Claire McAlpine l Palladium - Jan 02 2024
Multi-Stakeholder Platforms and Gender Equality: Lessons from Liberia’s Forests

Around the world, multi-stakeholder platforms have gained increasing popularity as a way to manage natural resources.

The basic premise is simple: engaging a diverse array of stakeholders in decision processes leads to better decisions than those that are made by a single stakeholder group. For people who have been historically marginalised in decisions that affect them – such as indigenous groups and civil society organisations – multi-stakeholder platforms offer a seat at the table that did not previously exist, and with it an opportunity to voice their unique opinions and needs.

However, despite the increased attention on the approach and its emphasis on inclusivity, multi-stakeholder platforms around the world, in both the global north and south, have continued to be dominated by men.

Liberia’s Efforts to Tackle Deforestation

Liberia’s forests are under threat from uncontrolled logging. To help tackle the problem, Liberia entered into a trade agreement with the European Union in 2013 that aims to improve the management of forest resources and reduce illegal logging.

As part of this agreement, the National Multistakeholder Monitoring Committee (NMSMC) was born, underpinned by the guiding principle of inclusive decision making, and it holds monthly meetings to discuss forest-related issues. Our team recently spoke with those involved with the NMSMC to shed some light on the reasons why the majority of representatives are men, and whether it’s possible to change that.

Numbers Tell Only Part Of The Story

The predominance of men in decision-making bodies is perhaps one of the more visible reminders that political power in Liberia remains acutely patriarchal. However, although important, numbers tell only part of the story. Women’s presence and attendance on the NMSMC does not correlate with their power in those meetings.

For example, some women had stopped coming to meetings not because they had less power, but because they had more. They had reached a level of seniority where they chose to delegate attendance at the committee. And due to Liberia’s male-dominated forest sector, the technical specialists who tended to fill this vacuum were mostly men.

Perhaps it coincided with the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, Africa’s first female head of state and her efforts to clean up the country’s timber industry, but slowly, a group of women had succeeded in gaining considerable influence and power in forestry.

However, momentum appears to have waned since then, and barriers to entry for women in the forestry sector that were previously knocked down have been restored. Now, women’s positions in the forest sector appear polarised: women are either very senior or involved in secretarial and administrative work, with few opportunities in-between.

Women’s Contributions Were Less Visible Than Men’s, But Not Necessarily Less Important

Many people the team interviewed in Liberia spoke about ‘quiet influence’ or ‘pushing from the back’; that women exercised power albeit in a different, and less visible, way than men did.

A great deal of analysis, discussion, and influence has been wielded in Liberia’s forest sector by women who left their mark on tangible outputs (such as the agenda and content of the discussions) but which went unseen as men were most often the public speakers and representatives.

This dynamic prevents women from receiving credit for their work.

Quotas Can Be Helpful, But They Need Support

How can groups ensure that women have as much say as men in decisions that affect them? Quotas have been a common and effective response.
In Liberia, gender quotas for political power have been discussed for a long time, but their use has never been mandated. In our team’s interviews, individuals recognised that quotas were a good idea in principle for forestry governance bodies and that something needed to be done to shake up systemic gender inequalities.

However, many did not think that 50/50 quotas were a workable, or even desirable, solution in the short term. There were a few reasons for this, including the patriarchal perceptions of gender roles, male dominance in STEM education, and a belief that appointing the best person for the job is more important than appointing a woman.

The team’s research demonstrated that gender’s role in ‘multi-stakeholderism’ is not straight forward. There are nuances to the way that power is channelled through these platforms, and these emerge in complex ways that defy silver bullet solutions.

It will be important to recognise that gender must be part of the discussion, to enable these platforms to develop in response to identified realities and reach their full potential as tools of transformative and inclusive governance.

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