Seeing Eye to Eye: The Crucial Role of Legitimacy in Multistakeholder Initiatives

By Lea Brost

The Seeing Eye to Eye: Developing Sustainable Multistakeholder Communities (SE2E) project was developed and funded through the 2022 Terrorism and Social Media (TASM) Conference sandpit event. The project aim is conducting empirical research into how various stakeholders view and experience multistakeholderism in countering terrorism and violent extremism online (TVE) as part of the larger umbrella of “preventing and countering violent extremism,” or P/CVE. A primary animating question of the sandpit team as we developed the project was: “How can a shared responsibility framework for robust cross sector work be developed?” See the first post in the series here.

Legitimacy is defined as the perception that an individual, group or initiative uses their power appropriately and within social values and norms. It is a key factor for generating trust, reliability and confidence in multistakeholder initiatives and therefore ensures their effectiveness. Moreover, legitimacy facilitates decision-making and enhances problem-solving. In multistakeholder arenas, there is an ongoing discussion about the importance of legitimacy, especially whether multistakeholder initiatives possess enough legitimacy to be efficient. Research shows that the term multistakeholder itself has become an indicator of legitimacy. However, the perceived legitimacy of multistakeholder initiatives covers multiple different structures, processes, and practices many of which are regularly criticised by scholars. The significance of legitimacy in multistakeholder work in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) and terrorism was also an issue that repeatedly came up in the Seeing Eye to Eye: Developing Sustainable Multistakeholder Communities (SE2E) project workshop.

Developing Legitimacy and its Advantages

Researchers and practitioners highlight several criteria, such as ‘inclusiveness’, ‘mutual respect’, ‘collective responsibility’ and ‘procedural fairness’ as important requirements for legitimacy. The Internet Society describes ‘inclusiveness is the basis of legitimacy in collaborative decision-making’. Inclusiveness increases trust both within the stakeholder group and externally. To develop and maintain legitimacy, it is thus important to have effective and comprehensible communication among all stakeholders to guarantee that all voices are heard and that all stakeholders are involved in the planning and decision-making process. This entails including participants who might disagree with the perspectives, as well as incorporating ‘local knowledge, minority voices, and non-technical discourses’. The Securing Europe through Counter-Terrorism – Impact, Legitimacy and Effectiveness (SECILE) project likewise highlighted in its recommendations the importance of incorporating a wide range of perspectives, including civil society and actors from fields other than industry and security. By involving all stakeholders and various perspectives in the process, participants can learn from each other, see problems from another angle and ensure that the initiative’s results correspond to local circumstances. The problem of deficient inclusion came up repeatedly in the SE2E workshop, where participants described their frustration over multistakeholder projects that excluded specific sets of frontline practitioners as well as local and minority voices as a result of power asymmetries. Consequently, in these projects the outcomes tended to be less effective than they could have been.

Apffelstaedt et al. outline how ‘power imbalance’ in multistakeholder projects hinders legitimacy, not only if larger stakeholders exclude the voices of smaller, marginalised or disadvantaged groups but also if larger stakeholders ‘push the responsibility […] down the chain to smaller [stakeholders] that do not have sufficient leverage to make changes’. Hence, multistakeholder initiatives require ‘balance of power’ to develop legitimacy. Ideally all stakeholders should be equally involved in the process to the best of their abilities. Stakeholders need a ‘share[d] sense of collective stewardship’ and ‘shared goals’ that all stakeholders agree on. By maintaining mutual respect and treating all stakeholders as active participants and ‘as autonomous agents […] and not merely as objects of regulation’, legitimacy is improved. Furthermore, multistakeholder projects need a ‘common understanding’ among all participants about the decision-making process. If there are barriers (e.g., ‘language, cost of participation, technical and process knowledge, cultural norms’ or ‘membership criteria and restrictions’) which hinder the development of legitimacy, stakeholders should be flexible and strategically come up with alternative approaches that fit all stakeholders.

Legitimacy is closely linked to transparency, and as outlined by the Internet Society, ‘[t]ransparency is an essential condition for inclusiveness, as it brings expert and affected groups into the process’. Communication, information sharing and exchange of knowledge among stakeholders increase transparency as well as legitimacy. Agreeing on the decision-making process mutually and at the beginning of the multistakeholder initiative also improves trust in the cooperation which subsequently aids both legitimacy and transparency. The connection between transparency, trust and legitimacy was also highlighted by participants during the SE2E workshop and will be included in the SE2E project report later this year.

Limits to Legitimacy in Multistakeholder Work

While much of the literature highlights the positive aspects of multistakeholder initiatives and the significance of legitimacy, some sources argue that multistakeholder approaches harm the legitimacy of already existing multilateral initiatives. For instance, there is often a competition for legitimacy between multistakeholder initiatives and ‘business-driven programmes’, which results in various outcomes, including ‘“downward” adjustment of governance by multi-stakeholder-governed programmes’. There has also been repeated criticism that the field of multistakeholder initiatives is dominated by ‘established stakeholder groups’ and that there is ‘a focus on selective topics and discourses’, which can impede their legitimacy. In practice, the inclusion ‘of voices from the Global South’ is particularly limited. Limitations include financial, logistical, and cultural barriers, and in some cases participant reticence to speak against established governmental or funder narratives on security-based topics (this will be discussed in more detail in the full SE2E report). Additionally, there are factors that compete with the aim to achieve legitimacy, for instance the desire to accelerate the decision-making process. Including everyone’s perspective and ensuring that the discussion is understandable for all stakeholders might be more time-consuming than having only certain stakeholders participate. Inclusiveness can also have the downside of making multistakeholder initiatives ‘more fragile and conflict prone’. Additionally, even if a multistakeholder initiative is internally inclusive, allowing the exchange of ideas between various stakeholders, it is possible that this same initiative can ‘have the effect of crowding out alternative and more radical undertakings’, which in turn hampers the initiative’s external legitimacy.


Numerous researchers mention ‘inclusiveness of participation, expertise-based effectiveness and procedural fairness’ as key factors in developing legitimacy in multistakeholder projects. By including specialist and local knowledge, legitimacy is increased, and the stakeholders will be able to see a problem from another perspective which can improve the results of the overall project. Moreover, fully including various forms of expertise from stakeholders with diverse backgrounds can result in a learning process among the participants. If multistakeholder initiatives achieve legitimacy, this can improve the participation, decision-making and problem-solving processes of these initiatives. While legitimacy can make initiatives more effective, it is essential to give careful consideration to possible limits and downsides of attempts to develop legitimacy. Yet, without legitimacy it is difficult for multistakeholder initiatives ‘to achieve results or even to survive’.

Lea Brost is a Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.

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