Can civic engagement lead to deliberative democratic governance? The emergence and struggle of the Community Forest User Group Federation in Nepal

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Introduction Civic engagement is seen as an integral process of democracy, but there is limited understanding of the way it actually works in practice and in various contexts. As democratic theory takes a deliberative turn (Dryzek 2002), the importance of civic engagement has risen to prominence. The demand for active civic engagement in politics and governance is reinforced by the recent sweeping movements in the Middle East and the Arab World. In international development parlance, social capital is heralded as a “missing link�? in democratic governance (Grootaert 1998). In this view, social capital is a third major addition-after physical and human capital-to the conceptual and policy toolbox of democracy and development. This chapter problematizes the assumed positive links between social capital and civic engagement through an empirical examination of the case of community participation in Nepal’s forest governance. Through analyses of the evolution of a nationwide Federation of Community Forestry User Groups, Nepal (FECOFUN), I explore how active civic engagement can help democratize certain aspects of governance, while at the same time lead to more subtle forms of hegemony and control. Considering deliberative interactions between citizens and political leaders as a way to improve governance (Fisher 2003; Forester 1999), I explore the interplay between access to social capital and civic engagement in the governance processes. A strong argument for active civic engagement as a way to improve governance can be found in deliberative democratic ideas. Deliberative governance is inspired by the Habermasian notion of “discourse ethics�? (Habermas 1990, 1996) which stipulates that power relations are legitimate only when they are constituted through domination-free communicative reasoning. To analytically temper this ideal direction of civic engagement, I juxtapose communicative process with social capital following Bourdieu (1986, 1998), who sees it as a resource for contestation and as being constitutive of social differentiation. Contrary to the functionalist view of social capital as a vehicle for integration, Bourdieu holds that social capital is not always an openly accessible public good but a contested resource in specific social fields and, as such, it is a constitutive element of social differentiation. Furthermore, the extant structure of access to social capital has a direct bearing on the civic engagement potential of social actors-with those with a greater amount (and a higher quality) of social capital more likely to influence public policy through more active and influential civic engagement. I relate the structure of access and mechanisms of legitimacy in claiming social capital to the process of civic engagement and, hence, governance outcomes. Through the case of FECOFUN, I specifically address three questions. First, how does the civic engagement process advance in the context of a deeply technocratic governance regime (in this case, forest governance) and pervasive social inequality (and hence the highly inequitable regime of social capital)? Second, how do institutions for social capital shape the civic engagement process, and to what extent does the “social capital access regime�? explain accountability and internal governance of the civic network? And third, can marginalized groups gain better access to social capital through civic engagement and, if yes, how and under what conditions? Analysis of the FECOFUN case in relation to these questions offers important conceptual insights and empirical evidence into the way social capital and civic engagement interplay in the practice of governance. In this chapter, I argue that improved civic engagement is possible when the existing structure of access and distribution of social capital is questioned and modified toward the direction of fairness and equity. As the case of FECOFUN shows, in certain situations, civic engagement can also transform existing regimes of social capital. This is especially true when social capital is construed as a constitutive element in traditional social relations that harbor injustice in the realms of gender, caste, ethnicity, and more formal relations such as those between state institutions and people. Nepal’s community forestry programme has a well-established history of over 30 years, and is often considered one of the world’s innovative models of civic engagement in the natural resource sector. The innovation entails the networking of over 16,000 community groups (covering one-third of 26 million people in Nepal) to articulate their voices and concerns in different spheres of forest governance, from local to national, and even international, levels. The direct participation of local communities in forest governance has resulted in some tan gible reversals in the previous trends of environmental degradation and the decline in forest product supply (Banjade 2008). Many people familiar with Nepal may ask how it was possible for such innovative civic engagement to emerge in a country that is marred by conflicts, poverty, political instability, and deep socio-cultural inequalities. And more importantly, are these visible successes really indicative of genuine processes of change in governance? In this chapter, I discuss how the community federation emerged and how it transformed existing social relations or capital and, then, advanced civic engagement in Nepal’s forest governance. I identify ways through which the agency, institutions, and practices of engagement was fostered, and in the process, how the structure of access to social capital as a private good-both among the actors in the federation and outside-has enabled some, and excluded others, in civic engagement processes. I place this analysis in the context of the federation trying to transform the techno-bureaucratic hegemony exercised by state forest agencies, usually with support from western development ideology of aid agencies, and the feudalistic culture of political institutions (Ojha 2006, 2008). I also identify the challenges in organizing civic engagement as the amount and types of social capital proliferate, with little change in the existing inequitable rules of access. I attempt to relate actual outcomes resulting from the engagement process to the literature on decentralized governance of natural resources management and deliberative governance. The analysis of civic engagement, and its potential for deepening understanding of how governance outcomes can become fairer, is extremely important to natural resource governance in general, and forest governance in particular. Globally, more than a billion people have some level of dependency on forests and live in poverty (Scherr et al. 2004). Recognizing the failures of state-centered approaches to forest management in the past (Gilmour and Fisher 1991; Malla 2001), there have been some efforts toward decentralization, which emphasize policy changes toward devolving power (and hence providing greater autonomy) to local communities (Agrawal and Ostrom 2001; Colfer and Capistrano 2005; Ribot 2003). As a result of these reforms, community-based forest management has evolved as a key strategy of conservation as well as promoting local livelihoods, especially in developing countries. But there is limited dialogue between the community-based resource management literature and the civic engagement and deliberative governance literature, which, if combined together, can shed new light on the working of democratic practice in resource governance. What is missing from both strands of literature is the exploration of community networking and federation building and their interactions with the state. This chapter is based on my reflective, experiential, and interactive accounts with FECOFUN since its formation in 1995. I have continuously been in touch with FECOFUN as a research partner, campaign co-organizer, and informal strategy advisor. I have also studied FECOFUN processes and practices and written technical papers (Ojha 2002, 2009; Ojha and Pokharel 2005; Ojha et al. 2007). This chapter builds on these earlier works, as well as a recent review of community networks in Asia (Dahal and Ojha 2010), and captures fresh insights and developments through the eyes of a close partner but critical observer of FECOFUN since its inception in 1995.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Dynamics of Social Capital and Civic Engagement in Asia
EditorsAmrita Daniere, Hy Van Luong
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781136456565
ISBN (Print)9780415678698
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012
Externally publishedYes


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