How Can We Work with Power and Conflict in Multi-Stakeholder Situations?

A new UNDP Co-Inquiry Report

November 7, 2023
© Mónica Suárez Galindo / UNDP Peru

Food and agricultural commodity systems are complex, with many forces at work. The CEO of Forum for the Future, Sally Uren, describes the effect of these forces:

“The closer you get to transforming a system, the more strongly it fights back”

In efforts to transform food and agricultural commodity systems, power differentials are a significant force, often acting against change. Power differentials —between producing and consuming countries, between different parts of the value chain, and between different levels of government within countries— are often identified as a barrier to achieving the deep collaboration that is necessary for lasting transformation.

UNDP’s Food and Agricultural Commodities team convened a Co-Inquiry Group of sustainability practitioners to try to cut through this problem. A range of experts from UN agencies, universities, donors, NGOs and governments met to tackle the question:

How can we work more effectively with power and conflict in multi-stakeholder processes for changing food and agriculture systems?

Three main sets of actions emerged from the discussion: 

  • we need to create ‘safe spaces’ in which trust can be built; 
  • we need to use mechanisms such as skilled facilitation, bringing forward different voices, and shuttle diplomacy to shift power dynamics; and 
  • thirdly we need to upskill people to strengthen their capacity to work with power and conflict.

One of the Co-Inquiry members, Devi Dine Chandra from Swiss funding agency SECO in Indonesia said:

“I learned through this process that there is no fixed formula for success. Always looking for the right answers may only limit the possibility of improvement. Collaborative work can be so powerful when it recognises its blind spots and is able to work with different lenses to challenge assumptions.”

Another group member, Sophia Robele of UNDP commented:

 “Power and conflict are on the mind of a lot of practitioners, many of whom have common experiences and the drive to address these issues, but are not often given the space to speak to them directly, and to find inspiration and mutual support via peers to change the status quo.

The benefit of a co-inquiry process like this is not only the chance to deepen understanding and brainstorm pathways to action, but also in the Co-Inquiry itself to model ways of being and thinking together that can be a test run for the futures we are trying to create. I was reminded of the value of simplicity – leveraging the power of questions and attention, making the invisible (power and conflict) more visible by drawing attention to it in consistent ways with our teams and partners.”

Co-Inquiry facilitator Nicolas Petit of UNDP said:

“It’s a privilege to work with such a diverse group of thinkers focussing on these unspoken blind spots that can hold multistakeholder collaboration back. Lots of new ideas are emerging and I’m struck by the power of building trust; the importance of effective facilitation; and having the courage to ask the right – sometimes uncomfortable – questions. These three aspects should be central to any multistakeholder activity.”

The Co-Inquiry group will meet again to explore other aspects of multistakeholder working, identifying blind spots and breaking down barriers. A full report of its conclusions on Power and Conflict is available here.