Engaging civil society stakeholders

In FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement processes

This briefing shares countries’ experiences of engaging civil society stakeholders in Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) processes. Stakeholder groups vary greatly from country to country, and the groups themselves often choose how they engage in political processes. This briefing, therefore, does not suggest that one size fits all, but rather describes useful practice based on the experiences and lessons from countries engaged in VPA negotiations.

The document also shares lessons, tools and structures from country experiences that have contributed to successful engagement of civil society stakeholders. By successful engagement, we mean that all stakeholders accepted the processes as open, and that civil society actors provided substantive input to the VPA.

Since most VPA processes struggle to engage civil society from the outset, the document focuses on this stakeholder group. That said, government and the private sector should also set up consultation structures, discuss nomination of representatives and establish internal and external communication channels. Many elements described in this document also apply to them. These other actors may also require special support.

This working document complements the EU FLEGT Briefing Notes ‘What is FLEGT?’ and ‘Voluntary Partnership Agreements’.

We are grateful to the organisation Fern for their early work compiling background information on civil society engagement in VPA processes. That work helped inform our drafts. All errors remain our own.

Stakeholder participation in FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement processes

VPAs between timber-exporting countries and the European Union (EU) are one way to confront the problem of illegal logging identified in the EU FLEGT Action Plan.

Recognising that actors need to coordinate to improve forest law enforcement and governance, the Action Plan calls on the European Commission to ‘support a process of consultation with major forest sector stakeholders and other relevant parties’. In endorsing the Action Plan, the European Council further urged the EU and its member states ‘to enter into political dialogue with key target countries to instigate forest sector governance reforms, more specifically to … strengthen effective participation of all stakeholders, notably of non-state actors and indigenous peoples, in policy-making and implementation’ (Council Conclusions 2003/C 268/01).

In other words, stakeholder involvement in VPA processes is essential.

First, it ensures that countries negotiating a VPA receive the best possible information and advice. Stakeholders are affected by the enforcement of legislation or failure to comply with laws in distinct ways. For this reason, wide consultation with all affected parties helps develop the definition of legality and the rest of the timber legality assurance system (TLAS). Proper understanding of relevant stakeholder concerns helps ensure the TLAS does not overlook key issues. Involving stakeholders in the development of a TLAS keeps proposed solutions grounded in reality and enhances buy-in of groups involved in implementation. Ownership by stakeholders is thus crucial for ensuring that proposed solutions will work in practice.

Second, broad, multistakeholder participation is essential to form a consensus on what is agreed in the VPA, and for the VPA to be viewed as credible, both nationally and internationally. Such consensus can only be reached if stakeholders have been involved from the beginning and their ideas have been discussed as part of the decision-making process.

Third, involving all affected stakeholders educates and builds common understanding, which helps minimise frustration and conflict. In all countries negotiating or implementing a VPA, the relationship of civil society organisations (CSOs) with the government or forest industries was poor at the start of the process. Government and industry saw CSOs as ‘activists’ lacking expertise, and thus not welcome in meetings. Conversely, CSOs viewed anything the government or industry said with great suspicion. In most cases, these relationships improved during the VPA process. For example, new alliances between civil society and industry have emerged vis-à-vis the government around certain topics.

Each country that negotiates or implements a VPA must set up a process that allows stakeholders a fair opportunity to provide input. Stakeholders may need help to become meaningfully engaged, while most VPA partner countries have little experience of such processes. Engagement is not always easy, but it is possible. As of March 2014, six countries had concluded VPA negotiations: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia and Republic of the Congo. In these countries, several social and environmental CSOs were extensively involved in negotiating VPAs. None of these countries had ever previously experienced such inclusive, participatory processes in the forestry sector.

Third meeting of the Joint Implementation Committee

Third meeting of the Joint Implementation Committee

Source: Multistakeholder Forestry Programme Indonesia, MFP3

Third meeting of the Joint Implementation Committee

Source: Multistakeholder Forestry Programme Indonesia, MFP3

Who is civil society?

