Rethinking Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives Blog Series

by Tyler Giannini and Amelia Evans

Ten years ago, our clinic was asked to figure out a way to evaluate whether multi-stakeholder initiatives—or MSIs for short—were helping to advance human rights or whether in fact they were doing precisely the opposite.

MSIs are voluntary governance efforts that bring together corporations, civil society, academics, and in some cases governments and rights holders themselves to (privately) govern thorny human rights issues, and by 2010, they had proliferated in the business and human rights field.

The allure was (and still is) obvious. If we bring the right players together, they can learn from each other and solve a given problem by setting up a democratic institution that can prevent future abuses and sanction violators, and governments will not have to pass hard laws and unnecessary regulations. The potential flaws were (and remain) just as obvious—the power imbalances amongst the players are acute and asking industry to voluntarily give up power and self-regulate is a fool’s errand that puts the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

Thus, we set out to look at which way the institutions had gone—had they filled their promise or had the inherent flaws gotten the better of them? Little to no systematic work on the question had been done at the time, and what started as a one-semester project turned into a non-profit—MSI Integrity—and a decade of work.

Today, MSI integrity is publishing its new report, entitled ”Not Fit for Purpose,” which compiles its experience and insights over the last decade. The report explores cross-cutting trends and lessons learned about MSIs, as a field, from a human rights perspective. MSI Integrity’s assessment is clear: “While MSIs can be important and necessary venues for learning, dialogue, and trust-building between corporations and other stakeholders—which can sometimes lead to positive rights outcomes—they should not be relied upon for the protection of human rights. They are simply not fit for this purpose.

To coincide with the report’s release and to commemorate ten years of engagement, our Clinic and MSI Integrity are partnering to launch a blog series to critically examine the role and value of MSIs in business and human rights. This series is set up so that contributors will be in dialogue with one another on a central question: do we need to rethink the role of MSIs? For us, underpinning this question is a more fundamental one: are MSIs working for rights holders? Some contributors will examine the landscape in which MSIs operate, while others will offer critical reflections or consider ways forward for these institutions–or for alternative ones (which you are invited to explore further during our live-illustrated discussion exploring worker-driven governance arrangements on July 30).

To kick-off this series, we pose three critical considerations that we suspect might recur (as they have in the past) when contributors ask whether MSIs are working for rights holders and if their role and place in human rights needs to be considered.

First, where and how is power situated within MSIs? Alongside the question how power is situated, comes the question of who controls that power and, with it, the institution. In the context of business and human rights, on one side of the spectrum, there are arrangements where industry controls the entire process, such as an industry association; and then there are community-controlled governance regimes, such as worker-controlled bodies. MSIs were supposed to be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum both in terms of who controlled the institution and in terms of who benefited. Ten years ago, the questions of power and where on the spectrum did MSIs actually lie were front and center in debates—and that remains the case today.

Second, MSIs raise a host of questions around notions of accountability and democratic governance. When you first engage with the term “MSIs,” it may connote promises of inclusion, equality, representative governance, and the rule of law. Indeed, the governance arrangement has the tenor of a social contract in democratic societies (though here between private actors rather than between the state and its citizens.) For example, when we think of the rule of law, democratic principles like “no one is above the law” come to mind. That translates here to be the norm that “no corporation is above the law.” Have MSIs upheld such norms? Do MSIs need to be held to such norms?

Finally, there are questions about what value MSIs provide and how that is provided. In other words, who are they good for and who benefits most from these institutions? Are they tools of accountability and compliance, or are they more limited in the value add–to encouraging better practices, fostering learning, and giving stakeholders opportunities to convene and build relationships that would not otherwise develop? Depending on what value they bring, what does that mean for the promise of tackling human rights issues created by businesses?

After 10 years, to us it has become alarmingly clear that MSIs are not working for rights holders. The power in MSIs lies predominantly with corporate actors, not with rights holders. Thus, while the name “multi-stakeholder” persists, in reality these institutions work best not for multiple stakeholders, but for one stakeholder: the corporation. In this way, MSIs should be thought of as corporate associations with some representation of other actors, rather than as institutions that change the power dynamics in favor of protecting rights holders. In other words, the fox has gained the upper hand in managing the chicken coop.

(Tyler will have more to say on that in a blog later on in the series when he gives his take on how the fox gained the upper hand).

Tyler Giannini is the board treasurer and co-founder of MSI Integrity. He is a Clinical Professor of Law and directs the Human Rights Program and International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.

