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CoE Articles

Only “deep dialogue” will get stakeholders to put aside their differences for common goal

Published October 12, 2021, by Morgan Morris

At the latest meeting of the Food Governance Community of Practice, participants weighed up the challenges inherent in multi-stakeholder governance, and the benefits it could hold for addressing food insecurity and malnutrition in South Africa.

On paper at least, multi-stakeholder methods would offer a textbook approach to ‘wicked problems’ like food insecurity, pulling together as it does the collective wisdom of varied stakeholders who otherwise may be working at cross purposes.

But the reality is far removed from the textbooks as revealed at ‘Promises and Pitfalls of Multi-Stakeholder Food Governance’, the 4 October 2021 meeting of the Food Governance Community of Practice. This is a multi-stakeholder collective itself, gathering representatives from academia, government, and civil society, and is linked to the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Governance.

As Florian Kroll pointed out in his introduction, multi-stakeholder processes are riddled with vulnerabilities. The threat of co-option by powerful interests looms large, as do issues of legitimacy and the fabrication of consensus, said Kroll, who facilitates and co-convenes the Community of Practice with Dr Camilla Adelle.


Dr Gareth Haysom presents at the Community of Practice meeting.


Dr Gareth Haysom of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town pointed to other weaknesses such as political agendas and power struggles thwarting multi-stakeholder processes. “The question for me in trying to engage in these multi-stakeholder processes is to embrace difference and dissonance, but also to serve the complexity of these processes. And that’s not easy,” he said. But if used right, differences can reveal common ground, he argued.

Other speakers echoed this argument in different ways. Professor Ralph Hamann of the UCT Graduate School of Business dug into the models of “deep dialogue” that would enable multi-stakeholder undertakings. Andrew Boraine, CEO of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (WCEDP), outlined how taking a systems approach – which requires input from all stakeholders – has helped the organisation foster the necessary partnerships. Lori Lake of UCT’s Children’s Institute spoke of how conflicts of interest within academia leads to bias within research, undermining multi-stakeholder exercises. Lake also warned of accountability in academia, and the threats posed to academic integrity.

And Professor Scott Drimie, director of the Southern African Food Lab at Stellenbosch University, cautioned about “not-so-safe spaces” where white males are still the ones speaking on behalf of the group. “It can be very challenging for those who are well-meaning, that are intending to facilitate change, that believe in dialogue, but they themselves maybe shouldn’t be speaking, maybe they should be standing aside,” he explained.

In turn, Dr Chantell Witten of the University of the Free State and the South African Civil Society for Women’s Adolescent’s and Children’s Health (SACSoWACH) highlighted the potential rewards of multi-stakeholder exercises around the issue of breastfeeding. The Regulations Relating to Foodstuffs For Infants And Young Children (R991) – designed to control the marketing of manufactured breastmilk substitutes to parents – were established in South Africa in 2012 following a global call from action from the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. This after these organisations found that especially industry players had undermined the practice of breastfeeding through the promotion of such breast-milk substitutes.

But how to make sure that R991 sticks? Breaches of R991 still occur, reported Witten, to the detriment of child nutrition in South Africa, said Witten. Compliance from all stakeholders, she argued, is not just a nutritional imperative, but also an ethical one.

Read the meeting report. And watch the video recording on YouTube.

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