Definitions of civil society vary considerably. Often it is seen as a 'third sector', distinct from public and private sectors. The term 'civil society' is shorthand for intermediary institutions that give voice to various sectors of society and enrich public participation. These institutions can be citizen advocacy organisations, foundations, environmental CSOs, professional associations, religious groups, community groups or labour unions. CSOs are often characterised by their non-governmental and not-for-profit status.

A focus on existing organisations may ignore other relevant views and interests. VPA processes could thus start with a broad view of civil society, meaning people in general, no matter how they are organised or represented.

A stakeholder is anyone who can affect or is affected by a process or action. Many parties with different interests may want to highlight their needs and agenda in VPA processes. VPA objectives are quite targeted, so stakeholders that work on topics directly relevant to the VPA, or are directly involved in or affected by forestry operations, should be involved.

VPA stakeholder processes to date have embraced the following groups under the umbrella of 'civil society':

  • Community members and indigenous peoples involved in or located near logging operations
  • Communities and indigenous peoples who depend on forest resources for their livelihoods
  • CSOs working on environmental, social and human rights issues
  • University representatives or researchers related to the forest sector and timber trade
  • Religious organisations working with communities that depend on forest resources for their livelihoods.

The following have been considered ‘civil society’, ‘private sector’ or ‘administration’ depending on the process:

  • Local community and household-based producers
  • Workers that provide labour for timber harvesting, transport and processing companies
  • Customary or elected political representatives including traditional authorities, parliamentarians and local and regional representatives.

This variation shows that interest groups can be categorised according to the country context. The set-up, however, should allow people to express themselves freely and to be heard. For example, workers may express grievances more openly within a civil society platform than in a private sector meeting with their employers. Similarly, household-based producers may relate more to other community members than to larger-scale private operators.

At least one stakeholder group has been missing from all VPA negotiation processes concluded to date: woodworkers, artisans and craftspeople who are typically small-scale processors relying on their hands to produce decorative objects, furniture and other timber products. They may merit special attention in future processes to ensure their participation, either as representatives of civil society or the private sector.

In practice, it may be difficult to know who the stakeholders are or who could represent them. In this case, stakeholder mapping may prove useful (see Box 1).

Box 1. Stakeholder mapping

Stakeholder mapping identifies people and groups with a possible interest in the VPA. They may need to be included in the multistakeholder dialogue for 2 main reasons: either they are directly affected by forest operations and timber-processing activities, or the enforcement of a legality definition could affect them.

A mapping exercise can help outline the stakeholder landscape and situation in a country. It can also describe and analyse relevant and current issues that may affect stakeholders’ engagement, such as knowledge, standing, expectation and readiness to participate. It may provide information to mobilise external support. Stakeholder mapping can therefore inform the design and establishment of a multistakeholder process.

The exercise, however, can fix an image of individuals and stakeholder groups. Such static pictures can be easily misinterpreted, while groups that were missed may be shut out of VPA processes. Thus, stakeholder mapping can close space for civil society rather than open it.

As the VPA is a multistakeholder process, it is critical who does the mapping and with what viewpoint:

  • Negotiators, facilitators and others should understand how forests are managed; what stakes and interests people hold in them; and who are truly independent civil society actors, or representative of other groups such as workers.
  • Each stakeholder group should be encouraged to do its own mapping. For example, a leading CSO or an existing CSO network could map civil society stakeholders. If consultants do the mapping, stakeholders themselves should be closely involved. A bottom-up rather than top-down process enables stakeholders to provide feedback.
  • Stakeholder groups doing their own mapping should not ignore relevant stakeholders that everyone assumes belong to another group, such as workers and customary authorities.
  • If consultants conduct a general stakeholder mapping, they should:
    • start by drawing a broad picture of the forest sector in the country
    • underline that other stakeholders are likely to exist, and that a profound VPA process will probably uncover more linkages with other sectors and identify new interested or affected stakeholders
    • suggest ways to open space for stakeholders
    • not preclude any cluster of stakeholders but, when providing suggestions, emphasise that stakeholders themselves must form alliances and decide how best to work with each other and how to represent their issues in the process.

