Blog: Rethinking MSIs

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September 17, 2020

Rethinking MSIS: MSIs and the Search to Cure the Global Governance Gap

Posted by Judy Gearhart

The phenomenon of multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) has spread rapidly across the globe since the 1990s, with governments and multinational corporations (MNCs) alike promoting them as the new solution to the global governance gap even before they were fully road-tested. Civil society organizations (CSOs) saw them as a way to engage MNCs on the environmental and social problems exacerbated by global trade. MNCs saw a means to inoculate their global reputations from the risks of doing business in places where human rights scandals were greater than at home. Just as MNC staff required vaccines against tropical diseases before departing, the corporation needed to guard against the risk of coming into contact with the plagues of corrupt governments and abusive employers.  

Yet MSIs, at least those focused on the impact of global supply chains, were only set up to address the symptoms, not the cause of these plagues. Most failed to recognize how MNCs were actually fueling corruption and employer abuse by constantly demanding lower prices and faster production times. Thus, the global governance gap grew wider as MNCs diversified their supply chains and effectively played one producer country against the other. When the scandals multiplied and children were found making clothing for Wal-Mart in Honduras or soccer balls for adidas and Nike in Pakistan, global brands sought help from MSIs.

The majority of MSIs are set up as public charities and their goals express the intent to protect a public good. This includes MSIs working with public sector institutions to improve accountability such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), those covering workers’ rights such as Social Accountability International or the Fair Labor Association, and environmentally focused groups such as Rainforest Alliance and Marine Stewardship Council. What nearly all of them have in common is a mission to address a lack of regulation or the weak legal protections of national resources, the environment, or workers. Yet MSIs focused on supply-chain monitoring—as distinct from MSIs engaging the public sector—have been largely silent or disengaged on advocacy for legal reforms and rule of law, often turning a blind eye as member MNCs’ suppliers pursue multi-year legal battles against whistle-blowers or worker organizers

The recently released MSI Integrity report, Not Fit for Purpose, tracks the uptake of MSIs as a reference point for addressing gaps in global governance. MSI Integrity cites how the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on Business and Human Rights extended legitimacy to MSIs by directly referencing them, and the 23 countries that have referred to MSIs in their National Action Plans for implementing the UNGPs. Yet most MSIs are a weak stopgap for failing legal protections. They are also poor exemplars of good governance given the extent to which they have eschewed the key elements of transparency, accountability, and participation. 

Not Fit for Purpose could have distinguished more among distinct MSI approaches, e.g. supply-chain versus public governance-focused MSIs, and those treating symptoms through risk mitigation among suppliers versus Fairtrade’s work to gain market access for small farmers. The report is very helpful though, especially in identifying patterns and quantifying how the majority of MSIs fall short on models of good governance: 

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September 3, 2020

Rethinking MSIS: Be Wary of the Fox(es), A Power Analysis of MSIs

Posted by Rebecca Tweedie JD'21 and Tyler Giannini

The opening blog in this series laid out two different paths MSIs could have taken:

The allure [of MSIs] was (and still is) obvious. If we bring the right players together, they can learn from each other and solve the 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.

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August 27, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Are Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives Mere Lip Service for Local Communities?

Posted by Jaff Bamenjo, Coordinator of RELUFA/Cameroon

Multi-stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs) emerged in the 1990s as frameworks for engagement between governments, the private sector and civil society organizations (CSOs) to address human rights issues in business. There are currently several sector-specific MSIs around the world originally conceived to address problems, ranging from labor abuse to corruption, in agriculture, extractive industries, forests, the environment and beyond. After more than two decades, however, local communities are now questioning whether MSIs have proved relevant and effective in addressing these problems.

As a civil society actor who works closely with communities affected by resource extraction in Cameroon, I have closely followed the implementation of two MSIs: the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) for close to a decade. The KPCS and EITI were both created in the early 2000s and received with a lot of enthusiasm by some CSOs as tools to promote transparency and accountability in the extractive sector and prevent diamond-fueled conflicts, respectively. Though almost twenty years later, it is quite telling how these MSIs are oblivious to the concerns of the local communities that were the intended beneficiaries of their creation.


The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme: Sidelining civil society and not addressing key issues


Formed in 2003 by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the KPCS is a joint government, industry and civil society initiative aimed at eliminating the trade in conflict diamonds. The KPCS was created in response to public outcry at the end of the 1990s over diamond-fueled conflicts in certain African countries. Today, the KPCS takes credit for eliminating about 98.8% of conflict diamonds in the world.

The commonly used definition of conflict diamonds, however, is incredibly narrow: “rough diamonds used by rebel groups or their allies fighting to overthrow a legitimate government.” While it can be argued that, apart from in the Central African Republic, there are no rebel movements currently using diamonds to fund wars to overthrow legitimate governments, human rights violations and massacres have reportedly continued in diamond mines around the world. And in turn, they disproportionately impact local communities near the mines.

Per the narrow definition of conflict diamonds, KPCS pays little attention to such human rights violations. Instead, they classify them as outside their scope. But such neglect by the KPCS to include other forms of abuse committed by the military or private security agents is incomprehensible to those most affected. In the Marange diamond fields of Zimbabwe, some CSOs have reported security agents for private mining companies unleashing dogs on and shooting defenseless local artisanal miners. Yet diamonds sourced from these fields are certified and allowed to enter the international market.

