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

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.

CSOs have been consistent over the past years in urging the Kimberley Process to extend the scope of the definition of conflict diamonds to include human rights abuses, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, etc. But this has never been accepted by its participating governments, even though there are recurrent reform cycles within the KPCS during which such important decisions can be made. This refusal of governments to reform undermines the relevance of stakeholders in the claimed “tripartite” foundation of the KPCS. Its other two pillars, civil society and industry, are sidelined, since decisions are made only through consensus by participating governments. CSOs and industry are simply observers.

The international gatherings of several government, industry and civil society representatives for the KPCS resemble an elitist club of government friends, engaging in diplomatic games that carefully avoid important reforms to address the relevant concerns of diamond-mining communities. The current set-up and functioning of the KPCS makes change very unlikely because critical voices from civil society and diamond-mining communities are not included in decision-making.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative: Sidelining local communities

The EITI seeks to promote transparency and accountability in the oil, gas and mining sector through company disclosure of their payments to governments and government disclosure of the revenue generated from the exploitation of extractive resources. A multi-stakeholder group oversees the implementation of its global standards. The EITI so far has the merit of introducing discussions about oil, gas and mining revenues in the public domain in most African countries where revenue from extractive resources were earlier treated as a state secret. CSOs have equally acquired more knowledge in conducting advocacy and participating in discussions around the extractive industry value chain.

However, one handicap of the EITI in many countries is the fact that its implementation is centralized in the national capital. Most of the participating stakeholders are based in the capital city, sidelining local communities where the exploitation of the extractives resources occur and whose lives are directly impacted. Many communities directly impacted by resource extraction are not even aware of the existence of the EITI, and hence, its inclusiveness and consideration of community needs should be questioned. In Cameroon, for instance, the Ndian Division generates almost 99% of oil revenues in the country. But apart from the local Mayor of its chief town being invited to participate in EITI meetings in the capital, the population of this area has little knowledge of the EITI and its role.

Although the merits of the EITI in promoting oil revenue disclosure in Cameroon should be acknowledged, there is no evidence to suggest that EITI has meaningfully benefited local communities and their social and economic development. Instead, in civil society circles it is understood that many countries adhere to the EITI merely for image-cleansing; they participate in an international transparency initiative without necessarily making it a tool to promote transparency at the local level and for the general good.

Moving beyond lip service

Both the KPCS and EITI are both operating and perceived as elite actors with too little anchorage in local communities affected by resource extraction—despite the fact that these communities are their intended beneficiaries. It is therefore clear that these multi-stakeholder initiatives are mostly relevant as discussion platforms, paying mere lip service to local communities.

Government and industry are seen as allies within these initiatives while CSOs struggle to raise the legitimate concerns of the local communities. Unfortunately, the unequal power relations wielded by governments and industry make reforms within these MSIs very unlikely. Instead, too much time and energy are spent navigating procedural issues that have little impact.

Although MSIs cannot be counted upon to protect community interests, there is still a need to rethink and render them more inclusive of local communities since they provide a platform for these communities to obtain useful information for the defense of their rights.

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