Multi-stakeholder dialogues in IUCN's work on forest governance

IUCN supports multi-stakeholder dialogue (MSD) in forest governance reform as a means, first, to widen the source of knowledge and ideas for tackling a problem, and second, to build the support and capacity for collective action needed to implement reforms effectively. Dialogue is also valuable in itself, particularly if it gives a voice to vulnerable or marginalised social groups often excluded from policy and decision making.

Equator province forest governance network meeting. Photo: IUCN

Through projects in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, IUCN has convened or facilitated a range of MSDs at different levels for forest governance reform. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, we have used funding from the European Union to pilot a system of multi-level forest governance in Equateur province. This links a multi-stakeholder committee on forest governance in one territoire upwards to a provincial network on good forest governance and downwards to a network of 32 village committees. Each of these bodies carries on a dialogue with forest interests at its level, the results of which are passed up and down the chain to inform planning and decision making.

A major theme of our work on MSDs in forest governance has been facilitating multi-stakeholder consultations for Voluntary Partnership Agreements. A VPA is a bilateral treaty between the European Union and a trading partner which requires that all wood exports to Europe be produced and licensed in line with national legality criteria. Countries are expected to define these criteria through an open, participatory process, a demand which can tax both governments and civil societies in tropical forest countries. Several VPA partners, including Ghana, Republic of Congo and Cameroon, have asked IUCN to help facilitate their consultations, focusing in particular on the information and communication needs of small forest enterprises and civil society groups.

Almost a decade of work by IUCN on forest governance and MSDs has thrown up many lessons. Some of these relate to the preconditions and process of dialogue; some to its impacts and effectiveness; and some to the place of MSDs in the wider landscape of power and decision making in forestry. A selection is set out below.

  • Preconditions and process:  For an MSD to have any chance of success, all relevant stakeholders must be identified and involved from the outset. Participants should aim to develop a shared vision of what they want to achieve, a roadmap of concrete, incremental steps to realising that vision, and clear rules and procedures to stay on track. The role of the facilitator is crucial in guiding the dialogue towards its goals, ensuring participants contribute fully and dealing with any conflict or divergent interests. Contrary to belief, neutrality is not necessarily required or even desirable in a facilitator – more important is that they are respected and trusted by all participants.
  • Impacts and effectiveness:  The argument for MSDs assumes that participatory dialogue leads to better decisions and better implementation, which lead in turn to better governance of forests and other resources. These assumptions can be hard to test. Forests and the socio-political systems that govern them are complex, dynamic and unpredictable. In this context of uncertainty, the quality of a decision or outcome is more of a normative than an empirical question. Yet some way of assessing effectiveness is needed, if only to justify the time and money spent on an MSD. So monitoring and evaluation must be built into the dialogue, and objectives and expectations clearly spelled out.
  • Power and decision making:  MSDs can be useful at various stages in the policy process, from understanding issues and framing preferences, to setting objectives and planning, to implementing, monitoring and learning. Some writers and practitioners argue that MSDs should be aimed at an explicit decision, not merely at raising awareness or generating opinions. Yet giving MSDs a role in decision making on forest policy usually means sharing power, and for many governments that does not come easily. Greater power sharing also makes greater demands on participants and their constituencies, and though it may provide an incentive to take part it can also increase the risk of co-option by well-organised groups. Lastly a focus on decision-making power may obscure other reasons why people choose to engage in (or abstain from) dialogue, making it harder to assess their true interest or stake in a situation.

More information on IUCN’s work on MSDs in forest governance reform, including a range of downloadable publications, can be found at:

Work area: 
Social Policy
Locally Controlled Forests
South America
West and Central Africa
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