MSI Database: A Response to Reflections from the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of Business

In June, MSI Integrity and the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with pro bono support from the law firm Miller & Chevalier, launched the MSI Database, a searchable online resource for information about multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). The database catalogues the design characteristics of 45 transnational standard-setting MSIs in the field of business and human rights, including whether initiatives offer an external complaints mechanism, require public reporting of member compliance with initiative standards, or have the ability to sanction members for non-compliance.

We created the database as a resource for MSI participants, researchers, and interested stakeholders, and remain very open to feedback on how it could be improved or expanded in the future. We were encouraged to see a thoughtful blog post on the database published by the Center for Business and Human Rights at the NYU Stern School of Business on July 5th. Given the Center’s deep experience engaging with MSI staff and other MSI stakeholders on human rights issues, we are encouraged that they have taken the time to share feedback. We would be excited to work with interested and engaged stakeholders like the Center to further develop the database in the future.

The blog post describes the database as a “commendable pursuit that brings greater visibility to an oversight model that is increasingly common but poorly understood,” and raises a number of important points. We discuss some of these below and note where the project’s FAQ page and methodology document address a particular issue in greater detail.

For one, the post from Stern identifies ways in which the database’s visual presentation could potentially be misinterpreted – such as if a user inferred that the more design features an MSI exhibits, the greater its efficacy, or that the presence of each of the seven design features is equally important. We agree that the seven design features included in the database are unlikely to be equally important. And as we note in the FAQ and methodology, the database does not evaluate the effectiveness of MSIs, nor is it intended to encourage a check-list approach to design features. That said, our hypothesis is that the design features catalogued are necessary but hardly sufficient for an MSI to be effective. The significance of a particular MSI design feature for an MSI’s efficacy is ultimately determined by a range of factors, including whether and how the features are implemented – something the database does not analyze. As such, we do not assign weighted scores to different design features in part because their importance for an initiative’s effectiveness likely varies.

The blog post goes on to observe that the database categories are presented in a simplified format. For this initial release, we chose these categories due to capacity and data availability constraints. But we are very interested in additional feedback from researchers, MSIs, and MSI stakeholders on how to potentially refine and/or expand the database to better support MSI researchers and practitioners in the future.

The post’s overarching insight that “only a handful of MSIs have the necessary organizational design and mechanisms in place to define and enforce standards” foreshadows one of the conclusions of our forthcoming report assessing our own findings from the database: The New Regulators? Assessing the Landscape of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives. In the report, we discuss the troubling finding that many MSIs lack the mechanisms needed to successfully uphold their own standards – such as external complaints mechanisms, robust reporting and sanctioning processes, and tools to include the voices of the communities a particular MSI intends to benefit or protect.

In spite of the constraints discussed above and others mentioned in the FAQ, we hope the database provides a useful contribution, particularly as a resource for further inquiry and debate on MSIs. As we discuss in our forthcoming report, we think that the database also points to a need for serious, critical reflection on how researchers, MSI participants, and other stakeholders conceptualize and engage with MSIs.

We welcome additional public reflections such as the Stern blog post. Interested MSI researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders are also invited to send us feedback directly at info@msi-integrity.org.

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