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Fonds documentaire dynamique sur la
gouvernance des ressources naturelles de la planète

Sharing Power : Three great strategies for strengthening the civil society

Documents sources

Borrini-Feyerabend Grazia, Pimbert Michel, Farvar M.Taghi, Kothari Ashish, Renard Yves et al, Sharing Power - Learning by Doing in Co-management of Natural Resources throughout the World, IIED, IUCN, CMWG, CEESP, 2004.

Strategy number 1 : Building upon synergy between the state and society

Public sector workers and “champions of change” within governments can help strengthen civil society and encourage more inclusive policy debates. In the Philippines, for example, it was the lobbying of radical civil servants along with organisations of professionals that led to the wide implementation of participatory irrigation management 1 (a model which has subsequently spread to other countries). In Mexico, reformist officials have helped consolidate small farmer marketing organisations2 and strengthen the role of community organisations in regional sustainable development policy3.

Civil society is likely to have a greater potential for influence when civil servants and progressive government officials introduce legislation guaranteeing the right to participation. The legal right to participation is a more empowered form of engagement than participation by invitation of governments, donors, or higher authorities. One area in which rights to participation are being embodied into law is that of local governance.63 A number of pathways have been used:

  • Joint approaches to planning. Civil society actors and government bodies work together in planning service delivery and environmental care (see Box 11.5).

  • Changing forms of accountability. Innovations have not only emphasised citizen involvement with local governments in planning, but also empowered citizen representatives to hold government to account for carrying out properly the functions of government (see Box 11.6).

  • Empowered forms of local direct participation in the governance of public affairs. While many approaches are looking for new relationships between citizens and elected representatives, others are creating forms of direct citizen participation through legal changes. Representative forms of governance are thus complemented by more empowered, direct involvement of citizens at the local level. Perhaps the most direct and effective example of the latter is the sharing of authority about budget allocation. In Porto Alegre and other municipalities of Brazil, neighbourhood meetings are used to do exactly that in a process called “participatory budgeting” (see Box 11.7).

  • Strengthened inclusive representation in locally-elected bodies. A pathway adopted by several countries has been legal change that promoted the inclusion of traditionally excluded populations in local councils (see Box 11.8).

Box 11.5. Mandatory joint planning (adapted from McGee et al., 2003)

In the Philippines, the 1991 Local Government Code (LGC) requires citizen participation at all levels of local government through the local development councils. Participation is mandated in the areas of development planning, education, health, bids and contracts, and policing. In theory, the LGC also provides for direct representation of civil society and voluntary organisations on local government bodies, though this has been uneven in its implementation. Legislation also mandates funds for training of citizen representatives in order for them to participate effectively.

In Brazil, the new Constitution of 1988, termed at the time the “Citizens Constitution” affirmed public participation in the delivery of local services as a democratic right. This has resulted in the creation across the country of municipal level councils, which link elected officials, neighbourhood representatives and service providers in almost every sector, including health, education and youth.

Box 11.6.New forms of accountability(adapted from The LogoLink Network

In Bolivia, the Law of Popular Participation of 1994 mandated broad-based participation, starting at the neighbourhood level, as part of the process of local government decentralisation. It also recognised the importance of social organisations that already existed (including indigenous communities, with their own practices and customs). About 15,000 such “territorial base organisations” are registered to participate in the planning process. In addition to that, the particular innovation of the Bolivian law was to create legal citizens‘ oversight or vigilance Committees in each municipality, which are empowered to freeze municipal budgets if actual expenditures vary too far from what was agreed in the planning processes.

Box 11.7. Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre (Brazil) (adapted from Abers, 1997 and Baiocchi, 2003)

Porto Alegre is a Brazilian town with a population of about 1.2 million people, situated along the pol- luted Guaiba River in Southern Brazil. There are about 250 favelas (slums) in Porto Alegre, where about 400,000 people live. Since 1989, Porto Alegre has been governed by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, the workers party). This party was founded in 1980, when the military regime first allowed the creation of new parties. The PT emanated from a coalition of labour unions, urban and rural social movements, people from Christian base communities, and formerly revolutionary Marxist groups. The PT has no well-defined ideology, but follows two main tenets: the needs of the poor should get priority and the people should be directly involved in governance.