Stakeholder mapping can only provide a starting point to engage stakeholders. Those involved in the process should regularly ask themselves who is affected or interested and not already part of the process.

Establishing an effective stakeholder process

Getting stakeholders interested

Stakeholders must want to participate. Therefore, civil society actors must first understand what FLEGT and VPAs are about and what they can gain from participation.

Local CSOs may not see how a political trade agreement between the EU and their national government could possibly interest them. Disseminating information and raising awareness are essential first steps to get stakeholders interested. It should go hand-in-hand with ensuring buy-in of the partner country government for an open and participatory process. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, the forest ministry organised workshops around the country to inform stakeholders about FLEGT and to discuss the country’s potential engagement in VPA negotiations. Such initiatives can pave the way for a more open dialogue between government and stakeholders.

Peer-to-peer work by other CSOs is effective in addition to, or in the absence of, top-down communication. In all countries negotiating or implementing a VPA, international CSOs or CSOs from other VPA countries have shared information and experiences. Regional exchanges or participation in regional or international FLEGT forums have helped newcomers understand the process and potential opportunities.

In most countries that have concluded a VPA, CSOs came to see the VPA process as an opportunity to:

  • Inform the government of their grievances and needs
  • Hold the timber industry to account
  • Address rights of communities to the land and trees
  • Reinforce benefit-sharing mechanisms.

In one of the most striking features of VPA processes, local organisations have felt it was truly their process, owned by them and shaped by their contributions.

Outreach should seek to include and appeal to all potential stakeholders early in the process. A focus on one group, such as the private sector or CSOs, may allow that group to engage in the process earlier than others. This has implications for the initial breadth of the consultation process and membership of national VPA structures.

Getting civil society organised for effective participation

Clearly, it is not possible for all relevant individual stakeholders to take part in the VPA process directly. Structures and mechanisms should link civil society stakeholders and official negotiations effectively. In other words, consolidated civil society views should arrive at the negotiation table, and information from negotiations should reach interested stakeholders.

Stakeholders need time to establish structures to interact, communicate and coordinate with one another and with other stakeholder groups. This is especially true for civil society actors whose diversity of interests and lack of capacity can prevent them from engaging quickly in the process. For this reason, appropriate mechanisms for participation and representation should be established as early as possible. In most VPA countries, multistakeholder processes were established before bilateral negotiation sessions began between the VPA country and the EU.

Civil society meeting in Honduras

Civil society meeting in Honduras

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Civil society meeting in Honduras

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Civil society platforms

In all countries that concluded a VPA, civil society actors organised themselves in platforms, which allowed them to debate and consolidate their views and then speak with one strong voice. Working together towards a shared vision and common objectives is more efficient and successful than working in isolation. It can also protect individual organisations and help them voice critical issues more freely. At the same time, the VPA process may create new challenges for CSOs; an opportunity to work together for a stronger voice on policy-related issues may allow ideological differences to surface. This briefing describes several examples of CSO platforms and how they relate to other VPA negotiation structures.

A basic level of trust is needed for a successful participatory process. Building trust among civil society actors may require time and effort, especially within newly created coordination structures. Constructive approaches may be needed to solve internal power struggles and ensure fair participation of all.

Some VPA countries already had a CSO platform in place and a history of organisations working together on forest policy issues prior to the VPA process. In others, an embryonic platform existed, but the composition and structure changed as a result of the VPA process. In yet others, CSO platforms were first created in the wake of the VPA process. Whatever the case, a platform should be wide enough to accommodate the plurality of civil society: from those defending environmental, social and human rights to those voicing the needs of communities and workers. Yet a platform should allow participants to stay focused on the VPA process.

Above all, a platform should create space for consultation with civil society and help participants meet common goals. To date, all civil society VPA platforms have been informal with no legal registered status. This has been a deliberate choice. However, many of the platforms have written by-laws and policies that describe the way they work. Whatever the nature of a platform, it should not replace or exclude existing CSOs. A formal platform, for example, runs the risk of becoming a ‘supra NGO’ with a life of its own. An informal platform emphasises strengthening the capacity of members instead of the platform itself. Furthermore, an informal platform cannot directly apply for funding or be responsible for implementing proposals. This means that platform members, alone or in coalition, can develop proposals, seek funding and implement projects in line with the overall platform strategy and the strengths of each organisation.

