The Corporate Capture of Global Economic Governance: A feminist call for multilateralism, not multistakeholderism

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This blog is part of a series commissioned by PWYP’s strategy sub-committee (made up of members of PWYP’s Global Council, Africa Steering Committee and Board). The proposals and positions of each guest author are not endorsed by PWYP; rather they have been invited to share them in order to prompt our collective thinking as we envision our next global strategy.

The 21st century has been characterised by a convergence of crises, including the climate and biodiversity loss emergencies, acute debt distress across the Global South, a cost-of-living crisis, and worsening inequality and poverty. Multilateral action—driven by governments with the power to mobilise public resources—is essential to reverse the trend. Yet, at the level of global governance, a “multistakeholder” agenda is increasingly being embraced by the institutions most responsible for addressing these interconnected global challenges, eroding the power of governments and civil society to face the polycrisis.

In theory, multistakeholderism invites the participation of a variety of stakeholders into global governance (including governments, civil society, the private sector, and academia), with the alleged promise of inclusivity and democratisation of power. Yet, the reality is starkly different. It is often financially powerful actors, particularly transnational corporations, who are dominating these spaces, sidelining governments (duty-bearers) and people (rights-holders) from decision-making. Rather than promoting cooperation, multistakeholderism obscures asymmetries of power and legitimises actors who benefit from these asymmetries. 

The Acceleration of Multistakeholderism: At the UN and beyond

Though private capture of global economic governance is not necessarily a new phenomenon, its acceleration is demonstrated by the increasing embrace of multistakeholderism by the United Nations (UN), undermining the UN’s legitimacy as a decision-making forum based on accountability and transparency. 

In 2021, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres released the “Our Common Agenda” (OCA) report to “respond to current and future challenges,” including by reforming global governance. Yet, instead of validating the UN as a space to uphold democratic intergovernmental processes, the report emphasised the role of “networked multilateralism” (their term for multistakeholderism) in reinvigorating the multilateral system. 

To this end, the OCA report proposed a multistakeholder Summit of the Future, set for September 2024. In preparation, the UN has published draft zero of the “Pact for the Future” —an evolving action document to be revised until the Summit. 

Over 350 civil society organisations expressed concern about limited opportunities for participation in the Summit and influence on the Pact. The Pact has also been criticised for inadequately addressing critical areas for reform like the governance of the World Bank and IMF, the existing debt resolution architecture, and the need for climate finance in developing countries. 

The private capture of development finance similarly demonstrates the increasing power given to private actors in global economic governance, particularly as it affects developing countries. The World Bank has rallied around the “billions to trillions” agenda, which claims that public finance must be used to mobilise “trillions” in private sector investment by de-risking and subsidising private capital. According to the Bank, “private enterprise is the main source of economic growth and job creation and… private capital is vital for attainment of the SDGs,” further legitimising the primacy of private actors in development. 

In the case of public-private-partnerships (PPPs) (a key vehicle for realising the billions to trillions agenda), private enterprise can make significant returns with little risk because they are backed by state guarantees—despite often offering more expensive, less transparent, and profit-oriented services. At the same time, “financing gap” agendas like these posit that private finance is necessary because public capital is insufficient—though public capital can clearly be marshalled in service of other aims, including imperialist expansion and subsidies for fossil fuels, investments in both of which vastly outnumber the amount of public funds going towards development spending. 

This “financing gap” narrative is part and parcel of the multistakeholder agenda, as both—whether intentionally or not—erode governments’ abilities to be accountable to their constituencies in (economic) decision-making. 

Multistakeholderism and Critical Raw Materials

Since the publication of the OCA report, the Secretary-General has convened several multistakeholder panels focused on a range of issues. In April 2024, the UN Secretary-General’s Panel on Critical Energy Transition Minerals was announced as an avenue to develop new guidelines on preventing environmental damage and human rights abuses associated with the mining of critical minerals. 

Already, the panel has been criticised for upholding the legitimacy of voluntary principles for industry, leaving large corporations to their own devices in policing their supply chains. There are also concerns that Indigenous input into the panel will be limited. Notably, the panel includes as members the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM, an industry body led by mining CEOs) and multistakeholder platforms like the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)—all of which either directly or in part represent private interests due to the composition of their membership. 

The issue with such multistakeholder groups is that the inclusion and dominance of private interests will almost always result in solutions that prioritise commercial viability rather than the genuine structural change needed to confront this polycrisis. 

The EITI is a good example of this, as a multistakeholder platform focusing on the need for transparency of oil, gas, and mining revenues. The EITI, by advancing only voluntary standards, was created out of compromise between what activist NGOs wanted and what corporations were resisting: mandatory reporting of revenue and payments in extractives. Though the EITI technically invites civil society participation, in many of its member countries, power is held by elite governments and corporate representatives who in turn restrict meaningful participation of civil society. In that respect, many multistakeholder groups do little (or, indeed, nothing at all) to rectify structural imbalances of power and instead simply replicate existing inequities.

A Feminist Call for Genuine Transformation

Any agenda for reforming global economic governance should strengthen existing democratic and multilateral forums for decision-making, like the Fourth International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD) taking place in 2025. The UN-convened FfD remains a primary avenue for developing countries to partake in global economic governance with an equal voice and vote; matters of reforming the global financial architecture should occur there, rather than at the multistakeholder UN Summit of the Future. 

Beyond that, organisations like Publish What You Pay are instrumental in advancing the agenda to curb corporate influence. As it revises its strategic direction, members ought to reflect on the following questions:

  • Do our activities genuinely shift power away from corporations and towards those most affected by the climate crisis and economic injustice? Multistakeholderism has done very little to redress historical and ongoing structural injustices, and in fact appears to uphold them by inviting corporations as legitimate actors in global economic governance. For meaningful transformation, power must be redistributed, prioritising democratic accountability and the voices of those most affected by global crises.
  • Do we demand mandatory concessions from corporations, rather than relying on voluntary actions? Disclosure guidelines, for instance, should be mandatory, and the actors that profiteer from destructive and exploitative practices should not be invited to set their own standards for due diligence and sustainability. In this respect, feminists have long called for a legally binding UN treaty for the protection of human rights from corporate activity. As this agenda progresses at the UN, it is critical for its substance to be gender-responsive, inclusive, and based on an effective human rights framework.
  • Do we recognise the structural imperatives that drive the climate crisis and economic injustice, rather than focusing on individual instances of abuse? Multistakeholder agendas tend to be premised on the notion that corporate abuse is the result of a few ‘bad apples’ or corrupt companies. Feminists take a more structural view, recognising that the entire growth-, profit- and shareholder value-oriented system underpinning corporate power is the problem—not individual ‘bad apples.’ 

Above all, shifting corporate power means expanding people power—only then can we work towards genuine economic and climate justice.


About Arimbi Wahono

Arimbi Wahono is a Senior Consultant at Shared Planet, a social and environmental impact consultancy. There, she leads the Just Transitions practice, where her projects underscore the need to address the climate and biodiversity loss crises by tackling its root cause – the unsustainable, extractivist, and growth-oriented economic system. She has led consultancy/research projects for prominent organisations in this space, including Oxfam International, the Women’s Environment & Development Organization, Hivos, and the World Wide Fund for Nature UK (WWF-UK).

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