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11 Apr 2024
Camilla Croso, Rui da Silva and Giovanna Modé Magalhães

Unboxing Multistakeholderism in Global Governance of Education and Policy Making

In this blogpost, which is part of the NORRAG blog series on “International Organisations and the Global Governance of Education”, Camilla Croso, Rui da Silva and Giovanna Modé Magalhães critically discuss the rise of multistakeholder initiatives in education.

In the past two decades, we have had the privilege of participating in international, regional, and national forums concerning education. In these forums, we engaged first-hand in a “messy- partnerships” (Guijt, 2010) scenario where a variety of actors, including governments, international organisations, civil society networks, teacher unions, student movements and the private sector, engage in education policy and programs. Increasingly, we are witnessing a noticeable shift in how global governance is structured and played out, redefining not only who sits at the decision-making table but also recalibrating the relative weight of each actor and blurring their roles, particularly that of states as guarantors of rights. This shift consolidates what is known as multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs), a phenomenon increasingly recognised in academic literature and which represents a significant change in institutional and power arrangements.

While the health sector led the way in pioneering MSIs, the education sector is now not lagging behind, especially in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in fragile and conflict-affected states and sub-Saharan Africa (Menashy, 2019, da Silva & Oliveira, 2021), where most of the out-of-school children live (UNESCO, 2022). Increasingly popular, and using the language of inclusivity, the nomenclature of MSI is generally used broadly and loosely, in a very elastic manner, stretching its conceptual boundaries. Examples of MSIs in education, at the global level, include the Global Partnership for Education, Education Cannot Wait, the SDG4-Education 2030 High-Level Steering Committee, the Global Education Forum, the Global Education Coalition, the Education Commission and its by-products, including the Education Outcomes Fund.

Despite the projected potential of MSIs to address governance challenges, recent research from multiple sectors shows important shortcomings when it comes to analysing MSIs through a democratic governance lens (da Silva, Croso, & Magalhães, 2023; Manahan & Kumar, 2023; Gleckman, 2018).

In this blog post, we explore the power and politics of MSIs in the global governance of education and the emergence of policy entrepreneurs. We approach this discussion as “implicated subjects,” inspired by Novelli and Kutan’s (2023) call for us to become “implicated subjects” in transformations aimed at promoting social justice.

Power and politics in multistakeholder initiatives

Power and politics are deeply embedded in global governance and, consequently, in the global governance of education. By examining the power dynamics within MSIs, particularly between state and non-state actors, and between the global North and South – as a metaphor for all those who are benefiting from the global capitalist system and those who are not – we can work towards creating a more just and democratic global governance of education.

MSIs imply an institutional arrangement that does not offer any clarity on how it will comply with or enhance global democracy or equity in participation. Despite the assumption that involving different groups in decision-making processes leads to better decisions that consider everyone’s needs and interests, MSIs are intertwined with the rise of non-state actors in education. Far from being a homogenous group, a zoom at non-state participants reveals a myriad of different actors, diverse in institutional nature and in the extent that these are or are not representative. While teacher unions, student movements and civil society coalitions have elected representatives which underscore the role of states as guarantor of rights, there is also an increased participation of non-representative organizations, especially from the corporate sector as well as of individuals, who share the spaces in equal terms.

The phenomena cannot be seen separately from the framework of neoliberalism. This framework emphasises individual agency and competition, particularly framed as entrepreneurship, while downplaying the State’s role of protecting and promoting human rights. Consequently, private companies, philanthrocapitalists and even individuals acting as policy entrepreneurs, are increasingly viewed as equally legitimate players vis a vis states, in setting educational narratives, agendas and policies. The presence of those actors materialises also in more nuanced or disguised manners, as these actors establish intricate relations within inter-governmental agencies, such as UNESCO, UNICEF or OECD, who then occupy decision making spaces.

To this power reengineering between state and non-state actors that can be observed in the structuring and functioning of MSIs, another layer of power concentration is added when we consider the asymmetry between actors from the Global North and Global South, including governments. Regarding the latter, the GPE is an illustrative case, with its overall architecture being determined along North-South parameters, with “donor” and underrepresented “recipient” governments, on the one hand, and global North and South CSOs, on the other. This trend can advance problematic aspects such as undemocratic decision-making and asymmetries of power between the different stakeholders. Another illustrative case considers the role of private philanthropies, as exemplified in Tim Schwab’s recent book “The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire”, which shows how global wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of few billionaires without democratic and transparent accountability.

Another problematic pattern of MSI-driven global governance of education, particularly where the private sector mindset prevails, is the depoliticisation of education and its decision-making processes accompanied by a techno-solutionist approach (Elfert, 2023). This tends to consolidate the illusion that policymaking is a “technical matter”, as if that which is technical isn’t in and of itself, political. Empirical experience and research have pointed out, for example, that more often than not, what is presented as evidence-based policy is actually policy-based evidence, where selective studies are used to support predetermined policy options (Schweisfurth & Elliott, 2019; Verger, Fontdevila, & Zancajo, 2016). This advances the misleading idea that “two people with the same information and the same good faith necessarily come to the same conclusions”, as once said a famous conservative Portuguese politician.

Another marking characteristic of education multistakeholder initiatives, especially after their post-2015 mushrooming, is a phenomenon that resembles allotropy[i], where a same element can exist under the form of various substances, because the atoms of the elements bond together in different manners. In this sense, although the number of MSIs multiplied, the diversity within these is limited, with many of the same actors being present in each of these, creating near-to clones that ensure a magnified and disproportionate representation of the same policy entrepreneurs, manifested as double, triple, quadruple representations in the education global governance landscape, decisively skewing power distribution. Emerging evidence shows that the rise of clone education multistakeholder initiatives is associated with a reduced number of policy entrepreneurs.

As citizens, practitioners and academics, it is imperative that we engage with education MSIs as implicated subjects in transformations (Novelli & Kutan, 2023). More research is needed to conceptually interrogate the nature of MSIs, how they are inscribed in broader economic and political landscapes, and what implications they hold for the respect, protection and realisation of education as a fundamental human right. This critical conceptual and practical engagement should furthermore interrogate the rise of MSIs vis a vis the crises of multilateralism and the overall need to continue demanding a global governance that is capable of promoting social justice through democratic and representative principles, challenging attitudes and structures that perpetuate dominance and a legacy of imperialism.


[i] Allotropy is the property of some chemical elements to exist in two or more different forms. Known as allotropes. These are different structural modifications of an elements, where the atoms of the element are bonded together in different manners.


About the Authors:

Camilla Croso, School of Education, State University of Campinas, Brazil

Rui da Silva, Center for African Studies of the University of Porto, Portugal

Giovanna Modé Magalhães, School of Education, University of São Paulo, Brazil

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