How can civil society organisations – in the North and the South – improve their positions in negotiations with the business world, be it in alliances, dialogue or roundtables? In a practical guidebook, SOMO researcher Mariëtte van Huijstee describes a strategic action perspective for organisations who are involved in Multi Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs).

The FSC for sustainable forestry practices, the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS) and the Fair Wear Foundation are all examples of MSIs. In a new guidebook, to be released in February, researcher Mariëtte van Huijstee applies a broad definition of MSI as an interactive process between companies, civil society organisations and possibly other stakeholders within an industrial sector, with the aim to make production and consumption more sustainable.

‘The guidebook has been written in response to a need we have identified,’ explains Mariëtte van Huijstee. ‘Civil society organisations often jump onto the riding train of an MSI without having developed a clear strategy. As a result, this has to be formulated on the fly, with obvious drawbacks. And some civil society organisations wrestle with establishing what their strategy should be towards the corporate world. An MSI may also not always be the most effective way to change a sector. It is not an end in itself.’

For the guidebook, she mostly looked at experiences of Dutch civil society organisations (CSOs). She distinguishes various expectations regarding MSIs and discusses the challenges and dilemmas at four different levels: the representative who is participating in the initiative, the participating organisation, the civil society as a whole and the initiative itself.

Some of the recommendations for CSOs are that they make their expectations of the MSI explicit in advance, that they are conscious of the investment that will be required, and that they develop an exit strategy. These may seem obvious, and Van Huijstee acknowledges that herself, but: ‘Exit strategies all too often are just not present!’.

Often, many CSOs are active in the same subject area. Participation of an organisation in an MSI can frustrate the efforts of other CSOs. When CSOs coordinate their strategies they can be far more effective. Within the MSI itself various elements are at play such as the scope (risk: the more companies are at the table, the less ambitious the goals become), governance (are all stakeholders represented in the board?) and transparency.

The guidebook, that also includes a checklist for CSOs and a list of other relevant sources, is written for civil society organisations in the North and the South. Mariëtte van Huijstee: ‘Often, only two or three people within a CSO will have participated in an MSI. With this guidebook our aim was is to consolidate those experiences and share them more widely.’

If you would like more information about this guidebook, or would like to receive your own copy, please send an e-mail to: info [at]