, we bring together citizen groups, that could be women's organizations, they could be farmer organizations, they could indeed be financial organizations like credit and banks, and government, and often researchers. And quite often, you would see that they would set up something like an agricultural innovation platform or something like that. That's the word that's often being used by researchers for it. Where at a very local level, people are trying to find achievable goals and try to work together to get there. It can be sometimes very messy processes, but actually, there's some really interesting research, how data suggests that some of these messy processes in the end, enable much more innovation than some of the more neat innovation processes that were driven by government alone. So that's actually quite an interesting finding. At the very other end of the spectrum, you would have global MSPs. And they could be commodity specific, like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, for example, or any other commodity where sometimes the purpose for setting up these partnerships is around certification or about measurement or about setting new standards for a commodity for sustainability.
Herman then offers another global example with the CFS or the Committee for World Food Security.
That is very much a formalized, multistakeholder body that is trying to push and promote new policies for food and nutrition, security and for more sustainable food systems. And in doing so, it's very much – I’ve been there a couple of times, it almost feels like you're in a government setting, a very formal building. With people having seats, very codified rules, who gets to speak and who gets to vote, and also very kind of thought mechanisms that enable people to speak in or to participate at a distance, even if you're not a representative yourself or a delegate, you still have the opportunity to somehow influence findings. Now whether that's all effective or not, that is, maybe for later on in the discussion.
We will get to that.
But that's the whole gambit of multistakeholder partnering. So it could almost be at village level and it can be globally.
You ask what are they the kinds of differences of purposes as well? Certainly in the food space, as I mentioned, they're often commodities specific. So it's often oriented to try and enhance the competitiveness internationally, and the productivity of a specific sector, usually at a national level. The sustainable rice initiative in Cote d'Ivoire, or the cashew initiative in Tanzania or something like that. There's also market oriented multi stakeholder processes about how can we collectively be developing markets such as the Farmer to Market Association in East Africa, which brings in multiple, large commercial parties who would normally often be considered- they might be competitors - but together they actually say, well, there's more of complementarity in the markets that we operate in than a competitiveness and we all need to be ensuring that we are generating market opportunities for smallholder farmers as an important client base, but also an important social - a segment of society that needs strengthening. And then there's indeed things like CFS, which are indeed more policy oriented, and of course, others which are more advocacy oriented. There is a whole multi stakeholder platform around the UN Food System Summit, which was based around large groups who were different around the representation of the UN food system summit and felt that it wasn't doing justice as a - it wasn't being a proper multi stakeholder process in terms of giving voice and dialogue to everybody that should be involved. So in that sense, there are also different purposes and there's different levels then of engagement, we'll come back to that.
So we've been talking about multi stakeholder partnerships, and it's already evident, you mentioned earlier, Herman, who gets to vote? Who gets to participate? That power operates within this space. I was wondering if that was something that you were made aware of from the beginning, or if you had a sort of lightbulb moment? If you could share a story of when you saw how power operated in either hidden or very overt ways into the multi stakeholder process.
There is many stories, let me just pick one story that made quite an impact on me. And this was, maybe about 25 years ago, I was working in Cambodia, supporting Cambodian extension workers, agricultural extension workers, who were trying to work with farmers and fishermen, all about agriculture and fisheries. There was, for me a really exciting time, I learned an awful lot. At a certain moment, we had set up a multi stakeholder meeting, where, because we were working with fishermen who had difficulty getting access to fishing lots on a certain lake. And, there were military forces preventing them from doing so and also some other rogue elements that were threatening. So we thought, if we get everybody in the room, we might be able to really facilitate a conversation that can perhaps deal with this. Now, that was a bit naive, of course. Even though that was a great meeting, and I think for everybody, it meant that they had a much better understanding of what other parties were doing, whether they were government staff, whether they were business owners, whether they were NGO, and the fisherman activists that I was working with. At certain moments, I had this feeling that we were on the right track, that we were getting somewhere, trust was being built, people could see away for watch, perhaps, and hope was basically emerging somewhere. At a certain moment, one of the key fishery activists that I was working with was shot dead at night at his house. And a message was given that, he was not supposed to kind of poke his nose in some of the more political issues around that fishing lot. So that caused me to do a lot of soul searching. Because I thought that I had been helpful in creating a space for people to actually come together and work towards a solution. But I had made the mistake, I think, that I assumed that if I invited people over with a somehow a neutral convener, I would be able to provide like a politics free environment where people could start working together. And that that actually wasn't happening. This multi stakeholder partnership, or this emerging partnership, actually still took place in a context of extreme power differences. And in hindsight, I would say I've probably been very much too naive, in trying to set it up this way, not recognizing that this would actually take place, and that some of the people who felt threatened in their interest would resort to even to criminal acts and murder.
