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Forestry and civil society

What is civil society?


Civil society is that associational sphere which is outside the state and the market.  At the heart of civil society are organisations that tend to be value based rather than motivated by power or profit.  Civil society organisations (CSOs) are diverse and include non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community groups, labour unions, professional associations, faith-based organisations, and parts of the media and academia.  They operate at all levels, from the village and community through to national and international levels.  CSOs are organised, self-governing, voluntary and non-profit distributing.  They often work in partnership with governments, for example in carrying out public services under contract.  Some CSOs are involved in commercial activities but what differentiates them from their corporate counterparts is the fact that any profit generated through their work is used to further their social/societal objectives and interests.


Why are CSOs important?


A vibrant civil society is important for good governance and democratic society. While in the past CSOs, and NGOs in particular, were deemed necessary for meeting development goals, they have more recently been recognised for playing a central role in deepening democratic processes as well. 


Listed below are some of the reasons why CSOs are important to development and democracy. It should be noted, however, that CSOs are a heterogeneous grouping, therefore each of the attributes below do not necessarily apply to all CSOs.


CSOs are important because:

·          They contribute to the realisation of Commonwealth goals and values.

·          They add value to people’s participation in democratic processes and a voice to express hope and concern for all people including the marginalized.

·          Their very existence is an important expression of democracy.  The space that is necessary for civil society action is an important part of democracy.

·          They build leaders in their communities by identifying and nurturing people to take responsibility for themselves and others.

·          They contribute to national development by addressing poverty and gender-related issues; they are involved in community development, providing such vital services as education, healthcare and other social services.

·          They play a central role in making citizens aware of their rights and responsibilities and prepare them to exercise those rights and undertake those responsibilities through civic education, especially in areas of human rights and electoral processes.

·          They advocate in areas of national resource allocation and distribution.

·          They work to empower people.

·          They have an intimate knowledge of grassroots issues and realities and are active in protecting the natural and physical environments, and cultural heritage.

·          They coordinate the efforts of individual groups through umbrella organisations.

·          They mobilise people as volunteers, advisors and holders of past and traditional knowledge to complement paid staff, and they raise charitable funds.

·          They provide independent advice/feedback and embody community memory and traditions (often lacking in government and the private sector), and remind governments of past agreements and Treaties.

·          They provide a counterbalance to competitive and commercial values with values that are people-centred, sustainable and cooperative.


Why are CSOs not maximising their potential?


Many countries have active CSOs that are respected in society.  However, for various reasons some CSOs have not reached their potential. These might include:


External constraints

·          Lack of recognition by some governments;

·          The desire of some governments to control CSOs, which sometimes contrasts with the freedom given to the commercial sector.


Internal constraints

·          CSOs are often overwhelmed by the problems facing communities;

·          CSOs are constrained by inadequate funding and capacity limitations.


The constraints faced by CSOs in turn limit their ability to learn and develop, which also prevents them from maximising their potential.


CFA and civil society


The CFA seeks to work with existing CSOs wherever possible to provide foresters and the forestry profession in general with a voice in political decision making.  It does this through the international network of CFA national branches, its journal The International Forestry Review and newsletter The Commonwealth Forestry News.

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