Mediation and Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue: A Win-Win Relationship

By Dr. Leopold v. Carlowitz, MSP Institute Associate, October 2021

What do mediation and multi-stakeholder dialogues have in common? Where are the differences and where do they complement each other?

Both are established methods of peaceful dispute resolution. In the case of mediation, this is clear. Mediation is a structured but flexible method of conflict resolution in which the mediator helps the conflicting parties to find solutions to a problem that are acceptable to them. With multi-stakeholder dialogues, it is less clear. This is because the focus here is on cooperation between the various interest groups in multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) to promote the sustainable development goals.

Yet, members of an MSP often hold very different positions, indicating hard clashes of interests. Sustainable development requires a compromise between economy and ecology, or between profit-making and human rights protection. The different stakeholders, e.g. civil society organizations and companies, are often at the other end of the political spectrum and work against each other.

Win-Win Situation as Objective

As in mediation, cooperation within the framework of an MSP turns conflict opponents into conflict partners. The focus is on creating a win-win situation for all parties involved. In MSPs to promote sustainable development, this is done through constructive cooperation between the various stakeholders. The parties contribute their respective strengths and their weaknesses are taken into account. Ideally, the parties thus create a “more” and contribute to the realization of the Agenda 2030. In mediation, too, the conflicting parties strive to enlarge the pie and seek mutually beneficial solutions, in line with the principles of the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Commonalities and Differences

There are many commonalities between the two methods. These include the neutrality and impartiality of the mediator or facilitator respectively. Most of the other principles of mediation, especially the voluntary nature of participation and the parties’ own responsibility for conflict resolution and cooperation, also apply to both mediation and MSPs. The same principles of dialogue are applied in both processes: letting each other talk, mutual respect and appreciation are part of it.

Due to the larger number of participants, however, multi-stakeholder dialogues are mostly much more formalized and institutionalized than mediations. At the beginning of its work, an MSP usually adopts a kind of charter containing specific rules on membership, objectives, speaking and voting rights, finances, etc. Usually, the various stakeholders are assigned to sector groups or pillars (e.g., business or civil society). There, the topics are first to be discussed internally and certain positions are to be worked out before they are subsequently introduced in a coordinated manner to the plenary discussion and/or steering body of the MSP. In this way, an efficient dialogue can be ensured despite a larger membership.

It is true that mediation, especially multiparty mediation, involves a “working alliance” by which the parties agree on the working issue(s) to be addressed and a common objective. Nevertheless, this form-free alliance is not comparable to a proper statute or dialogue agreement for an MSP.

Institutionalized dialogue or cooperation within the framework of an MSP usually involves setting up a secretariat and providing it with financial resources. This organizes the dialogue process and provides technical and logistical support. The secretariat can also be entrusted with process moderation. In contrast to classical mediation, it is conceivable for an MSP that the secretariat or the moderator plays a stronger role with regard to the progress of the process. In principle, the mediator is required to keep his or her own technical expertise to a minimum in the mediation process and to emphasize the parties’ own responsibility for finding a solution. In the case of an MSP, however, it is possible that the secretariat or the moderator will take a more active role. With regard to the multi-stakeholder dialogue on the expansion of Frankfurt Airport, for example, it was found that the moderator/mediator also had to promote agreement between the parties with his or her own proposals for solutions and act as a driver of the dialogue.

Special Case: Environmental Mediation

A special case of mediation is environmental mediation or conflict management in the public sector. In contrast to mediation between two disputing parties in the private sector, several parties are involved here. These are often groups or organizations whose representatives are represented in the mediation with different powers. The composition and number of parties to the conflict can often change in the course of a longer mediation process.

