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13.04.2017 | Original Paper | Ausgabe 4/2019 Open Access

Journal of Business Ethics 4/2019

How to Assess the Democratic Qualities of a Multi-stakeholder Initiative from a Habermasian Perspective? Deliberative Democracy and the Equator Principles Framework

Journal of Business Ethics > Ausgabe 4/2019
Wil Martens, Bastiaan van der Linden, Manuel Wörsdörfer


The paper presents a renewed Habermasian view on transnational multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) and assesses the institutional characteristics of the Equator Principles Association (EPA) from a deliberative democracy perspective. Habermas’ work has been widely adopted in the academic literature on the political responsibilities of (multinational) corporations (i.e., political corporate social responsibility), and also in assessing the democratic qualities of MSIs. Commentators, however, have noted that Habermas’ approach relies very much on ‘nation-state democracy’ and may not be applicable to democracy in MSIs—in which nation-states are virtually absent. We argue that Habermas’ detailed conceptualization of the institutionalization of deliberative democracy can be applied to transnational MSIs if these initiatives can be said to have their own ‘dèmoi’ that can be represented in associational decision-making. Therefore, we develop a definition of the dèmos of an MSI based on the notion of collective agency. Subsequently, we explain how Habermas’ approach to democracy can be applied to MSIs and show that it has more to offer than hitherto has been uncovered. Our illustrative analysis of the EPA confirms the criticisms regarding this MSI which have recently been articulated by researchers and practitioners, but also yields new findings and possible avenues for the further development of the EPA: That is, although our assessment suggests that the EPA in its current state is still far from being a democratic MSI, the possibility of a sensible analysis of its democratic character indicates that transnational MSIs can, in principle, help to fill governance gaps in a democratic way.

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