The original contribution of the PT was the insight that popular control on public spending was the key to real popular participation in governance. To achieve this, the PT introduced the practice of “direct democratic budgeting” from 1989 onwards. This involves a number of phases including assemblies where people can give their views on the way public spending is organised at present; neighbourhood meetings where investment priorities are drawn up; electing delegates for the Regional Budget Forum; holding more assemblies; and, finally, production of a final budget by the Municipal Budget Council, synthesises the demands made in the various meetings.

The result has been increased efficiency in public spending. Before the introduction of the “direct dem- ocratic budgeting”, the largest amount of sewer line constructed was 17 kilometres, in 1987. From 1990 to 1994, the figure raised to 46 kilometres of sewer line annually. As a result, from 1989 to 1996, the portion of the population with access to sewer lines rose from 46% to 95%. During the three years previous to the PT administration, four kilometres of street were paved each year; after 1990, 20 kilo- metres of road were paved annually, and the quality of this pavement rose dramatically. Extended favelas, that had only mud roads and tracks, became accessible for buses, garbage trucks, ambulances and police cars. It is estimated that over 100,000 people, representing some 10% of the population of the town, have attended a participatory budgeting meeting at least once over the fourteen years of the initiative in Porto Alegre.

Participatory budgeting has also spread to other municipalities in Brazil. Municipal governments elected to power in several Brazilian cities in the 1990s introduced a participatory budget. The government invests in projects that communities have identified as their priority needs. Given a citizen‘s right to have information and make demands on the state, government agencies have to consider the feasibility of any request. If a citizen request is judged non feasible, the state agency has to demonstrate why this is so.

In several municipalities, popular participation in this initiative has exceeded the government‘s expectations and has increased annually. Participatory budgeting has changed public spending priorities, reducing inequalities in places. The improvement of the quality of life in some of the municipalities has been evident, as it is the first time that the local government has taken into account the needs of the poorest sectors of the population. Participatory budgeting has not only meant a much greater involvement of citizens and community organisations in determining priorities, but also a more transparent and accountable form of government.

Box 11.8. Towards more inclusive representation in local government (adapted from McGee et al., 2003)

The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments of India, described in Box 10.4, mandated that one third of the seats in the local councils should be reserved for women, as well as one-third of the offices of the chairperson. Similar reservations have been made for those of the lower castes and tribes. While making local councils more inclusive, the Constitution also gave them a great deal more power for planning for “economic development and social justice” in twenty-nine separate areas of local development, including forests, education and irrigation. While the implementation of these new representation processes has been uneven, and while the local councils are not always granted adequate financing from central government, the inclusion of new members in the political processes has been vast. About one million women and some 600,000 lower caste or tribal members have now been elected to local government office.

All the above pathways are significant and positive innovations promoted by the state. Through legislation, they create new and stronger roles for civil society in relation to local governance. And yet, the extent to which the legislation itself opens new spaces for participation and citizen voice varies enormously, both according to the characteristics of the legal frameworks themselves, and the broader context of which they are a part. The actual implementation of these laws also varies, due to differences in understandings, power relations, citizens‘ awareness, etc. Moreover, state-society synergies are prone to the intermediation of party politics and, at times, corruption.

Strategy number 2 : Establish collaborations between local and external civil society actors

The most common pathway to strengthening civil society involves collaboration between local and external actors within civil society itself. Typically this involves local, community-based organisations and national NGOs, academics and researchers. In the Philippines, for example, scientists and non governmental organisations have collaborated with marginalised farmers to develop a farmer- led network of people‘s organisations working towards the sustainable management of biodiversity and local control over food systems (see Box 11.9).

Box 11.9. The MASIPAG experience (adapted from Vicente, 1993;

The MASIPAG programme was born out of the Filipino farmer‘s bittersweet experiences with the Green Revolution. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Philippine government heavily promoted the adoption of high yielding varieties (HYVs) and high input agricultural production systems. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) played a key role in researching and marketing the new rice varieties. By 1970, 78% of the country‘s rice-lands were planted with HYVs and the initial results were encouraging as crop production soared.