This form of mediation comes relatively close to a multi-stakeholder dialogue. Here, too, a large number of different interests have to be reconciled. There are often power and resource imbalances between the individual actors. In view of the generally larger group of participants and the formalization within the framework of an MSP, dealing with asymmetrical power relations plays a greater role in multi-stakeholder dialog than in mediation. It is true that the mediator also has to make sure that the conflict parties are similarly heard and “help” those who have difficulties to articulate themselves. But the balancing of power in the context of an MSP often also has a structural component. This is evident, for example, in the provision of financial support to civil society organizations to enable their participation in the dialogue in the first place. Structural adjustment may also be reflected in the different tasks and obligations of the various groups of actors within the framework of the pillar constitution of the MSP.

Dispute Resolution and Cooperation

The main difference between (environmental) mediation and multi-stakeholder dialogue in the MSP context is that mediation focuses on dispute resolution, whereas an MSP is primarily about working together to achieve the sustainable development goals. In most cases, an MSP also has an action component in addition to its dialogue component, through which specific projects are promoted or joint activities are carried out. In this respect, the effort, scope and duration of an MSP are usually much more substantial than those of a mediation. 

Mediations always have a specific bone of contention over which the parties are arguing and which is to be resolved. Of course, there is normally also a specific reason for setting up an MSP. However, this is usually a particular event, such as the occurrence of a disaster or a major loss event, which forces joint action.

Interplay of Methods

There are many points of overlap between the two approaches. This is because behind the reason for mediation there is usually a much larger problem that needs to be worked out and solved in the process of conflict management. In the case of environmental mediation or mediation in the public sphere, it is conceivable that the establishment of an MSP or a regular multi-stakeholder dialogue is one possible solution for solving the dispute. For example, if a mediation is about an aggressive media campaign by a non-governmental organization against a particular industry, it is likely that fundamental issues of global justice, world trade, or (un)responsible economic practices lie behind it. A similar example are conflicts in which activists damage colonial monuments, but which actually point to unprocessed colonial history and continuous North-South exploitation. In such cases, the problem could be first dealt with through mediation, which can then lead to the establishment of an MSP. A consolidated multi-stakeholder dialogue paired with joint project activities can be an expedient approach for dealing with the problems that lie behind the ostensible object of conflict.

Staging from a smaller mediation in the classical sense to a more comprehensive, formalized MSP is an interesting combination of related conflict management methods. By moving downstream to a multi-stakeholder dialogue, it may be easier to find an outcome in a complex (environmental) mediation. Shifting the resolution of the basic problem to a formalized and resourced multi-stakeholder process can be understood as a partial agreement between the parties. The mediators’ willingness to cooperate in the context of an MSP is a clear sign that conflict adversaries have become conflict partners.

Conversely, a positive outcome of an upstream mediation means that important conceptual groundwork has been done for a follow-up MSP. Founding and developing an MSP requires a prior determination of its objectives and the group of participants. Usually, a small group of founding partners comes together to do important conceptual groundwork in informal discussions. The outcome of the mediation could serve as a good starting point for further work within a more formalized multi-stakeholder process. The next step would be for the conflict partners to consider which additional partners to bring on board to meet the goal. Usually, this is done by conducting a stakeholder mapping and then contacting the identified partners.

Practice also shows that situations can arise within MSPs in which the original agreement or dialogue arrangement no longer holds and the members of the partnership no longer work together constructively. Particularly when issues are complex and technically difficult and there are many participants, interpersonal and interorganizational conflicts can arise. Not all participants need actually have a serious interest in a mutually satisfactory resolution of the conflict, even if they started out on this premise. Factual conflicts can pair with power struggles between and within organizations or groups. Original conflicts break out again or new lines of conflict emerge. In such cases, a mediation process between (some of) the members of an MSP can be very helpful and ensure that multi-stakeholder dialogue and joint project implementation can continue in a beneficial way.

Mediation and multi-stakeholder dialogue are related and complementary methods of conflict management. They aim at win-win situations between the conflict parties or dialogue partners. As shown here, win-win situations are possible not only between the participants, but also between the methods themselves. The approaches should be increasingly connected with each other or considered in each case.

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