Poor governance is one of the principle causes of extreme poverty. In Bangladesh, the majority of the nation's decision-making power rests in the hands of a minority of elites. There is generally not much scope for the more vulnerable groups in society to participate in the process. If the government wants to increase equity, it needs to address dimensions of exclusion and develop spaces for participation which allow extremely poor people to demand their rights and hold government to account.
Participatory inclusive governance aims to reduce poverty by increasing citizens' influence in decision-making. The approach can contribute to more equitable access to services and resources for extremely poor households. When people are equipped with knowledge of their entitlements and are empowered to engage with state mechanisms, they are better positioned to secure their rights and pursue their interests.
The structural causes of poverty can be addressed by improving dialogue between Union Parishads (UP), local actors and communities. By working together and combining their efforts, these actors can protect the most vulnerable in society and help them build their assets and resilience. Government programmes and resources should be targeted at the poorest and UPs need to enable community collective action, to ensure that this happens. For example, the government has promised to distribute khas lands to the poorest, for cultivation and livelihood generation. However, in reality this land often doesn't reach the poorest, who are illiterate and often unable to fill in the application forms. Collective action with poor communities leads to a more equitable distribution of public resources and builds community solidarity.
The UP has a critical role in securing inclusive development outcomes for marginalised people. Changing the mindset of UP councils and building capacity is crucial in order for them to develop their own strategies for poverty eradication. The UP councils need to become more open to the participation of citizens in decision-making, including initiating participatory planning and budgeting, and the inclusion of extremely poor citizens in the targeting of UP resources.
Participation and negotiation have led to new issues being raised and new channels being used to access decision-makers. This empowers both the UP council to fulfil its roles and responsibilities as well as the extremely poor people to become active citizens. For example, giving the poor influence over targeting of government resources, such as safety net cards, has been shown to improve allocation and reduce leakages and corruption. In the past, UP members often allocated these cards according to their own interests or exchanged them for bribes.
An international NGO is successfully implementing the participatory inclusive governance approach in its Social and Economic Transformation of the Ultra-Poor (SETU) project. The project is part of an organisation under a partnership between the governments of Bangladesh and UK, which aims to graduate 1 million households out of extreme poverty in Bangladesh. The SETU project alone is working with almost 20,000 households.
The northwest is an area characterised by a lack of economic development, a reliance on a backward agrarian economy, and a high incidence of landlessness. Here, SETU identifies the poorest paras to work with and then facilitates social, economic and political empowerment within the community. Natural Leader Organisations (NLOs) are developed at the union level, led by community members ("natural leaders”) who can represent the voice of poorer households, essentially acting as a pressure group on the UPs. Processes of empowerment are facilitated through community-led social analysis. Community collective action, such as sanitation promotion, has built solidarity and increased the confidence and social status of the poorest members, especially those recognised as natural leaders.
SETU has worked with UPs to change their mindset by strengthening their understanding, their planning and budgeting and their ability to engage citizens. The UP councils were encouraged to implement their own poverty reduction strategies, which have focused on government safety net programmes, employment opportunities, livelihoods and education.
In 2010, SETU facilitated "open budget sharing" sessions in all working unions, creating a participatory space for the extreme poor to publically question the UPs on their budget allocations. As a result, the UPs allocated part of the budget (2.6% in the respective unions) specifically for the extreme poor for the first time. In 2011, this budget increased by about 38%.
This shift in political culture, reflected in increased tax revenues, suggests that citizens in those areas trust the UPs to spend their money accountably. UPs have also been reluctant to collect tax in the past when political relations were based on informal practices such as vote purchasing. This change reflects a move towards democratisation and improved relations between the UP and citizens.
Participatory inclusive governance is based on the idea that improving governance will reduce poverty and highlights the importance of empowerment. Building the necessary capabilities to develop locally responsive social protection and livelihood strategies is essential. This approach addresses social disparities and ensures accountability in service delivery.
The writers are Technical Coordinator, Advocacy, Lesson Learning Officer at CARE, and Research Focal Point at shiree, respectively. For more information, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.