However, by the late 1970s many farmers were seriously disenchanted with the Green Revolution. The problems they faced included the rising cost of seed and fertilisers; the increasing concentrations of chemicals needed to keep production up; deterioration of the seed; increasing pest problems; pesticide induced poisoning and deteriorating human health; and environmental degradation. Over the next five years, a farmers‘ strategy emerged from various formal and informal consultations. The strategy pro- posed, amongst other things, the launch of an initiative to develop a national agricultural programme independent of foreign support; an agrarian reform programme to address the problems posed by large plantations of bananas, coconut and sugar cane; a review of the government/ IRRI programme with options for nationalising its management or stopping its operation; and building a truly Filipino institution for rice research.

When their proposals were ignored by government, the farmers and their allies in civil society took the initiatives forward themselves. A group of progressive scientists initiated consultations with farmers in different parts of the country (Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao). This culminated in a national convention in mid-1985 dubbed “BIGAS Conference” or Bahanggunian Hinggil sa Isyu ng Bigas. A year after that land- mark gathering, a farmer-NGO-scientist partnership was formed and its first project aimed at breaking the control of fertiliser and pesticide companies, multi-lateral rice research institutes and distribution cartels over the rice industry. The Multi-sectoral Forum (MSF), a group of professors, scientists and researchers in the University of Philippines Los Banos, took the lead role in composing the technical pool of what was initially known as “farmer-scientist partnership”. By 25 June 1987, the “Farmer- Scientist Partnership for Agricultural Development, Inc.” was ready to embark on what is now known popularly as the MASIPAG Project— Magsasaka at Siyentipiko Para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura.

For the last 17 years, MASIPAG has been at the forefront of development struggles in the Philippines pursuing, among other things, a holistic approach to development, community empowerment, and people‘s control over agricultural biodiversity as a contribution in the over-all effort of improving the quality of life of small farmers. MASIPAG‘s approach to strengthening civil society emphasises social transformation and builds on the following:

1. Bottom-up approach - Any development programme must prioritise the expressed needs, problems and aspirations of the people themselves. The enhancement of knowledge and skills likewise starts with the people‘s actual capabilities.

2. Farmer-Scientist Partnership - A genuine partnership between the farmers and their organisations, and the scientists/ researchers from the social and natural sciences attempts to put into practice the bot- tom-up approach in conservation and development. This is apparent in programme implementation and in all activities undertaken by the partnership. This relationship is further strengthened by NGOs from the religious sector and other local organisations of concerned individuals and professionals.

3. Farmer-led research and training - On-farm research and training in different agro-environments and socio-cultural settings start from what the farmers need to learn and develop. They are active participants in plant breeding and in developing technologies such as ecological pest management and biodiversity rich farming systems. They do the research and facilitate training.

4. Farmer-to-farmer mode of transfer - Farmers are animated by a sense of mission to reach out to other farmers. Only in their united and concerted efforts can MASIPAG‘s vision be realised. Cooperation, not competition is a strong motivating force for the farmers to chart their own destiny.

5. Advocacy towards genuine agrarian reform. In the MASIPAG context, advocacy towards genuine agrarian reform is meant to lead to full ownership, management and control of the land by the farmers/ peasants, and their access to basic support services necessary for sustainable agriculture and livelihoods.

There are indeed very many documented and anecdotal cases of such collaboration. The combined efforts of local and external civil society actors help to bring the concerns of marginalised and excluded people into policy processes from which they would otherwise be absent. A review of twelve federations of rural organisations whose primary concerns related to agricultural development and natural resource management suggests that the strongest organisations, those most able to project members‘ concerns in negotiations with government, donors and market actors, have each enjoyed an extended period of accompaniment from NGOs or religious leaders 4. In most cases these external actors were involved in the creation and strengthening of these civil society organisations. Similarly, the emergence of vocal farmer movements in India has often involved non-farmer sup- port or charismatic leadership from other parts of civil society5.

All these studies show, however, that how such collaboration occurs is critical. The most fruitful collaborations are those that involve intensive, sensitive and respectful support in which external actors accompany, advise, suggest systems, etc., over a long period. External actors do not intervene in local decision making, respecting and trusting local partners. For example, at the core of one of South America‘s most successful federation of cooperatives, El Ceibo, has been the longstanding provision of administrative and technical advice from certain volunteer services and donors 6. Likewise in Indonesia, the emancipatory values and enabling attitudes of external actors (trainers, NGO staff…) were key in facilitating citizen empowerment in Farmer Field Schools and in the wider peasant movement that now seeks to reclaim rights over land and other resources7.