Amelia Evans is the executive director and co-founder of MSI Integrity. She is an international human rights lawyer and an Open Society Fellow on Economic Inequality.

Solidarity with the Protests Against Racial Injustice

We must hold corporations accountable for their roles in structural racism and racial violence.

MSI Integrity condemns the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, David McAtee, Manuel Ellis, Sean Monterrosa, and the ongoing police militarism, white racial violence, and structural racism in the United States. We stand in solidarity with protestors taking to the streets to fight for racial justice, at a time when COVID-19’s disproportionally lethal impact on Black communities has further exposed entrenched racial inequality.

As people who are working to ensure the private sector respects and protects human rights and the environment—to ensure that corporations are held accountable for any human rights abuses they commit, and provide remediation for any harm caused—we feel it is important to shine a light on the role of the private sector in structural racism and police violence. The public-private partnerships that have militarized the police; the role of technology companies in enabling data sharing and surveillance by state security forces; corporate media’s obscuring of Black suffering; the discrimination and inequity that persist within boardrooms and wage rates;  the predatory housing practices that deepen systemic inequality in Black communities; and the unpaid prison labor that benefits corporations while negatively impacting Black people who are disproportionately represented in prison populations. These are just a few ways that corporate conduct perpetuates racial injustices. We must hold accountable those corporations that continue these harmful practices, many of which are issuing statements of support that fail to acknowledge and address their own roles in abuse.

Law enforcement accountability is a start, but it is not enough. Deep structural inequity necessitates deep structural transformation across societal, legal, economic, and political structures. As an organization, we are soon to begin focusing on a radical reimagining of the corporation, the building block of the economy, in order to achieve transformational change. The nation’s most recent uprisings in response to police violence remind us of the importance of centering racial justice in this work.

How exactly will we do that? We do not know. That requires further learning, listening, analysis, and reflection. We need to work in solidarity and across movements. We need to listen to and employ more Black voices. We need to ask why so few corporations have been held accountable for their role in perpetuating structural racism, and how the corporate accountability or business and human rights community can change that. We will not have answers immediately, but we are committed to developing them. As a starting point, we are adjusting our schedules to enable staff and summer fellows the time to analyze the deep-rooted connections between corporate conduct and racial injustice, as well as to participate in protests or engage in relevant actions.

This is a crucial moment to drive action. The business and human rights community must stand in solidarity with movements for racial justice and find ways to tackle this issue, while centering the perspectives and experiences of those who are most affected.

Canary in the Coal Mine: Trump Administration Undermines a Global Anti-Corruption Initiative

This blog is designed to provoke thoughts and encourage debate about the function, effectiveness and role of MSIs. The views expressed here are the personal views of the author and are not the institutional positions or views of MSI Integrity. We welcome critiques and responses on the ideas below. If you would like to post a long-form response, or contribute your own piece, please contact us at:

The following was published on the online forum, Just Security, on April 13, 2017

Those nervously watching to see whether the United States will uphold its existing international commitments to protect human rights and address corruption have had their eyes trained on the positions typically in charge in this arena: U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and President Donald Trump himself (or, at least, his twitter account). But some of the most worrying signals are emanating largely unnoticed from staff at the Department of the Interior (DoI). Recent actions by DoI officials have caused speculation that the U.S. may soon be leaving a major global anti-corruption initiative, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). This is just one example of dozens of little-known international “multi-stakeholder initiatives” that now appear to be under threat of being rolled back or neglected. These initiatives, most of which set standards for voluntarily participating countries or companies, have won favor amongst those wary of negotiating treaties or establishing binding corporate regulation to address corruption, insecurity or human rights. If the Trump administration continues taking steps to undermine these initiatives it will erode an already weak system of global oversight into corporate conduct and the flow of illicit dollars, thereby increasing the overall risk of human rights violations, violence and instability.

The U.S. joined EITI in 2011, a decade after it was started by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in response to pressure from NGOs who were showing links between revenue generated by mining, oil drilling and similar extractive industries, and corruption, conflict and human rights abuses – a phenomenon that is now known as the “resource curse.” The initiative’s 50-plus member countries, largely from the Global South, have pledged to follow EITI’s requirements, which center on releasing annual reports that disclose payments between oil, gas and mining industries and the government. The cornerstone of the initiative’s operation is that the EITI process must be overseen in each member country by a multi-stakeholder group that includes both “fully, actively and effectively engaged” civil society and industry designees. This transparency is supposed to enable an informed national debate inside member nations that focuses on questions vital to fighting corruption and other ills of the resource curse: Where has all the money gone? Why did the country itself receive so little? How come those funds went directly into the Swiss bank account of that government minister?

