National VPA negotiations
The EU advocates for an inclusive, multistakeholder process to agree the terms of a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA). The process should reflect broad consensus among national stakeholders in government, the private sector, civil society organisations, communities and indigenous peoples. Through inclusive processes, stakeholders contribute to discussions and decisions on the content of a VPA.
However, stakeholders may have divergent views on many issues, at least initially. For example, the private sector may want a simple legality definition that would make it easier to demonstrate compliance. Civil society organisations, in contrast, may want a more detailed legality definition that includes responsibilities to communities.
Views can also diverge within broad stakeholder groups. Different branches of government, for instance, may have different reasons for pursuing a VPA and may want the agreement to achieve different objectives. Within the private sector, large and small-scale stakeholders may also have different priorities.
National negotiations, therefore, seek to identify areas of common interest that all stakeholders can support, despite their different perspectives. The aim is not to achieve complete consensus on every aspect of a VPA, but to attain overall support among stakeholders for the agreement.
Two levels of national dialogue
To reach a national consensus, a timber-exporting country continues the stakeholder consultations that began in the pre-negotiation phase. The consultations contribute to making a VPA practical, credible and country-owned. The nature of consultations is therefore key and depends on:
- Effective mechanisms for identifying, engaging and sharing information with stakeholders
- Participation by individuals chosen by stakeholders to represent them, and effective systems through which these individuals can relay information between their constituents and the VPA negotiating structures
- Procedures that ensure stakeholder representatives can actually influence the process
Different countries have adopted different approaches and structures. Processes and structures often change over time and may need to adapt to new situations as they arise.
In VPA processes to date, representatives of government, the private sector and civil society organisations have come together in multistakeholder groups to develop national negotiating positions. To balance the needs of each group and reach a broad national consensus, all stakeholders make compromises. Experience to date shows that participation based on fair representation makes it easier for stakeholders to develop consensus.
Discussions and negotiations also take place within groups of stakeholders to develop common positions to feed into the national consultation and/or bilateral negotiations. This process is deliberative. Stakeholders discuss and gather evidence to help them form positions, and articulate their needs and desires. Some groups choose to do this by developing position papers.
- Companies involved in the timber trade may already have associations within which they can discuss issues. These groups tend to represent larger, more powerful private-sector stakeholders and not small-scale operators, such as household-based wood processors
- Civil society organisations and/or communities may work within existing coalitions or create new ones. Member organisations of civil society platforms may have different priorities, such as concerning human rights, the environment, gender or the rights of indigenous peoples. Different priorities present challenges in reaching consensus among civil society organisations
Challenges that affect national negotiations
For governments negotiating a VPA with the EU, a challenge is to build trust among stakeholders and secure their long-term commitment to the process. Experience shows, however, that it can be a challenge for governments to design, organise and implement a process that:Enables representative multistakeholder participation Has effective feedback loops that allow stakeholder inputs to inform country positions Has effective coordination mechanisms to debate, discuss and agree on government positions Ensures that participation continues after the negotiation phase and into the implementation phase
Governments often require new resources and capacities to influence, network with and facilitate dialogue among stakeholders, including groups with which they have had limited prior engagement. Governments also need to provide adequate resources to fund negotiation and implementation structures, technical studies and meetings.
Stakeholders may lack the knowledge, skills and resources to participate effectively in a VPA process. Governments, EU institutions, EU member states, civil society groups, nongovernmental organisations and international organisations all play a role in building stakeholder capacity to take an informed part in negotiations.
In defining legality, for instance, stakeholders need to understand existing legal frameworks but may struggle even to gain access to this information. They may need new skills to enable them to communicate the technical aspects of legality to their constituents, or to advocate for their position in negotiations. Governments may need several rounds of consultation and field tests before reaching a definition that all stakeholders accept.
National consultation therefore needs to proceed at a pace that is adequate to achieve a broad consensus and provides the time stakeholders need to understand the process, articulate their positions and ensure that a VPA addresses their interests.
Related sections of VPA Unpacked
Canby, K. 2013. Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) or How to do effective consultation for national policies. Forest Trends PowerPoint presentation. [Download PDF]
Duffield, L. and Ozinga, S. 2014. Making Forestry Fairer. A Practical Guide for Civil Society Organisations Taking Part in VPA Negotiations. FERN. 68pp. [Download PDF]
Falconer, J. 2013. Overview of VPA processes: opportunities and challenges for projects to advance FLEGT. Presentation to FLEGT Project coordination meeting. 9 October 2013, Brussels. [Download PowerPoint presentation]
FAO. 2014. The Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) Process in Central and West Africa: From Theory To Practice. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, Italy. 58pp. [Download PDF]Othman, M. et al. 2012. FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements. ETFRN News 53: 109–116. [Download PDF]