Strategy number 3 : Support independent pathways from below

Strong and representative organisations can emerge from the bottom up. Local organisations with deep roots in traditional arrangements play various roles in local natural resource management and represent local voices to external agencies 8. In Sumatra, for instance, traditional adat (customary) village governance institutions which re-emerged after the New Order period have begun to deal with, among other things, tenure issues in the village and represent villager concerns to external actors (see box 10.11). The long lasting traditional basis of many such organisations gives them indisputable legitimacy (see Box 11.10). Yet, these organisations are not always internally democratic and gender inclusive. They can be dominated by leaders in whom tradition or history vests authority but such leaders may not espouse the equity gains recently brought about by historical processes and crystallised in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Box 11.10. The Regole of the Ampezzo Valley (Italy) have maintained their autonomous status for a 1000 years (adapted from Stefano Lorenzi, personal communication, 2004;

The Regole of the Ampezzo Valley (where the famous Cortina resort is located) is a community-based institution with a known history of approximately 1,000 years. The Regole independently manage the common property resources initially made available by the work of the early Regolieri (extensive pasture creation and maintenance out of the original woods) and, up to today, the Regolieri comprise only the descendants of the early founders of the community and their male sons who remain residents in the valley. Property is held under inalienable and indivisible common title and the general assembly of the Regole takes management decisions after extensive discussion and by a “qualified majority”, a procedure more akin to consensus than voting. Through time, the Regolieri maintained their rights of occupation and modes of local production thanks to their skills as diplomats (for instance, they managed to ensure agreements with the Venetian Republic in 1420 and, later on, with the Austrian emperors). In 1918, the end of the First World War saw the Ampezzo Valley incorporated within the Italian state. From then up to today, the Regole struggled to maintain their autonomous status under special exceptions in the national legislation and regional laws, a feat that depended on a combination of personal skills of the Regolieri and importance and visibility of the landscape they managed to conserve. About 15 years ago, the Regole finally received a major recognition as the sole and full legal managers of the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti d‘Ampezzo— a regional protected area established on land and resources mostly conserved by them. They have also obtained a tax-free status from the Italian government and major project funds and subsidies from the European Union, the Italian state and the Veneto regional government.

Old and new social movements provide a variety of examples of civil society organised to reclaim power from below. These include attempts to transform governance structures through political participation, face-to-face discussions, and empowered federations that include people from various local places. Some of these movements have ties with religious beliefs (such as the liberation theology movements of Latin America 9 or the Islamic Brotherhoods that acted as develop- ment agents in West Africa10), ethnic, caste or kinship associations, and gender or age-based groups11. Others are linked with cooperatives or even the management of natural resources, such as irrigation associations, fishers associations and all sorts of other mutual aid groups. Most typically, these movements include unions, born to uplift the conditions of workers with common interests and concerns and, today, indigenous peoples organisations active in national and international contexts.

Independent pathways from below raise many challenges and risks, as demonstrated by moments in history when citizens have experimented with new forms of direct democracy and confederated power 12. For instance in Spain, during the Civil War of 1936-1939, the peasants of Andalusia and Aragon established communal systems of land tenure, in some cases abolishing the use of money for internal transactions, setting up free systems of production and distribution, and creating a decision making procedure based on popular assemblies and direct, face to face democracy. A system of self-management for workers was set up in numerous cities, including Barcelona and Valencia. Factories, transport facilities, utilities, retail and wholesale enterprises were all taken over and administered by workers‘ committees and unions. Much can be learned from these experiments 13.


1 Blauert and Dietz, 2004.

2 Fox, 1990.

3 Blauert and Dietz, 2004.

4 Carroll and Bebbington, 2001.

5 Brass, 1995.

6 Bebbington, 1996.

7 Fakih, Rahardjo and Pimbert, 2003; see also Boxes 9.23 and 11.12.

8 Esman and Uphoff, 1984.

9 Berryman, 1987.

10 Berhman, 1970.

11 Ralston et al.,1983.

12 Bookchin, 1996; Bookchin, 1998.

13 Bookchin 1994.