Yet new actions taken by the Trump administration threaten the possible unraveling of this 15-year old global initiative in just a few months.

The U.S. released its first and only EITI report in late 2015. While that document contains tidbits of interesting information, it falls short of the transparency requirements set by EITI: The majority of participating American companies refused to voluntarily disclose their federal tax payments, and the report provides no breakdown of payments on a project-by-project basis – such as the money linked to a specific mine or oil field. This project-level reporting ordinarily has the most significant information and is of far greater interest to the public than national aggregates. That key failure was supposed to be remedied by a rule issued under Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which required U.S.-listed companies to disclose payments made to both U.S. and foreign governments for the development of oil, gas or minerals. That rule, which was to come into effect next year, would have made great progress in the fight against global corruption by setting a mandatory rule that went even beyond the reach of EITI. Importantly, it would have helped the U.S. pass a scheduled audit by EITI in 2018.

The rule no longer exists. One of the first acts of Congress under the Trump administration was to repeal it, and whether a new rule will be approved is unclear. Anti-corruption activists were still reeling from that blow, when during one of the regular multi-stakeholder meetings held at the Department of the Interior, the microphone was cut off as a civil society representative began to ask questions as to whether the Trump administration was committed to EITI. This was a breach of one of EITI’s key operational principles: the ability for civil society to speak freely within EITI. Soon after, Outlook email invitations to all future EITI meetings were cancelled. Civil society representatives in the multi-stakeholder group scrambled to issue a collective public statement that these actions are tantamount to the U.S. voluntarily halting its own EITI process.

Last week, after an unscheduled meeting of the multi-stakeholder group’s co-chairs was called to clarify the situation, officials denied that a decision to withdraw had been made, although the path for how the group would proceed was unclear. The Department of Interior is in an embarrassing bind: If it does not withdraw from the organization, then the country risks publicly failing the EITI audit, which may ultimately result in it joining a group of suspended countries that includes Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Kyrgyzstan, and Yemen. If the U.S. voluntarily withdraws or “pauses” its involvement, it will not only signal that countries like Nigeria and Peru – which recently passed validation – are more transparent in this area, but a host of autocrats in repressive states may feel entitled to follow suit, thereby gutting the power of the 51-member initiative.

A tell-tale sign for dozens of similar initiatives?

EITI is just one of the many different “multi-stakeholder initiatives” (MSIs) that the U.S. government or major U.S. companies have joined over the last two decades. These initiatives, which proliferated in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are premised upon collaborating with civil society (or, far less frequently, with workers or affected communities) to fill the governance gaps that exist where states are unwilling or unable to provide basic rights for their citizens or otherwise uphold laws that regulate corporate behavior. They tend to emerge in response to high-profile campaigning or scandals about a particular industry or issue, although generally receive little public attention once they become operational.

For example, the exposés on the blood diamond trade led to the Kimberley Process, which brings in civil society and companies to certify diamonds as “conflict-free.” The execution Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Nigerian activists who had been vocally opposing the operation of Shell in the Niger Delta contributed to the development of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, which provides operational and human rights guidance for extractive companies. The dependence on Blackwater and other private military companies in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted the eventual emergence of the International Code of Conduct for Code for Private Security Service Providers. There are countless other multi-stakeholder initiatives with similar self-explanatory names: the Alliance for Responsible Mining, the Fair Labor Association, the Open Government Partnership, to name just a few.

Given that all of these initiatives rely on the voluntary participation of companies or governments, they risk becoming a flimsy distraction from efforts to develop binding legal human rights obligations for companies. But they are a central part of the U.S.’s long-awaited response to a call from the UN for states to develop policy plans demonstrating how they are ensuring the protection of human rights against business-related harms. One of the few clear commitments made in the U.S.’s oft-criticized plan was a promise to collaborate with stakeholders such as civil society organizations, with the U.S.’s participation in EITI expressly cited as one of a handful of examples of the types of initiatives that the “U.S. government will continue to play a leadership role in.”

The ease with which the Trump administration took actions to undermine its participation and compliance with EITI indicates something deeply troubling may be emerging. That is: The Trump administration is prepared to ignore a centerpiece of the U.S.’s brand new framework aimed at curbing human global rights abuses related to business interests. The fragility of the voluntary patchwork of multi-stakeholder initiatives that was supposed to offer human rights protections and stem illegal transactions that contribute to instability, crime, terrorism and countless other security threats is now apparent, and the worst is likely yet to come.

