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SDSC-IR Joint Research Seminar: Private Standards and Norm Contestation: The Credibility Politics of Palm Oil Sustainability


Professor Helen E.S Nesadurai | Monash University Malaysia

When: Tuesday 23 November 2017, 4.00 pm - 5.30 pm

Where: SDSC Reading Room, Level 3, Hedley Bull Centre [130], Liversidge Street, Acton, ACT 2601

Palm oil, a major global agricultural commodity, has long been condemned for driving deforestation, carbon emissions and social conflict, especially in its principal producers of Indonesia and Malaysia. Here, economic development priorities and the patronage-based palm oil political economy have contributed to these problems. Yet, voluntary private sustainability standards developed by NGOs and global corporations to reduce these ills from palm oil production have become normative benchmarks. In Malaysia and Indonesia, some on-the-ground change has occurred at the cultivation sites of Asian palm oil plantation corporations. State actors have also become relatively more accommodating of these standards despite continued reservations about these undermining state sovereignty. To explain this empirical puzzle, Prof. Nesadurai focuses on the links between norm contestation, evolution, and institutionalisation. She argues that private sustainability standards face constant contestation over their credibility and legitimacy. However, such contestation can lead to (a) norm strengthening or extension whereby the scope and reach of the norm is enlarged; (b) norm weakening whereby the scope of the norm is narrowed; and/or (c) norm hybridisation whereby new norms are crafted ombining elements of the weaker and stronger, resisted norm. Her study uncovers the conditions shaping these outcomes, including “hedging” behaviour whereby actors facing an ambiguous operating environment try to reduce risks, shape the preferences and actions of consequential actors, and carve out a space for autonomous action.

Helen Nesadurai is Professor of International Political Economy at Monash University Malaysia, and Academic Visitor at SDSC in November 2017. Her multi-disciplinary research focuses on multi-level governance in Southeast Asia. While maintaining her original interest in inter-governmental regional institutions, Prof. Nesadurai’s more recent research explores transnational private governance and its relationship to inter-governmental forms of authority in addressing environmental and social justice issues. She is the Chief Editor (with Mark Beeson and Jeffrey Wilson) of Contemporary Politics as well as editorial board member of The Pacific Review, International Studies Quarterly, Contemporary Southeast Asia and Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs. She is a member of the Advisory Committee of the Belgium-based United Nations University-Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS), and the ANU-based Graduate Research and Development Network on Asian Security (GRADNAS).

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