Herman reflects on what he learned about his own position in relation to this experience.
I'm a white male, I've got a Dutch passport, I had an NGO job that was paid. I also had a Dutch embassy that was backing me. So if things really got tight, in Cambodia where I was living, there was a way out for me, I could just fly out until things calm down. And some of my allies in that those fishing villages, they were stuck there. And they took much more risk than I did. So it made me also realize that we enter into some of these dialogues with different sets of privileges. And to be aware of that, that’s actually where we need to start. Because if we're talking about power in food systems and power in partnerships, I think it plays out on three levels. The first one is the inner work that you need to be doing yourself about understanding where your privilege comes from, and also listening to people who have come from a very different context, from different historical setting and trying to understand their concerns and also the injustices that are that have taken place and are taking place. That's one thing. And after that, of course, there are things that you can do to as a facilitator to manage a multi stakeholder partnership and somehow do something to avoid the worst excesses of power imbalances playing out. That's the other thing that you can do as a facilitator, there's tools and tricks for it, I can tell a little bit more later. And at the third level at which you need to look at power, I think is that sometimes partnerships can be conceived in a way that is just reproducing existing power inequalities. So even though we can use the language of empowerment, participation and bla bla bla, the very type of collaborations that are sometimes being put in place are sometimes not that empowering, even though we use that word. I don't even like that word empowerment, by the way. But you understand the point, I think sometimes the structure, the decision making, there are sometimes also elements where elite actors can capture the process in a very easily - can frame the problem in in a way, which is convenient to them. And also, many of these elite stakeholders, so to speak, they also have paid jobs, they have got travel budgets, they've got all these other things, which makes participation easy. And that's something I've become much more aware of in recent years.
That's a powerful story and some interesting and important reflections. Joost, did you have a light bulb moment of when you started to understand how power operates in these MSPs?
I can't say there's a moment I certainly am a slower learner than Herman because my - the moment I would grasp back to would be 10 years ago, rather than 25 years ago. But there's a couple of moments. So one is the awareness of what power you can actually generate through an MSP. And to connect to the end of what Herman mentioned, I used to work, among other things for the umbrella organization for organic agriculture in the Netherlands. At that point, I was also convening together groups of multistakeholder - farmers, researchers, government policy, etc, around sectors about what's the regulation, what's our ambition? Where are our investment priorities, etc. Now, then, as now, the agricultural sector was very small in terms of volume, and in terms of area, surface area. But there was also the sense of, we don't need to get make everybody organic, but we need to influence the agenda. And having that conversation about, what should we be doing research on, led to also acknowledging through the multi stakeholder process with the government saying, well, if we do research on certain topics that are relevant for, in this particular case for the organic sector, we're actually doing research which is relevant for the future of the whole agricultural sector. So the research budget for organic was proportionately five times as high, as would have been justified on the basis of turnover. So 10% of agriculture research would be going to organic relevant topics rather than whereas the surface area was, was 2%. So that's an example of how MSP, if it has the right people in it and talking about broader topics than its own smaller interests, can punch above its weight in terms of being of power itself.