MSI Integrity: Expanding and Hiring

Since launching publicly in 2013, MSI Integrity has worked to foster a culture of critical reflection on whether multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) are effective at protecting and promoting human rights. In just a few years, we’ve held global consultations and public dialogues addressing questions of MSI effectiveness, released a major report into governance of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and are close to finalizing a suite of public tools to allow others to evaluate MSIs.

We have big plans for 2016 and beyond, including the development of a global research network on MSIs, an analysis of the value and structure of complaints/grievance mechanisms in MSIs, and releasing a major report that reflects on the effectiveness of five prominent MSIs. To advance this work, and to promote more critical reflection on voluntary initiatives, we are delighted to be expanding our organization by creating two new roles: Program Director and Program Associate.

MSI Integrity is committed to understanding the value and impact of voluntary business and human rights-related initiatives through independent and transparent approaches that uphold human rights principles. If you share our values and are interested in joining our small passionate team in San Francisco, you can find out more about the two positions here.

EITI Governance Assessment to be released on February 12 – do you want to discuss the findings?

On February 12, 2015, MSI Integrity will release Protecting the Cornerstone: Assessing the Governance of Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Multi-Stakeholder Groups.

The report will present the findings and recommendations from our 2014 independent research project to assess whether the multi-stakeholder groups (MSGs) at the national level in the EITI — which are responsible for implementation of the EITI process in each country — are being governed and operated effectively.

To our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive analysis of national-level EITI MSG governance processes ever conducted. The assessment involved independently reviewing every EITI implementing countries’ governance documentation (over 40 countries), as well as a closer look at the MSG governance practices in 15 countries, including in-country visits to Azerbaijan, Cameroon, DR Congo, the Philippines, and Tanzania. The findings paint a portrait of how decisions are made to implement EITI on the ground — and who makes those decisions — and therefore shed light on important questions about the operation and potential impact of EITI. The report will also include helpful tools for MSGs and civil society, such as a protocol for developing good internal governance policies and practices, and a guidance note that identifies good practices for civil society to participation in MSGs.

A number of events are taking place around the globe to discuss the report findings.  The first is being organized by Publish What You Pay International (PWYP) on February 12, 2015 in Washington, DC: an international and multi-stakeholder panel discussion to explore the findings and recommendations of the report. Preliminary statements from Amelia Evans (MSI Integrity) and Eddie Rich (EITI International Secretariat) will open the event. Panelists include:

  • Tess Tabada (MSG Civil Society Representatives in the Philippines, Associate Professor for Development Studies at Visayas State University)
  • Jean-Claude Katende (MSG Civil Society Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Director of ASADHO and PYWP-DRC Coordinator)
  • Paul Bugala (MSG Investors Representative in the United States, Senior Sustainability Analyst at Calvert Investments)
  • Moderator: Ian Gary (Senior Policy Manager of Extractive Industries , Oxfam America)

We encourage as many people as possible to come and contribute to the discussion (and join us for an informal reception afterwards!). To RSVP or find more details, please click here.

If you are also interested in holding a discussion on the report, please contact us and we would be happy to see how we can assist or be involved.

This research project was initiated following a request for research from PWYP. It was conducted independently of PWYP, EITI, and its members.

MSI Integrity Board Adopts Core Advisory Group Recommendations

MSI Integrity is pleased to announce that our Board has adopted the core recommendations from our 2013 global consultation and review process. The Board has released a statement explaining all of the actions that MSI Integrity will take to meaningfully implement the Advisory Group’s core recommendations, which is available on our website

The feedback throughout the process strongly affirmed the value and need for MSI Integrity to evaluate MSIs, facilitate research into the human rights impact of MSIs and to share learning regarding MSI effectiveness. An Advisory Group, made up of experts with backgrounds in business, human rights, government, and academia, reviewed the comments and presented MSI Integrity’s Board with the Advisory Group Recommendations and Considerations Report (“Report”) in October 2013. The report reiterated the support for MSI Integrity’s work and proposed evaluation framework and provided constructive recommendations based on the comments from the consultation process.

We would like to thank everyone who participated in the consultations for their input, and the Advisory Group for their strong support of MSI Integrity and helpful recommendations on how to further develop our work and organization.

To read the full Board announcement, please visit the webpage that summarizes the developments.