Multi-stakeholder STI Mechanisms at the UN: Fad or Trap?

By Neth Daño, ETC Group

A string of new mechanisms dealing with science, technology and innovation (STI) and the science-policy interface have sprouted at the UN in recent years. Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) governments established a Technology Mechanism in 2010. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) spun off the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) in 2012. The UN Secretary-General created a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) in 2013. Then, in 2015 the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development gave birth to the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM).

These mechanisms all share one thing in common: inclusion of stakeholders beyond Member-States and government-endorsed experts.

In contrast to well-established expert bodies like the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) housed at UNCTAD and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the new STI mechanisms have a far less rigid attitude towards informal and non-conventional sources of knowledge and expertise. IPBES principles explicitly value the contribution of indigenous and traditional knowledge systems. The SAB and the TFM have indigenous and civil society expertise in their composition alongside eminent names in the scientific community.

An inclusive approach and the recognition of diverse sources of knowledge is key to ensuring that STI contributes to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The recognition of indigenous knowledge and local innovations are already enshrined in UN treaties and it is only logical that indigenous peoples are represented in mechanisms that provide scientific and technological support to the implementation of multilateral agreements. Civil society representation in STI bodies helps ensure that the views and interests of communities shape the direction of UN priorities and programmes in STI.

The inclusion of rights holders and civil society are hard-fought gains from decades of advocating to participate in decision-making on STI in global development. Since the 1990s, civil society initiatives have proactively set the pace of intergovernmental discourses in governance of new technologies at the UN. On the ground, civil society and social movements have worked with communities in the development, transfer and dissemination of environmentally sound, socially acceptable and inclusive technologies and innovations long before these became fashionable.

The concept of stakeholders, however, needs to be challenged. It is based on the flawed premise that business interests have an equal stake as the holders of rights such as those held by indigenous peoples and local communities in relation to traditional knowledge systems and biological resources. This justifies that giving a seat to civil society in a multi-stakeholder mechanism entitles business and industry to a seat at the same table. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development sits alongside an indigenous peoples’ representative in the 10-Member Group that supports the TFM. The transnational oil company Shell as the representative of business NGOs in the Advisory Board of the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN-AB) of the UNFCCC is entitled to an equal voice with environmental NGOs. Which stakeholders should be represented is controversial. Parties to the UNFCCC agreed to have non-governmental constituencies represented in the CTCN-AB, but only environmental, research and business NGOs – a political compromise that left out the rights holders in climate technologies - women, youth and children, farmers and indigenous peoples. 

Danger looms large in using stakeholder inclusion in global STI mechanisms to institutionalize a corporate sector role in the development, transfer and deployment of technologies to achieve the 2030 Agenda with no clear accountability. As civil society representatives lock horns with this sector in STI discourses around the table, UN agencies engage corporate-sector representatives in programme initiatives in between meetings. Members of the CTCN, for instance, tried to push for an engagement policy exclusively for the private sector but was blocked by the Advisory Board that transformed the policy so as to apply to civil society as a whole. While Advisory Board deliberations on the policy were underway, the CTCN went on with corporate-sector engagement funded by a bilateral donor. These non-transparent ‘back-room’ dealings indicate the creation of a stakeholder hierarchy in decision-making that casts shadows on the sincerity of the goal to “leave no one behind” in STI for the SDGs.