December 16, 2015

Seven principles for effective and healthy multi-stakeholder partnerships

Herman Brouwer, Wageningen UR, Centre for Development Innovation Minu Hemmati, CatalySD Jim Woodhill

Today, there is no policy maker, business representative, or civil society director who will come to a sustainability conference without calling for more stakeholder engagement.

There is also growing consensus among academics that any solution towards sustainable development requires partnerships. Likewise, landscape academics point out that landscape approaches are likely to be more effective, when they promote long-term collaboration and decision-making between stakeholders sharing the same landscape. Multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) seem to have become everyone’s favourite strategy to deal with the challenge of sustainable development.

But does such stakeholder engagement really work?

And is there too much naivety about tackling complex and conflict ridden issues through cooperative partnership strategies? Based on over a decade’s experience and engagement in numerous stakeholder processes in many parts of the world, our recent “MSP guide” tackles this very question.

We are converts to the argument that progress on sustainability issues will largely depend on more effective collaboration between different interest groups. However, in our view, such processes can only be effective if they are developed around a deep appreciation of issues around power and conflict, systemic change and the cognitive processes of how people interact and learn.

We use the term MSPs as an overarching concept highlighting the idea that different groups can share a common problem or aspiration, while nonetheless having different interests or ‘stakes’. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are a form of governance. In other words, MSP is a mechanism in which groups of people can make decisions and take action for the common good, be it at local, national or international scale.


A multi-stakeholder partnership brings together diverse groups of people to make decisions and take action for the common good at local, national or international scale.

The art form of forming multi-stakeholder partnerships

If calling for partnerships has become a no-brainer, does this then imply that anyone can ‘do’ partnerships? We argue that designing and facilitating MSPs is an art, a craft and a science.

Given the amount of partnerships that fail prematurely or never reach the stage of delivering results, we should assume that betting on a partnership-based strategy is not for the faint-hearted. Much can go wrong, and usually will indeed go wrong. From our experience in brokering, designing and facilitating MSPs, and our interaction with academics and practitioners, we have learned there are no success formulas. However, we have identified seven principles that healthy and effective partnerships generally follow:

Principle 1: Embrace systemic change. The way MSPs are often designed reveals an assumption that change is plannable. However, human and natural systems are complex – which means that change is dynamic and often unpredictable. This uncertainty is a basic reality that you need to take into account when engaging in MSPs. Intervening in complex systems requires being agile to respond to emerging opportunities, being committed to continuous monitoring, and to expect and learn from failure.

Principle 2: Transform institutions. When we talk about social, economic, and political change, we are really talking about changing the underlying institutions or traditions. By ‘institutions’ we mean the ‘rules of the game’, the formal and informal norms and values that shape how people think and behave. Deeply held values, established traditions, and formal frameworks can be real barriers to change, but they can also be supportive and help you to achieve your aims. MSPs need to help stakeholders look critically at the institutions – their own and those of others – that affect their work.

Principle 3: Work with power. Power isn’t just a negative force as we sometimes think; it can also be used to bring about positive change. When you try to change something, you may find that power differences and power abuse stand in the way. Yet power can, and must, be used to help bring about change. Hence, MSPs need to include, or reach out to powerful stakeholders to shift power structures in the right directions. Equally, empowering particular stakeholder groups – helping them get into a position where they can use power constructively – can be key to developing equitable multi-stakeholder change processes.

Principle 4: Deal with conflict. Conflict is an inevitable and normal part of any multi-stakeholder partnership. We talk about conflict when parties or individuals have genuinely different interests and struggle over them, rather than consulting or negotiating between them. Conflict can also be necessary and desirable for change to occur. Thus understanding, surfacing, and dealing with conflict is an essential step in developing effective MSPs.

Principle 5: Communicate effectively. Underlying any effective MSP is the capacity for people to communicate with each other in an open, respectful, honest, empathetic and critical way. This requires the capacities of being able to listen to others and of clearly articulating your own perspectives and ideas. Process designers need to ensure that space is created to explore worldviews that underlie positions of stakeholders, and recognize the emotions of people involved in dialogue.

Principle 6: Promote collaborative leadership. Leadership patterns and capacities can have a profound influence on the direction of MSPs. To be successful, MSPs need to have a strong collaborative leadership pattern as they are all about enabling people to work together, sharing responsibility, and becoming empowered to tackle difficult issues. This means that a range of players should take on various leadership roles. We use the term ‘collaborative leadership’ to refer both to sharing leadership responsibilities and to the particular styles of leadership that are likely to be most effective. Practicing collaborative leadership in MSPs is even more important, because approaches that work in a hierarchical setting where leaders have formal authority, probably won’t work in this more collaborative environment.

Principle 7: Foster participatory learning. MSPs need to be spaces where learning can flourish -otherwise they are missing the point. Therefore, MSPs are to include mechanisms that enable different stakeholders to learn together from their collective experience. Events and activities are needed throughout the life-cycle of an MSP to bring stakeholders together to talk, share, analyse, make decisions, and reflect on what they are doing together. The quality of these learning events can make the difference between a successful and a failed MSP. Using participatory learning and monitoring methods will foster creative, open, emotionally engaging and analytically sound interaction between stakeholders.

Good and effective MSP processes don’t just happen – they need to be designed and facilitated. Applying these seven principles can help prevent MSPs from becoming endless talk shops, toothless animals, ruthless battle zones, or exercises in reinventing the wheel. Being a facilitator does require a set of analytical, creative, and emotional competencies.

Read More

Seven principles for effective and healthy multi-stakeholder partnerships

Read examples of how multi-stakeholder partnerships coordinate and motivate action:

Transboundary landscape management in the Kailash Sacred Landscape

Balancing multiple  SDG-related outcomes of riparian buffer zones in the Volta Basin

Power in numbers, Trifinio involves diverse stakeholder for climate-smart planning

Dr. Minu Hemmati is an associate with CatalySD Sustainability, Communications, an independent advisor on sustainable development, participatory decision-making and multi-stakeholder processes ( and a board member of EcoAgriculture Partners. Herman Brouwer is a Senior Advisor in Multi-stakeholder Processes in Food Security with Wageningen UR, Center for Development Innovation.  Jim Woodhill, the former Director of the Wageningen UR, CDI, has served as a Sector Specialist for Food Security and Rural Development at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade until November 2015. Together with Simone van Vugt and Karèn Verhoosel, they are the authors of the book The MSP Guide, published by the Wageningen UR, CDI the  in October 2015.

In an upcoming blog, the authors will discuss the qualities that make exceptional facilitators of multi-stakeholder processes.

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Learn more about how multi-stakeholder partnerships can cultivate positive, healthy collaboration between actors in diverse sectors here.

No comments

  • Tim Gieseke
    December 16, 2015 at 3:38pm

    I appreciate your candid take and questions about sustainability stakeholders. I have struggled with the concepts of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary projects of the landscape and have migrated toward a more holistic or shared governance approach. I will share a very recent blog on the topic: Cracking the Governance Code –