Joost shares another example where he was made more aware of the hidden power of less visible actors – in this case he refers to the power of funders and donors.
So visiting a particular MSP in East Africa, working on trying to stimulate market access and market development for smallholder farmers. And I remember the MS platform saying, we're being completely driven nuts, by we have seven funders, they all have different indicators, they all have different demands, they all have different ways of reporting. And so we have to drive our programs to meet all of these different demands. And that was an example for me of where donors were using their power, their financial power to shape the identity and the direction and the activity of these multi stakeholder platforms against the intended purpose of the platforms. So I think it's also an example of what Herman mentions the risk of reinforcing or inadvertently working to establish agendas, and MSPs amplifying that rather than working on a different collective agenda.
So you're touching a lot on the complexity of MSPs. And what you're talking about, we wanted to ask you if you felt MSPs actually work? And what criteria you use to assess the effectiveness, both, formal criteria that you might established as well as sort of your own personal feelings on how you think through what has been a successful process and what hasn't?
Maybe take a first stab and I will provide a broader evidence based response. One of the things that we worked on, well few years ago, was how do you assess the effectiveness of MSPs? What struck us when we looked at that we looked at identifying roughly 40 MSPs, where we looked at in more detail in this particular case, multi stakeholder platforms, so more institutionalized forms of collaboration in agriculture. The majority of them did not have well established assessment processes. So they actually they did report on activities, but they actually didn't have on the whole well established ways of proving were they being effective or not? So in that sense they were in no position to be able to judge that. If we looked then at the literature of looking at MSPs and their effectiveness - what I'm aware of, the literature does assess, looking at are they effective in delivering activities, in delivering on outputs. But they don't actually address the question of are multi stakeholder partnerships or processes, effective at bringing about more structural change. Herman started by saying, the growth of MSPs comes from the recognition that there are complex problems, systemic problems that require more than one or two actors to work on, and therefore also require working on at different level of change. The evidence, as far as I'm aware, is pretty much the jury is still out, it's still quite a hypothesis based, or assumption based, investment in all the MSPs. That they are more effective than other forms of collaboration, such as just simple contract based collaboration, or based on far more informal kinds of structures. That's very broadly speaking, there are examples where MSPs, individual ones, are very effective, but whether it's that's related to the people who drive those particular contexts versus the actual format, MSPs as such whether that as is a better structure, I wouldn't put my hand, in the fire to say, yes, they are. Herman, are you able to make a more positive, bull statement?
No, I think Joost, I can follow what you're saying to a large extent and also agree with it. And just as an anecdote, I think about 10-15 years ago, or so, when we first started to talk to others about our practice of facilitating partnerships, we still felt that we had to sell the concept quite a bit. So sometimes we would also try to convince people with why this was a good idea, why this could solve many problems, and so on. And I think nowadays, I would frame the potential for MSPs a little bit more nuanced and differently. For two reasons. The first reason is that I don't need to do the selling anymore. I think everybody is sold on the concept. For a lot of people, whether you are a government official, in a county, or whether you're a business leader in Davos, at the World Economic Forum, saying that you want to work in partnership with others is always good, it's like a no brainer. We don't need to sell that concept anymore. So rather, if people come to us with a question about, we really want to set up a big multi stakeholder initiative to do this and that, I will be asking critical questions. And I would be, in some cases, advise against it also. And that's partly because I want to make sure that you know, the resources that are being spent on it, are actually going to be worth it. And there's a couple of things that we know that are really can increase the chances of success for these partnerships. What I often see nowadays is that there is amongst many of the more popular organizations that I get asked into partnership, there's a fatigue, of joining and partnerships. So that also tells me that there is maybe in some spaces, there is too much collaborative effort being applied, and sometimes a bit indiscriminately.
Herman agreed that while it’s hard to measure the success of these partnerships, some of them have the added challenge of setting incredibly ambitious goals.
