A number of multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) and commodity roundtables have been created since the 1990s to respond to the growing criticism of agriculture’s environmental and social impacts. Driven by private and global-scale actors, these initiatives are setting global standards for sustainable agricultural practices. They claim to follow the new standard-making virtues of inclusiveness and consensus and base their legitimacy on their claim of balanced representation of, and participation by, all categories of stakeholders. This principle of representing a wide range of interests with a balance of power is at the heart of a new type of action that forms part of a broader political liberal model for building coalitions of interest groups. The intention of this symposium is to assess the nature of processes and outcomes of this model and in particular the forms of inclusion and exclusion they generate. In this introduction, we highlight differences in theoretical approaches to analyzing MSIs and to the manifestation of power through them. We distinguish between more traditional political-economy approaches and approaches concerned with ideational and normative power such as convention theory. We discuss some of the main paradoxes of MSIs related to their willingness to be 'inclusive' and at the same time their exclusionary or 'closure' effects, due to interactions with existing political economic contexts and embedded power inequalities and due to more subtle manifestations of power linked to the favouring of some forms of knowledge and participation over others.
Agriculture and Human Values, 2014, Vol 31, Issue 3, p. 409-423