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August 27, 2020

Learning About Business and Human Rights with MSI Integrity


Q&A with Rebecca Tweedie JD’21


Last month, the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity (MSI Integrity) reflected on 10 years of trying to make the world better for workers and rights-holders in the business world in a new report, “Not Fit-for-Purpose.” MSI Integrity, an organization Amelia Evans LLM’12 and Human Rights Program and International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director Tyler Giannini co-founded in 2013, has spent the last decade dedicated to understanding the human rights impact and value of voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). MSIs are collaborations between businesses, civil society, and other stakeholders that were originally piloted to give rights-holders a seat at the table with corporations. The new report explains in detail how, after years of trial and error, MSIs have failed to deliver on their promise and ensure best practices in the business and human rights landscape. The organization has promised a new way forward for their organization: exploring a world beyond corporations.

Over the years, International Human Rights Clinic students and staff have contributed dozens of hours of research and writing to projects with MSI Integrity. Rebecca Tweedie JD’21 worked closely with Giannini and Evans this year on the report and spent January Term 2020 interning with MSI Integrity. We recently spoke with her to learn more about what she learned on the project and her interest in human rights.


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August 20, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Where is the debate about democracy and multi-stakeholder governance?

Posted by Harris Gleckman

Multi-stakeholder standard-setting organizations, or multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs), are part of a wider political push to introduce multi-stakeholderism as a legitimate component in global governance. However, they are not sufficiently democratic or accountable to external constituencies to warrant their status or standing as global governance tools.

Understanding the different types of MSIs: standard-setting, policy-setting and project-delivery 


There are actually two distinct forms of MSI. One sub-class focuses primarily on enhancing social, environmental, and community goals through setting global market standards, and secondarily, on balancing these concerns with its management of conflicts between firms and sectors in a given “socially responsible” global market. The other sub-class of MSI reverses these priorities. In the case of internet governance, for example, the primary focus of the standard-setting activity is managing inter-corporate and inter-sub-sector battles, while the secondary focus is responding to calls for social access, enhanced privacy, and discounted pricing for marginal communities.  

Beyond standard-setting MSIs, there are two other forms of multi-stakeholder global governance arrangements: (1) multi-stakeholder bodies that develop global policy directions; and (2) multi-stakeholder consortia which implement specific geographically and time-limited projects. 

On the policy front, for example, one can look at the World Economic Forum with its effort to set global policy via their Global Future Councils, or their “offer” to take leadership of work areas traditionally occupied by the United Nations like food security and biodiversity, and their new strategic partnership agreement with the Office of the UN Secretary-General. These policy-oriented multi-stakeholder arrangements convene, usually under the leadership of a corporate body, a combination of market-oriented government figures, friendly civil society organizations, academic specialists, and corporate executives eager to develop a public policy consensus within a global market system. 

Public private partnerships are an example of project-delivery multi-stakeholderism. They bring together separate categories of actors but, rather than setting standards, they seek to deliver a specific public good or service while effectively gaining a degree of governance over a specific population. 

These three types of multi-stakeholder arrangements—standard-setting, policy-setting, and project-delivery—reflect the diversity of forms of multi-stakeholderism in practice and in theory. They represent a drive to shift global governance away from multilateralism and one-country-one-vote toward a multi-stakeholder form of global governance. 

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July 23, 2020

Rethinking MSIs: Binding Brands to Create Change

Posted by Christie Miedema, Campaign and Outreach Coordinator, Clean Clothes Campaign

When the COVID19 pandemic hit, garment brands and retailers around the world cancelled their orders. What was to them a logical risk and cost reducing measure, meant destitution for millions of garment workers around the world. Public outcry over corporate behavior led a range of brands to quickly mend their ways. However, the question remains why public outcry was even needed. Brands have spent years promoting programs they claim guarantee protection for their workers. So why couldn’t they rely on those?

In the 1970s and 1980s garment brands started to outsource production abroad. This was a step that seemed to have only advantages: lower prices, lax labor regulation, less risk. Reduced to a mere client of garment factories elsewhere in the world, garment brands and retailers could wash their hands of any responsibility for workers – or so they thought.

Enter the rules, but set and monitored by whom?


Following a series of exposés in the 1990s documenting horrific conditions in sweatshops, brands took action to curate codes of conduct and imposed them on supplier factories. This progressed to the emergence of a social auditing industry to oversee suppliers’ compliance, as well as social compliance initiatives to synchronize and oversee these codes, often in the form of voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). This all prompts the question: given the tools brands have created to regulate working conditions in the garment industry, why are workers being left to suffer during the pandemic?

The answer lies within the mechanism of these voluntary MSIs. Behind the façade of battling exploitation, MSIs have become little more than a fig leaf for fashion; a tool enabling brands to dictate the rules, while shielding the industry against responsibility and criticism, rather than protecting the workers.

MSIs, which come in different shades of brand-friendliness and ambition, have certainly played a role in normalizing ideas of supply chain responsibility, as well as facilitating discussions between brands, unions, NGOs and other stakeholders. However, as a recent report on supply chain transparency published by the Transparency Pledge Coalition has shown, many MSIs are no longer taking the lead in moving the more unwilling brands towards stronger politics, but are instead surpassed left and right by members who voluntarily go beyond what the MSIs prescribe. Only one MSI was willing to take the challenge of the Transparency Pledge coalition to actually take the lead and make transparency a membership requirement. Another recent report shows that a “soft measure” such as due diligence reporting, remains wanting. And although MSIs’ complaint mechanisms still remain useful avenues for workers and labor rights activists to appeal to if a member brand is unresponsive to resolve a case of labor rights violations, which continues to be tried again and again, the same limitations apply: the outcome is not binding.

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