And quite often, these partnerships they are set up with often a more lofty, a more systemic ambition. Which is very hard to measure anyway. Or to say something about the contribution that that particular collaborative effort is making. But if I zoom out, I also think that in these types of complex processes - or wicked problems, or whatever you call them - what often seems to work best in the long run is a system of actors that is well connected. So the amount of connections that are being made in a specific network is always a good thing. And quite often we still see - and whether it is in the potato sector somewhere or wherever it is - it could be very specific commodity or practice or landscape. We see disconnected stakeholders, all kind of pointing with their finger at each other, but not really knowing what the assets are of the others and what the real interests are. And sometimes it takes dialogue to really go a level deeper and find out that, “yes, maybe we are at odds with each other, but maybe under the iceberg, so to speak, there might be a common shared interest that we can join our energies towards.” So that's, of course, the theory. If we really take a look at it, a lot of studies that have been done about multi stakeholder partnering, what sticks to the wall basically? Is there any conclusion that we can make? And I've seen these type of systematic reviews from landscape initiatives to the water sector, to climates. Aand also Joost has been involved in some of these also in food and agriculture. And if I summarize the answer in two words, it is, “it depends.”
I knew it was going to be it depends.
But really what we're learning, what we're really learning is that context is critical. And what works in one place doesn't work in another place, what works at one scale, may be a total failure of a higher level scale. So there you go.
I think you laid out some, some really good principles to consider as well as the theory. But I want to zoom in on when you were just alluding to, which is Joost had conducted some of these reviews and you also did action research with this. So I was wondering if you could pinpoint to a specific example of something that you would say was, I actually will let you choose if you think it was successful or less successful, and maybe unpack what were some of those factors that made it that way?
Sure, let's see. I mentioned earlier the Farmer to Market Alliance and that's something which could say it's successful in the sense that it's been running for five or six years now. And its purpose is also to help create market opportunities for, market access for small scale producers across East African countries - Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda. Interestingly, because it was set up from a collaboration with larger businesses also with a collaboration with the World Food Program. So there is trying to use market, large market agencies, to come together to provide more effective service delivery models. More reliable contracting, forward financing, better knowledge about inputs, use of appropriate seeds, etc. So that there is a collective offer and a reliability, which is attractive for and targeted towards smaller scale producers so that they do pick up on the opportunities that technology has. In that, of course, growing the market for the companies themselves and also connecting to then the local supply. The World Food Programme. played a role, and plays a role, for ensuring well how can we more regionally produce food so that there is a more regional response possible in case of a crisis somewhere. I think some of them have been successful in terms of reaching large numbers of farmers, in growing the volume of trade and contracting, in growing the uptake of all kinds of improved technologies and therefore higher productivity. And what I think the number of things that are behind - there's a clear collective purpose, there's an ability to invest as well, so that there is innovation space that's possible and the ability to take risk. There are established networks that you can actually work with also with large numbers of farmers so that there's ability to influence at scale. And there is a healthy dialogue structure between the partners in the partnership about saying, including the farmer organizations, and the business - is about saying, where are we going? What do we actually want to be achieving with this and how are we are we trying to do this? And are we moving towards, to meet the needs of the different parties in the partnership? So these are a number of the factors that certainly contributes to its success.
Another dimension that Joost and his colleagues’ analyzed in the systematic review of 40 multi-stakeholder platforms, was who participated in these platforms, and they found that this revealed something important about the perceived power of MSPs.
It was very striking that business partners were very present across multiple platforms. So they certainly see that MSPs are a space where decisions could be made and where there are spaces of potential influence, because they only put their time and money into things where they think, this is a good bet in terms of return on investment. And it was for me striking statistic at the COP26 recently, which you could see as a massive online version of an MSP. 44,000 people across all stakeholders you could think of, the largest representation of any particular stakeholder group was the oil and gas sector at COP. So obviously, that's also examples where they're saying, well, we're seeing that these kinds of MSPs are places of influence in shaping mindsets, in shaping goals and shaping intentions. So that's to counter my earlier comment about the jury is out. There's also the yes, there are spaces of clear significance.
