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Multi-criteria assessment (MCA)

Multi-criteria assessment (MCA) is a decision-making tool used to evaluate problems when one is faced with a number of different alternatives and expectations and wants to find the best solutions with regard to different and often conflicting objectives. The ability of MCA to deal with complex and unstructured decision problems in the sphere of environmental and natural resource management, which involve a number of conflicting ecological, environmental, societal and economic objectives, multiple interests groups and different languages of valuation is widely acknowledged.

MCA constitutes both a framework for structuring decision problems, as well as a set of methods to generate preferences among alternatives. MCA has the potential to take into account conflicting, multidimensional, incommensurable and uncertain effects of decisions explicitly enabling it to focus more on the – decision process‖ itself, and not on a final result (Munda, 2008).

A multi-criteria problem is characterized by the presence of a finite set of alternatives (for instance alternative corridors for a railway or different design options for a regional transportation system) and the existence of different (and often conflicting) evaluation criteria under which we evaluate each alternative. The MCA problem may then be represented in the form of a matrix (alternatives x criteria) depicting the evaluation of each alternative regarding to each criterion.

Supposing that it is possible to evaluate each alternative in relation to each criterion, we can obtain a weak ordering of the alternatives for each criterion, ranging from best to worst. The multi-criteria decision problem consists of ranking the alternatives according to an ordering that is a legitimate synthesis of the criteria.

Generally, there is no solution optimizing all criteria at the same time and compromises have to be found. As various dimensions are taken into account, the main goal is to find a balance between them, aiming at ‘compromise solutions’ which colloquially could be called ‘the least bad’ solutions, to emphasize that we are far away from naively aiming at the ‘best’ solutions as in cost-benefit analysis (Munda, 1995). A wide set of multi-criteria methods have been developed for this purpose. These methods have particular features regarding information requirements, criteria assessment, modelling of preferences and decision rules.

Multicriteria methods may provide a powerful framework for policy analysis in the context of sustainability problems, since they can accomplish the goals of being inter- or multi-disciplinary (accounting for the multiple dimensions present), participatory (open to all stakeholders), and transparent (Munda, 2008). Stakeholder participation may be included in the overall structure of the MCA process: alternatives and criteria generation, weighting and evaluation of alternatives and discussion of results (Antunes et al., 2006).

There is a gradation between the most ‘closed (unparticipatory) MCAs – referred to as Multicriteria Analyses and involving experts only – to the most ‘open’ (democratic) one, referred to as Deliberation, such as citizen juries or panels, consensus conferences or community assemblies. Social Multi-Criteria Evaluation has been suggested as a way to produce, in a participatory way, an analysis which takes into account different evaluation criteria and different perspectives and choices from stakeholders, which can be pertinent for environmental justice organisations to analyse cases for their campaigns (Gerber et al., 2012).


Antunes, P., Santos, R., Videira, N., (2006) Participatory decision making for sustainable development – the use of mediated modeling techniques, Land Use Policy, 23, 44-52.

Gerber, J.-F., Rodríguez-Labajos, B., Yánez, I., Branco, V., Roman, P., Rosales, L., Johnson, P. (2012) Guide to Multicriteria Evaluation for Environmental Justice Organisations. EJOLT Report No. 8, 45 p.

Munda, G. (1995) Multicriteria evaluation in a fuzzy environment. Theory and applications in ecological economics, Physica-Verlag, Heidelberg.

Munda, G. (2008) Social Multi-Criteria Evaluation for a Sustainable Economy, Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Paula Antunes

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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