Ideally, platforms help build the capacity of their members, share information and experiences, and develop and implement joint strategies to provoke change in favour of common interests. Successful platforms with influence and impact must be well informed, strategically positioned and strong advocates. To be operational, platforms need human and financial resources. Fundraising for activities, salaries or running costs is therefore crucial, but should only be pursued after a platform has clearly identified its strategy.

Civil society representation

Platforms allow debate and consolidation of views within civil society. Bringing these views to the negotiating table requires an effective link between the platform and official negotiations. So far, in all countries that have concluded VPA agreements, one or two civil society representatives were part of the official negotiating team. This means that the selection of representatives is crucial.

Experience has shown that when civil society stakeholders select their own representatives, it is more effective than appointment. In the past, where government appointed civil society representatives, stakeholders often felt their interests were not accurately represented, and blamed the government. Self-selecting representatives can help avoid potential conflict and make each stakeholder group responsible for ensuring that its representative does the job properly.

To ensure legitimacy, platforms and their representatives need to establish mechanisms to connect them with other civil society stakeholders. The representatives need to ensure two-way communication occurs: sharing news and information from official negotiations, and bringing civil society views and inputs to the negotiating table.

Role of international CSOs

In most countries negotiating VPAs, the participation of CSOs that work internationally in civil society platforms has been debated. These international CSOs are experienced with issues in VPA countries, but should they be part of a national VPA negotiation process? Each process and its stakeholders must decide; the pros and cons from other countries may inform that debate.

Typical arguments in favour of participation highlight the capacities of international CSOs, including potentially easier access to funding. In many countries, they carry out the larger civil society projects. At the same time, they often have their own agenda, which may not match local concerns; the legitimacy of their interest may thus be questioned.

So far, in all countries except Ghana, civil society platforms have excluded CSOs working internationally. In Ghana, two international CSOs were members of the platform because their Ghanaian staff were part of the national CSO platform prior to the VPA process. Other international organisations were excluded.

Nonetheless, international organisations have followed the process in all VPA countries and have played a crucial role in enabling local CSOs and platforms to participate. They have helped share information in the early stages of the process, develop strategies for opening space for participation, and secure support for activities and capacity building.

Lessons learnt on civil society structuring for VPA processes

Previous processes involving CSOs have highlighted the following lessons:

  • Platforms require flexibility to evolve within the VPA negotiations and related, larger stakeholder process. These processes improve through trial and error, and need time and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. An informal coordination structure, rather than a formal organisation with set statutes, has proven to be more appropriate in most cases.
  • Self-selection is more effective than appointed representatives. To avoid potential conflict, encouraging stakeholder groups to select their own representatives and develop their own positions builds trust, which leads to local support and input into the process.
  • The need for appropriate skills and attention to manage the platform, including resources and qualified personnel, should be addressed early in the process. If lacking, external support and funding should be solicited.
  • All stakeholder groups should be transparent about their interests in the process and how they represent them.
  • Additional support to particular groups may be needed to ensure that financially weaker groups can participate.
  • International NGOs can be great allies, but should not be allowed to misuse their place by advocating interests that have little to do with local concerns.
Civil society organisations meeting in Indonesia

Civil society organisations meeting in Indonesia

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Civil society organisations meeting in Indonesia

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Establishing an effective process

Efforts to engage CSOs are likely to be frustrating and unsuccessful if they are not matched by government willingness and openness for participation. The EU has been instrumental in promoting an inclusive participatory process. This does not necessarily mean that governments explicitly opposed participation; mostly, they were not used to inclusive processes. Continuous attention and guidance throughout the VPA process is likely to be needed to establish and maintain effective participation.

