In this Viewpoint, Baobab associate Alan Fowler explores the emerging role of INGOs as instigators of multi-stakeholder initiatives.

CONNECTING THE PLAYERS: The emerging role of INGOs as instigators of multi-stakeholder initiatives

I am struck by how many post-2015 debates and sustainable development goals are full of references to the need for more and better collective action. Common labels for these increasingly complex collaborations are multi-sector and multi-stakeholder initiatives or partnerships and strategic alliances. But, less talked about are the players and processes through which collaborations are brought about and to fruition. In this Baobab contribution, I look at circumstances when INGOs have a strategic role to play in becoming “interlocutors” (i.e., the instigators and connectors of multiple stakeholders) and what they need to consider in taking on the challenges involved.

According to a recent report entitled Ahead of the Curve (featured in the Global Trends section of the Baobab Knowledge Hub), the future impact of INGOs can be enhanced if they consciously orchestrate multi-sector actions which enhance a country’s capacity to coordinate collaboration. Wide ranging interviews and case examples, such as Technoserve, Habitat for Humanity and African Health Markets for Equity Collaboration, lead to a set of recommendations intended to strengthen INGOs cross-sector relational capabilities. The logic is inviting, but important issues remain, in part because non-aid examples have not been brought into view. Doing so, points towards the arrival of a new relation-building player: an interlocutor. This role has various guises and names: a collaborative intermediary organisation (CIO), a backbone organisation, a meshworks, an Industry Facilitator and more. An interlocutor combines and optimizes a mix of relation-building attributes which can be seen elsewhere, for example in facilitators, brokers, catalysts or intermediaries. Looking at the new arrivals, I see seven key attributes needed to be a successful interlocutor:

  1.  RESPECTING VOLUNTARISM: Coerced collaboration across multiple types of actors is seldom effective.
  2. LEADERSHIP STYLE: Interlocutors need to bring a ‘servant’ quality of leadership that exerts influence without formal authority, while treating conflict between parties as a given that needs to be made productive. A harmony model of change is not relied on. From the outset, differences in interests are assumed to be in play.
  3. TRUSTWORTHINESS: An ability to gain the trust of stakeholders on the one hand while engendering trust between them on the other.
  4. SYSTEMATIC VIEW: Awareness and analysis of the ‘problem system’ they are involved with and the need for scale to make change meaningful and not piecemeal.
  5. POWER IS ON THE TABLE: Perhaps more critical is sensitivity to the distribution of power and authority that will make or break partnership efforts, allied to realistic strategies which constructively deal with this political fact of life.
  6. MULTIPLE LANGUAGES: Able to understand, translate and communicate across partners with their different jargons and vocabulary which may involve limited literacy and access to modern communication technologies.
  7. ADEQUATE SOVEREIGNTY: Finally, governance of the set up must provide sufficient autonomy in the way that decisions are taken and implemented.

The basics of interlocution are to Assemble the players, Guide collaborative processes and help Embed change in society, i.e., AGEing. Obviously, the relative weights of each attribute change as the process unfolds. For example, trust and confidence are built when stakeholders’ words are seen to match their deeds, becoming less of an issue later on.

But is this role worth it as a strategic choice? INGOs considering making multi-stakeholder processes a future strategic focus face four critical issues:

WHAT MAKES YOU CREDIBLE AS AN INTERLOCUTOR? A credible interlocutor is one with an established reputation for integrity, fairness, inclusiveness and competence/proven experience with the issue at hand. Fairness does not mean neutrality. Interlocutors have a transparent agenda but an attitude of openness to other points of view about reaching a mutual goal, such as improved nutrition or debating causes of and remedies for gender based violence. It is the ‘participatory’ track record, principles and credentials of NGOs that invite confidence in their ability to bring parties together in constructive ways. The wide range of multi-stakeholder initiatives where the World Wildlife Fund acts as an interlocutor – for example in environmental conservation – relies on reputational respect built up from knowledge of the field.

WHEN DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO TAKE ON THIS ROLE? In terms of when does it make sense, a likely condition for an NGO to take up an interlocutor role is one where weaker groups would be otherwise excluded from processes that will negatively impact their lives and livelihoods. Many years ago, the Fair Trade movement started as an interlocutor between primary, poor small-holder producers and rich consumers. This effort helped spawn ISEAL, whose members establish sustainability standards and certify business value chains and the fairness of their labour practices. In this sense, they act as interlocutors between producers, businesses and consumers who are concerned about the ecological footprint of the commodities they buy.

WHERE DO YOU FIND THE RELATIONSHIP BUILDING CAPABILITIES? Looking at organisational competencies, Mariette van Huijstee has produced a very useful guide to what competencies civil society organisations needs to build up if they wish to be in a multi-stakeholder initiative. Some correspond to the seven attributes noted above. Examples of the Fair Wear Foundation, the Ethical Trading Initiative and others illustrate the organisational demands of MSIs involving businesses. The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) is an example of a far broader and more multi-focused form of MSIs, involving a range of ICSOs with comprehensive and narrow development approaches, such as Save the Children and Care. But interlocution demands more than competent MSI participation.

A common challenge to cope with is that interlocution processes are seldom susceptible to being projectised and pre-determined. The group dynamics involved can perhaps be anticipated, but not predicted. The leadership task therefore demands, above all, staff with negotiation rather than project management skills, imbued with sensitivity to the legitimate conflicts of interest in the room. Capacity development associated with mediation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) may help to bring about the competencies required. Further, unlike a place as participant, an interlocution danger is the NGO putting itself forward as a technical expert. This factor may be needed in order to fully understand the issues involved and the languages and jargon being used, but it can create confusion about what role is being played when. Better, perhaps, to separate expertise as a participant from interlocutor as process guide.

HOW IS THIS ROLE FINANCED? Finally, interlocution faces the financing issue of pipers and tunes. The positioning of an interlocutor can be perceived as biased if stakeholders are not convinced that the way the role is financed is immune from manipulation. Which is one reason why self-financed foundations, like Rockefeller’s Bellagio set up, are often found as ‘convening’ interlocutors with a pro-active self-determined agenda. The resourcing issue is critical because, by being implicated and present in the process and co-responsible for the living end result, an interlocutor differs from a contracted broker, facilitator and similar professional relational trades. This is where transparency, the quality of funding and the governance of collaboration become key pre-conditions for success.


Looking post-2015, there are many reasons why NGOs are well positioned to not just join in multi-stakeholder partnerships as invitees, but to make a strategic choice to be an instigator of collective action cutting across all walks of life that would otherwise not occur because today’s power and politics prevent them from happening. The necessity will be out there, but pros and cons need to be carefully weigh

Alan Fowler

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