Effective Collaborative Action


The world faces a remarkable opportunity to transform food and land use systems over the next ten years in a way that can reap massive societal and agroecological dividends. However, among the common action agendas and prevailing discourse on what is needed for systemic change to happen in the sector, barriers are often overlooked:

Solutions and improvements in the functioning of food and agricultural production and consumption are often expected to derive from technical, financial or technological innovations. Yet individual, institutional and societal innovations and best practices are essential for change.

The quality of current multi-stakeholder collaboration in the sector is inadequate to meet the scale and nature of this challenge.  Traditional FACS governance mechanisms, including inter-institutional and multi-stakeholder components, are often characterized by power and information asymmetries. Fostering deeper spaces for collaboration and reflection and explicit inclusion of marginalized groups requires patience, time, and sustained commitment and support from participants, facilitators and sponsors.

Understanding and managing the interdependencies globally in this sector requires more collaborative mindsets and involves putting in place innovative governance arrangements. We need new systems thinking leadership – with new approaches, practices, tools, incentives, metrics and ways of working that can navigate and measure complexity and collaboratively deliver future food and agricultural commodity systems that are fit for purpose, particularly at the national and sub-national levels. Many are working on systemic change tools and methodologies but very little of this expertise is benefiting country-based collaborative networks.

This guide is designed to fill these gaps and meet the needs of our times.

Food and agricultural commodity systems need to be radically transformed to become sustainable, in ways that address climate change risks, preserve biodiversity, and improve livelihoods. They can no longer be viewed through a unidimensional lens but must be addressed in an integrated manner. Transformation must happen at the system, organizational and individual levels.

Making our food systems more sustainable is among the most powerful ways to change course and make progress towards all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Rebuilding the food systems of the world will contribute to a green recovery and “build forward better” from COVID-19. Transforming FACS is critical to achieve UNDP’s Strategic Plan and Vision. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has worked for decades on Food & Agricultural Commodity Systems (FACS), supporting transformation through UNDP’s signature solutions from climate to biodiversity to inclusive growth.  In July 2021 UNDP has a $1.2 billion portfolio of technical assistance for FACS.

To support all this work on technical solutions this Guide provides practical ways for how to change food systems through deep collaboration.

We call this approach Effective Collaborative Action.

Risks of Maintaining the Status Quo
What happens when we rely on predictive project design and implementation:
We assume that the simple act of creating multi-stakeholder platforms means that we’re being inclusive.
We assume that dialogue will lead to common understanding and conflict transformation.
We assume linear correlations, such as between training and adoption of standards by farmers.
We assume that the available budget is sufficient to achieve results.
Government officials may resist or be unwilling to support project objectives, or one ministry supports and a more powerful one does not.
Companies might be cautious about committing to project objectives.

This methodology aims to make Effective Collaborative Action understandable and practical. So we’ll start with some definitions

What do we mean by “Changing Systems”?

In our minds, changing systems is about addressing root causes rather than symptoms, by altering, shifting and transforming relationships, structures, customs, mindsets, power dynamics and rules. We do this by collaborating across a diverse set of actors with the intent of sustainably improving societal issues on a local, national and global level.

Over the past decade, we have continually refined this approach through the UNDP Green Commodity Programme’s national commodity platforms and dialogues. This upgraded version of the methodology incorporates our learnings and expands how it can be used.

Here are some shifts in the how this methodology can be applied:

Previously our methodology for National Commodity Platforms co-created a National Action Plan which was handed over to government to operate. Now this methodology offers a wide range of options for institutionalization and sustainability. Joint commitments such as land use management plans, new alliances and new projects all represent collaborative action with positive outputs.

This methodology can now be used for single or multiple commodities, whole food systems and across landscapes.

This methodology works at every spatial scale – locally, sub-nationally, within a jurisdiction, region, nation or even internationally.

At its best, we believe this methodology enables us to transform systems by using an experiential approach to empower the people engaged on an issue to work as a system and co-create to solve it. We have identified four essential practices that are foundational to doing this well, which you will see reflected across the building blocks contained in this guidebook.

What do we mean by “Effective Collaborative Action”?

We define Effective Collaborative Action as any multi-stakeholder effort formed to address systemic problems using systemic solutions.

One might utilize a platform to support collaborative action— a structure that facilitates exchanges between two or more interdependent groups to harness and create large, scalable networks to address issues and create change.

Collaborative action could also take the form of a dialogue, or a series of conversations and discussions with the aim of understanding an issue and then collaborating to achieve a desired outcome.

Ultimately, Effective Collaborative Action requires working together to understand and take action towards a shared, co-designed future. During this work we use different forms of engagement with different stakeholders, depending on the outcomes sought. The framework below from Co Creative offers one of the best overviews on what collaboration takes and where different levels of engagement are needed in systems change work.

5 Levels of Engagement from Co Creative

This framework helps us compare and contrast different levels and depths of engagement. 

LevelExampleUseful For
1. InformOne-way communicationShared emergencies
2. ConsultSomeone else decidingShared problems
3. InvolveMediation/negotiationShared analysis
4. CollaborateInterest-based design/negotiationsShared solutions
5. Co- CreateSharing power/innovatingShared future


All five levels of engagement add value. Understanding the situation and getting clear on the outcome you are seeking can help you decide which form of engagement is the best fit.  

For example, in a collaborative initiative on coffee in Peru there will be stakeholders who have low influence and low interest, such as other commodity initiatives, who will not be involved in “Co-creating” joint commitments. They will however want to be “Informed” about progress.

That said, we believe that shifting complex systems requires a sustained commitment to Level 5 “Co-create” engagement with key stakeholders over time.

Where can this methodology be used?

This methodology has been developed to support the transformation of food and agricultural commodity systems in countries with significant environmental and social challenges. But it can also be applied to much broader issues or simpler engagements as well.

For example:

●      It can inform a dialogue series to find solutions at the landscape or jurisdictional level.

●      It can be used to develop a land use management plan or local policy reform.

●      It can be used to design a multi-year platform process at the national or subnational level.

●      You could use any of the four building blocks to help support systemic thinking and collaborative action in a different kind of process that relies heavily on those elements to achieve the desired impact.  

Who is this guide for?

This methodology can be used by any individual or organization who wishes to initiate a systemic change approach to making food and agricultural commodity systems more sustainable.

This guide can be used and led from within a UNDP Country Office team, a government department, an international NGO, a local NGO, a university, a foundation, a bilateral donor.

Anyone can initiate collaborative systemic change work with this guide.

This simple picture captures the why, what, where and who of multi-stakeholder collaborative action for agricultural systems. This guidebook focuses primarily on the HOW. 


Click here to access the Master Resources List 

Meet the Methodology at a Glance

Our four building blocks of putting systems change into practice, integrated with backbone support and essential practices for stakeholder actions, provide a thoughtfully evolved framework for your own work in Changing Systems through Collaborative Action. We have created this short overview to give you an “at a glance” look at Effective Collaborative Action.

Four Building Blocks to Guide the Process

There are four building blocks to support an Effective Collaborative Action journey.

Click on the image to access the Four Building Blocks page

Click here to download the Methodology

Three Elements to Consider in Each Building Block

As we move through the Building Blocks in our multi-stakeholder work, it is helpful to understand who is expected to do what and how everyone can best collaborate.