‘The European Commission has been instrumental in the development of these stakeholder consultation processes by requesting a proper process and creating space for local civil society actors to take up that space.’ FERN

There is no simple recipe for setting up an effective stakeholder process. However, certain elements and conditions seem necessary:

  • Stakeholders must be willing to build a basic level of trust, which recognises the country context and history, and specifically acknowledges previous, failed participative processes.
  • Stakeholders share a common understanding of ‘participation’ and what an effective participation process entails.
  • Stakeholders have clear and transparent structures and rules for participation and decision-making in a civil society platform, in formal VPA negotiation structures and between these forums.
  • Leaders of VPA processes allow sufficient time, money and capacity to conduct an inclusive participatory process.
  • Government considers the plurality of civil society.
  • Process leaders establish consistent stakeholder representation in both internal and external processes.

These elements are further elaborated below.

Basic level of trust

A basic level of trust is needed before genuine conversations can take place. FERN noted in ‘Consultation requirements under FLEGT’ of 1 March 2008:

‘Governments often think that civil society actors are not able to compromise and will never be satisfied no matter how good the consultation process is’.

At the same time, in countries where good governance is a major challenge, civil society tends to be suspicious about the true willingness and motivation of government. They may also be weary of 'participatory processes' where the outcome has been decided in advance and their participation has been used to legitimise a flawed process.

In building trust between civil society and ‘the government’, it is useful to consider the government itself as a platform of diverse interests. CSOs may be well advised to push for multiple representation from government agencies in the VPA process as each agency has its own interests, be it taxation, better law enforcement or indigenous land rights.

All participants will have a unique interpretation of past events and the current context. Those who set up the process should consider context and history, especially where evidence exists of previously failed participatory processes. External circumstances can also affect the whole process. For example, upcoming elections can both influence the context and purpose of a participatory process.

Establishing a clear purpose and agreement between stakeholder groups builds further trust. A ‘good’ purpose may help create a common understanding of the potential impact of the process. In Ghana, for example, the civil society platform clearly spelled out before the start why and how they wanted to engage, and then won government and EU support for their approach.

Common understanding of ‘participation’ and clarity on the processes

Delays, frustration and conflict have occurred in VPA negotiations because individuals or groups of actors differed in their understanding of participation and how decisions would be made.

The word ‘participation’, in fact, reflects several approaches (See Figure 1). 

In VPA negotiations, the term ‘participation processes’ refers to three kinds of participation. Two of them are in-country processes: 1) among actors within one group, either civil society, industry or government; and 2) among stakeholders in different groups, where stakeholders offer and debate their views and help formulate country positions. For a process to be effective, these in-country processes must link to the third kind of participation: the bilateral negotiation process with the EU. Information should flow regularly both ways. Existing or newly formed structures such as CSO platforms provide a good basis for providing consolidated views from CSOs to inform VPA negotiations.

Clear and transparent structures

Structures, rules and expectations, including roles and responsibilities, should be agreed upon. In this way, all stakeholders understand how they can participate and how decisions will be made. Agreement on the processes before discussing content will promote clearer and more realistic expectations for stakeholder input and participation.

Some VPA countries created working groups to help analyse and develop elements of the VPA. These working groups may have brought together representatives from different sectors and some of these working groups believed the positions they developed would be presented as such in negotiations. When this did not occur, they were frustrated and demotivated because it was not clear how their input would be handled or decisions made.

Clarifying procedures early in the process on how information will be communicated, analysed, modified and finalised among stakeholder groups and structures will help avoid conflict and delay. These structures may include committees, negotiating teams, platforms or working groups. In particular, those who set up the process, should consider the following questions:

  • How will different groups be fairly represented?
  • Which individuals/groups will develop drafts for different VPA elements?
  • How will drafts allow for stakeholder input? What stakeholders? What process?
  • Will each stakeholder group prepare its own draft/list of priorities? Or will it provide ideas on existing drafts?
  • How do internal stakeholder processes and discussions link to formal VPA negotiations? How are positions developed? What happens if there is disagreement?
  • What are the timeframes to complete the work?
  • How are final decisions communicated?

In all countries where a VPA has been concluded, the multistakeholder steering committees guiding negotiations reached decisions mostly by consensus. In all cases, stakeholder groups and their constituents approved the result.