That's interesting that perhaps maybe not the result of the process, but the process itself is attractive to different stakeholders and the perceived reputation by being involved in these processes, it seems like you're willing - I don't know if that resonates at all - just an observation.
Sure. The same links to the UN Food System Summit, plenty of critical remarks and understand about saying, well, what actually came out of it in terms of decisions? And in terms of commitments? What it did do, is it put the whole topic of system change on the map. And the fact that there was the UN Food System Summit, and that there was several years of very focused research, but also literature development and report development, means that we are talking from an assumption now that oh, yes, of course, we have to work on system change. Where five years ago, even five years ago, I would challenge to say, “well, yeah, it certainly we didn't have that global mindset.”
When you're talking about how business is involved across these platforms. You know, the cynic in me is like, well, maybe they're there to contain and constrict the kinds of transformations that are talked about, and certainly I will ask you a question later about corporate involvement in the UN Food System Summit that was a perceived threat there. What would you say to that?
Yeah, I think it's totally valid. I don't think it's by definition so, and I think it's totally valid to be aware of that potential purpose. And Herman can go into some more of what he was saying tips and tricks. That is one critical success factor of an MSP in terms of a multi stakeholder process, representing broad interest and representing the long term public need, rather than the short term individual need, lies in being aware of that kind of intention of being part of a partnership. And how do you deal with that? At the same time, if you are not willing to engage with that, then you also don't have the opportunity, or you reduce an opportunity, to deal with the power that's embedded in these kind of large corporations. And it is large and it is growing, I mean, it's there's a massive growing concentration in food systems of power in terms of volume of trade in much smaller numbers of companies. Researchers over the last 10 years have shown that we have increasingly fewer numbers of companies having increasingly large shares, 40 to 60% of the fertilizer sector or the pesticide sector, the seed sector being concentrated in the hands of 10 or less companies. So they are, that is also, a growing power block that you have to deal with. And if you want a multi stakeholder process to be changing power balances, rather than voicing concern from sideline.
Joost, I fully agree with you there. And I think if some of these multi stakeholder mechanisms are at risk of being co-opted by private sector, in a way which is unhealthy, I guess, at any given moment in time, different actors will have to make the decision, will I put my effort here and be at risk of being co-opted myself? Or will I organize and convene outside of this space and create a new space? And that's the type of strategic discussions that we are often finding ourselves in where people recognize the potential of a multi stakeholder partnership and the inherent power that it represents. But at the same time, they're also weighing the pros and cons in such a way and sometimes I can imagine that civil society groups or social movements decide well, we're not joining this one, we can be much more effective in pressing for change outside of that conference building, and rallying people and maybe speaking out and letting the numbers talk or there's power in in the in the amount of people that we can mobilize for certain events. And yes, I've been involved as a facilitator in some of those collaborative efforts of NGOs only who were trying to say, maybe we should join forces as civil society in order to have a more stronger, bargaining position when we do engage with governments or with businesses. And that's like a multi stakeholder partnership in itself. It's like an embedded, well, it's a partisan MSP in a way with a very specific agenda. So in lots of theories about partnering and platforms, it's all the goals are lofty, or very, very abstract. And everybody who wants to join can join in. Sometimes there are technical reasons why you can argue that perhaps that's not the way to go. And helping people to make that decision is actually quite challenging and difficult. I'm still learning how to do that, actually.
Herman also reflected on the topic of ‘multi-stakeholderism’.
