Abstract Multi-stakeholder platforms (MSPs) have been widely promoted as a promising means of resolving conflicts over natural resources, first in developed countries and, more recently, as a global good practice. However, many MSPs have been implemented in an unfavourable context — primarily of social inequities — and have not met initial high expectations. The article analyzes the challenges MSPs face in an unfavourable context, and identifies five main issues: • Power relationships; • Platform composition; • Stakeholder representation and capacity to participate meaningfully in the debates; • Decision-making power and mechanisms; and finally • Cost of setting up an MSP. The analysis is mainly based on two case studies of MSPs set up under inauspicious conditions. The first focuses on water user associations in South Africa, the second on a negotiation platform set up to resolve conflicts over a water and sanitation project in Bolivia. It is argued that MSPs should be seen less as an ideal communication process, and more as a negotiation process — always imperfect — but where positive outcomes may nevertheless outweigh negative ones, if and when the above-mentioned issues are adequately taken into account.