Time, money and capacity

An inclusive participative process requires enough time and tools for stakeholder representatives to interact with their constituencies. Communities that depend on forests, as well as forest workers and indigenous peoples, are often located in remote areas, requiring time to travel and convene to receive input on drafts or decisions. Understanding the scheduling needs of stakeholders will encourage their input.

Especially in the early stages of the process, many stakeholders may not be familiar enough with VPA objectives, timber legality assurance system elements and vocabulary to respond and provide input. Documents should be translated, adapted and interpreted in writing or verbally so that stakeholders can understand. Documents should capture stakeholder input easily.

This further reinforces the need for stakeholder groups to choose their own representatives who can relay and explain complex information to which stakeholders can respond. In some cases, especially with groups located in remote areas, assistance from CSOs, community organisations or international organisations may be needed. However, local groups should be allowed to develop their own positions and not have to fend off external views.

Figure 1. The ladder of participation

Figure 1. The ladder of participation

Source: Adapted from Arnstein, Sherry R. A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp.216–224.

Figure 1. The ladder of participation

Source: Adapted from Arnstein, Sherry R. A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp.216–224.

Consistency of representation

Consistent representation in participation processes among VPA country stakeholders and in bilateral negotiations can simplify information exchange and ensure that stakeholder consultations feed into negotiations. In all countries that have signed a VPA, stakeholder groups were present in both in-country and bilateral participation processes.

At the start of VPA negotiations, some countries did not include private sector or civil society actors in the bilateral negotiations with the EU. Excluding civil society and private sector representatives in the bilateral negotiations meant that some decisions and dialogue with the EU were not communicated to VPA country stakeholders. As a result, they discussed out of date drafts, causing confusion and frustration. As difficulties emerged in communicating results, the countries changed course and included stakeholder representatives in bilateral negotiations.

Figures 2 and 3 provide two examples of VPA negotiation structures and civil society involvement in them.

Figure 2. Examples of VPA negotiation structures: Liberia

Figure 2. Examples of VPA negotiation structures: Liberia

Figure 2. Examples of VPA negotiation structures: Liberia

Figure 3. Examples of VPA negotiation structures: Republic of the Congo

Figure 3. Examples of VPA negotiation structures: Republic of the Congo

Sustaining effective stakeholder participation

Successful VPA implementation calls for sustained stakeholder participation. Despite encouraging outcomes from participatory VPA negotiations, stakeholder participation is likely to need continued political and financial support during implementation. Consultation processes should be expanded to include representatives of local communities and indigenous peoples not yet involved in the negotiation stage.

The VPA negotiation process has increased understanding among stakeholder groups, notably the government, the timber industry and civil society. Other forest-related processes, such as national REDD+ processes, should follow the same model, but many do not. Diverging approaches to participation risk undermining the government’s credibility and the trust built through the VPA process. 

Figure 3. Examples of VPA negotiation structures: Republic of the Congo

Frequently asked questions

1. How can communities and indigenous peoples participate when they live in remote areas?

Consultation processes should set up appropriate structures so that isolated groups can participate. Isolated groups include some communities that depend on forests and indigenous peoples. Some countries relied upon local organisations to represent community voices; others used representatives from the communities themselves. External support and resources can facilitate their participation.

2. Should traditional and customary authorities be part of the civil society platform?

Since each relevant stakeholder group should be able to participate in the VPA process, structures should accommodate them. Traditional authorities could form part of civil society or administration or eventually could form a group of their own. Country stakeholders must decide.

3. A free and vigorous press is an essential element in civil society. But the state or for-profit businesses run most newspapers and TV stations. Should media be counted as part of civil society, as part of the commercial world or in some cases even as government?

Involvement of the media can support VPA processes and help raise stakeholder groups’ awareness. Media coverage of the process is important so that stakeholders stay informed. To date, however, the media has not contributed to negotiations separately or as part of a stakeholder group in any country. Nonetheless, media participation could be useful on issues related to freedom of information or transparency; civil society may wish to call them into negotiations when such topics are discussed.