I think also, you're probably aware of some of the discussions around multi stakeholderism, as a thing or an issue. And for some people, multi stakeholder issue has been perceived, as we see that some of them multilateral organizations, the UN, the World Bank, and so on, they are less effective in their credibility across the board seems to be declining. They're underfunded, they're often perceived as assuming a particular agenda. So then multi stakeholderism, where different stakeholders come up with different constellations to create new governance mechanisms, for example, that seems to be like a really attractive idea. But yeah, there's also a growing body of literature, of activist literature, also advising against that for the reasons that Joost and others and myself have just also outlined. So it's a nuanced picture. And it's, I can imagine, if you really want to make a dent at food system problems at this moment, it's not easy to know who to engage with. We often help people in how to do a proper stakeholder and power analysis before they decide to join a multi stakeholder partnership. Just kind of exploring the landscape, and also exploring what's in it for you. And as an organization, what do you really want to get out of it? What are some of the reputation risks involved, if you go one way or another? Those are really difficult questions, but they become much more important in this confusing landscape.
We asked Herman about his thoughts on the critique of multi stakeholderism that emerged through last year's UN Food system summit. Where some civil society actors felt it undermined established multilateral food system bodies like the Committee on World Food Security, and gave corporate actors too much say.
Well, thanks, Samara. That's a difficult question. Yeah, I think the tensions in the in the different discourses that we saw playing out over this last year, around the Food System Summit, there in a way, they're not new. But we do have to draw the conclusion that a summit process hasn't been able to be a unifying factor, what some people were hoping for. That hasn't happened. There were some other results, the one that Joost mentioned before. But yeah, I do see that, like, the schism between those different positions has, perhaps due to, ultimately the attention that has drawn into it has grown deeper and deeper, rather than it being a bridge building type of situation. So yeah it’s cause for some concern. By nature, I'm much more the peace building type of person than somebody who likes conflict, although I also do recognize that many of the real systemic changes in food systems but also in areas of civil rights, etc. They always require confrontation, and they always demand sacrifices from people involved.
The fact that, that food systems has become such a contested arena of struggle, in that sense it shouldn't surprise anybody because the stakes are high. And I don't think we shouldn't expect any - especially a global multi stakeholder process, to be able to fix that. I think that's also maybe over-asking that mechanism. I started out by giving two examples of extremes. You’ve got global partnerships, and you've got very local ones. So if you want to evaluate the effectiveness of multi stakeholder partnerships, then I would avoid looking just at some of these global, these big tent type of events and processes, I would also look at some of the more informal localized efforts where people are trying to find each other and trying to do a lot of good things. And whether it's with or without the private sector, I've seen examples of wonderful work being done both. Although yeah, at the global level, at the moment, I can’t in food and agriculture - it's really hard to see some of those shining success examples. But maybe, Joost, I'm interested to hear what you think about that.
I agree. What I would say is that the UN Food system, this tension that you refer to, is laying further bare the fundamental disbalances in power in food systems, which is growing. That’s one of the very hard parts in multi stakeholder processes and in platforms in partnership is how do you ensure the right voice and how each voice represents, is representative of a particular group. So if you've got two or three companies, who represent 75% of the market - that’s very easy to actually coordinate that voice. But with 500 million farms over the world, that is a fundamental problem of power and creating balanced power in that because, how do you ensure that agency on the kind of power Herman started initially started developing? On the side of very dispersed group of farmers versus, against, and often is – well it’s not always against - but there are fundamental differences in interests.
I’d just like to pause and reemphasize Joost’s point here. How do you represent the diversity of 500 million smallholder farmers, or 800 million people experiencing hunger, at the same table as several multinational companies that control a majority of the world’s agricultural inputs? Is it possible to create fair conditions where each group can express their goals around the same table?
I don't have any - I don't have an answer or solution to that balance of power. If it isn't dealt with, then food systems, inherent structures of food systems, inherent relationships of food systems, are going to struggle to make sure that we do meet the 800 million a day who still are going hungry every day, they just don't have the voice and the agency to represent their need, and to make that a factor of influence, in many of the discussions around in food systems.
So you just said you didn't have a solution but I'm going to ask you about a solution. If you had been in charge of setting up a process like the UN Food System Summit, how would you have tackled some of these issues up front to make sure it hadn't become embroiled in these issues over power dynamics? Or, how would you have then, if it had become embroiled in them, what would you have done to try and do a reset?
It's always so easy to sit on the sidelines and tell, how to do it differently. One of the things that I think needs a better place in in these kind of process is evidence-based discussions and evidence-based collaboration processes. So there were massive amounts, I mean, there were over 800 Food System dialogues in the lead up to the Food System Summit, which of course themselves was very valuable to have that dialogue being put on the map. My impression of many of them were that they were based more on wishful thinking, what would we like to have, rather than actually the evidence of saying, well, what are we seeing? Where is the divide? Where are our needs not being met structurally? Where are costs not being externalized structurally? What's the evidence about the production of high sugar, high fat, and high starch food, at high profit margin versus much more high nutritional value products and much smaller volumes, much more risky, but much, much more necessary? So that evidence base I didn't feel was very strong in a lot of discussions, and therefore, you get more of an ideological based discussion, rather than a recognition of say, well, actually, okay, so what does this data tell us all? How do we collectively interpret that? That's one thing. The dialogue themselves were, of course, extremely valuable. Perhaps the composition of the organization behind the UN Food System summit could have been more carefully chosen, as well, to represent more of those voices of concern. And not only represent but also give power over the agenda and avoiding the sense of token representation. That's, I think a second aspect that could deserve attention. And I think the third one that which is now gaining traction is also a clear sense of - so what are the long term public goals that we want to commit to as being part of the objective of the UN Food System Summit? In itself, I thought it was more oriented to being a discussion space than being a sense of, “okay, so what are the bold 20 year things that we are going to invest in? And what are the mechanisms that we're going to be talking about to make that possible?” Those are the three dimensions that I think I would see get more space. Not saying that I'm the right person to do that at all.
So, I think you already started to get through it a little bit and we've been alluding to it throughout the conversation that you've got some tips and tricks for us. So can you share some of your insights, tips, strategies on how to address unequal power dynamics in multi stakeholder processes?
Well first of all, I don't think you can just by your power as a facilitator of a partnership or something like that, that you can level the playing field, I don't, I think that's a fantasy. So there will always be a little bit of inequality in the playing field. But there are ways how you can make it a little bit less skewed. And that's not the only thing you should do. Because I think there's also other ways of designing multi stakeholder processes all together, which probably has a lot to do with changing the incentives and also changing some of the financing mechanisms behind MSPs and so on.
Herman mentions that you need to think about power throughout designing the multi stakeholder process. For example, he talks about where you hold a meeting can dictate who has access to the space.
So whether you do it in a capital city, in an expensive hotel, whether the language used is English or not? Whether or not you expect a lot of pre-reading to be done, and, and so on. Whether there is reimbursement for travel, sometimes even whether it is childcare available for parents who don't have that?
Herman notes that these practical things can prevent people from meaningfully participating in the process. He also acknowledges that many MSPs are not well funded, which means they’re rarely operating under ideal conditions.
So sometimes you can from a distance you can already see, yeah, there are physical elements of power that are playing out. Sometimes not because people want to misuse power or have a bad agenda, but just because they haven't thought about it.
Herman reflects that it’s often desirable for facilitators to bring people to these meetings who come from very different backgrounds and life experiences, and as a result, some will be much less familiar with these type of partnerships and processes. He gives some tips to avoid tokenism and to ensure more meaningful engagement.
How do you actually do that? I find it really effective to try to spend a little bit more time with some of the people that have less experience in these types of settings, to prepare them. To talk with them - what's on the agenda, what are some of the debates around it, also do some basic, give them some basic supporting understanding how decisions are actually made, or who's coming with what interests? And doing that work prior to some of these multi stakeholder meetings, rather than just inviting people over and then people being quite often a little bit embarrassed, shy and feeling not quite at ease. That can be very disempowering. And it's also not ethical, I would say, if you don't think about it. If you naively assume that some of these power dynamics, that they want to play out in your meeting, that people somehow leave their power identities at the doorstep or something like that, they don't.
He goes on and offers some more practical tips.
You've got two choices, if you want to do something about power imbalances, you can try to decrease some of the power of the people who have too much of it. And the second way is that you can try to increase the power and influence of people who don't have so much of it. Those are the two levers that you can work with. Just go back to my practice as a facilitator, and quite often I would very practically try to work in smaller groups as much as possible. That's one way of making the people who are less confident that might have very good ideas, to enable them to engage more actively. And to prevent the idea that, you're sitting down with a group of 30 people and only five people do the talking. Always try to see how can I increase the participation of everybody here. And sometimes just the act of doing it, it can motivate people to a great extent, even the people who have power. Because I've been in meetings where sometimes you sit with big multinationals, and sometimes they also they're frustrated that everybody looks at them as if they've got all the power. And quite often, these are people in companies that inside of their company, they don't have so much power, especially the ones who are in the CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility department, they often have less power about what's happening in the core business than others. So in a way, it's also expectation management I guess.
Another consideration is the power of the organization who hires the facilitator, they might have specific aims or objectives that could impact how an agenda is set.
Sometimes if you were to design a new multi stakeholder partnership from scratch, you might come up with different choices, perhaps much more radical choices. But quite often, a lot of our work is also informed by some boundaries or conditions that some of our clients and partners are sitting, and we just have to work with it.
Herman offers his last reflections on the topic and challenges us not to think of power as a zero-sum game.
My message often is that we often think about power in partnerships as power over, as the power that I can maybe outvote the other members, or maybe I can manipulate them into voting for my idea or supporting my idea. But actually, a lot of the value that you can create, that's often underutilized, is in these other type of powers. The power with, the power within, and those are things that you can actually, you can you can work on, you can try to develop them yourself. And those types of power are actually helping to increase the power pie, so to speak. Because if you only think about power over, like the classical form of power, you will be thinking about a partnership as like a zero sum game. You just negotiate your way out and you just kind of push and pull, and you hope to get the best out of it. While if you focus on these other types of power, you might actually be increasing the pie. And you might get more options on the table, you might create new spaces where new things can happen. And that's quite often difficult for people to comprehend, but I think that's also where the value of some of the stakeholder collaboration processes, where they come in, they really help people to do that more effectively.
Well, thank you both so much for speaking with us today. We really appreciate hearing your views and decades of expertise on a very complex subject.
Thank you for allowing us to, to allow me in any case, to ramble. We are in positions of power, and there's no doubt about it. So it’d be interesting to hear also those who are feel, who experience, that they are less in a position of power, in food systems tend to say, well, how do you then look at these similar kinds of questions.
That wraps another episode of Feed. Big thanks to Herman Brouwer and Joost Guijt, and all of you for tuning in. Before you go back to doing your dishes, walking your dog, or whatever it might be - we have a small request before finishing up and reading our credits.
We’d love to include your voices and your views into the podcast. We’re speaking to people this season who hold quite strong views, which is bound to happen when we talk about a subject like power in the food system. We would be super grateful if you could send us a quick email or record yourself and let us know what you thought of our past episodes. What wasn’t brought up that you think is important to talk about?
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The feed podcast is produced by TABLE, a collaboration of the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University.
The episode is edited and mixed by Matthew Kessler. Music by Blue dot Sessions. Please rate and review us wherever you listen to podcasts, and share your favorite Feed episode with your friends!
And stay tuned for our next episode when we speak with Busiso Moyo, a scholar-activist from South Africa who talks to us about the importance of the right to food,
Busiso Moyo 54:14
There are those who experience the food system in South Africa in the same manne that someone in a first world country would experience the food system and then there are those who experience the food system in a manner of a war zone.