Deepening democracy at the grassroots
Every morning, the scenario of Botlagari Union Parishad Complex is rather different than most of the unions of Bangladesh.
The results of integrated approach of socio-economic development adopted by Botlagari Union Parishad of Saidpur Upazilla under Nilphamari are quite visible. Hundreds of people come to the Parishad with their issues. Chairman and members interact with the local people to find out solutions. The Union Information Centre is well organised – people come for various information and young people come for basic training on computer. A mini-garment factory is established at the premises, where extremely poor women are receiving training and many of them are producing garment products for local market through which they are earning livelihoods.
In answer to the question of how this transformation has happened, Saidur Rahman Sarker, the proud Chairman of Botlagari, replied with a smile, “It has happened because the people of our union trust the elected body and we uphold it through our activities.” The union has already been an example in the Northwest for democratic practices at the grassroots level – the elected representatives regularly interact with the local communities in taking key decisions by using participatory spaces, such as, Gram Sava (village assembly), participatory budgeting, UP performance feedback by local leaders, Para unnayan committees (hamlet development committees) and UP level forum of community leaders. Standing committees of the Union Parishad have been reformed to ensure the participation of marginalised communities, especially women and the poor. As described by the chairman, the result is that the distance between the general people and the elected representatives has been reduced significantly, encouraging people to put trust upon the UP body.
The Botlagari Union has demonstrated that inclusive governance process can enhance total development process of the area, which ultimately contributes to poverty eradication. Traditionally decision-making power in Union Parishads, despite the existence of an electoral system, remains in the hands of the elite because of the social inequalities that shape the exploitation, discrimination and marginalisation of extremely poor people. Their participation is limited by their own lack of opportunity and capacity, societal norms and institutions, and centralised and exclusionary systems of governance.
Inclusive governance in Botlagari focuses on addressing these dimensions of exclusion and inequity in the formal and informal realms and creating and strengthening spaces for participation, thereby creating the conditions necessary for extremely poor people to demand their rights and hold elected representatives to account. To build the Botlagari model on this conceptualisation, there are two important arguments for why governance matters. Firstly, participation (and within this political participation) is seen as a right with intrinsic value in itself. Secondly, experience shows that development results are more relevant, far-reaching, and sustainable if people are able to engage in the management of those public affairs that affect their lives. Very importantly, there is evidence to show that success is greater in reducing poverty and inequality in the long term if governments are capable, inclusive and accountable to their citizens and that people are able to actively engage in governance processes.
Now how has the inclusive governance process been facilitated in Botlagari, where Union Parishads are generally labelled as institutions with low capability and are mandated only to support central government in distribution of safety net programmes and relief during the time of disaster? To answer this question, we need to go back to 2004 when the Chairman of Botlagari asked a very vital question to CARE Bangladesh in a workshop, mentioning that lots of efforts had been made to improve the accounting system of the Parishad and the management of it, but had these contributed to poverty eradication?
Surely there was a drastic improvement in office management, which according to him was important, but why could the Union Parishad not be the centre of poverty eradication effort? If people remain hungry, there is no meaning of governance improvement focusing on only improvement of office management. The chairman's remark was an eye-opener for CARE Bangladesh. The organisation then partnered with the Union Parishad to facilitate an integrated model of inclusive governance. As the first step of the process, the Union Parishad worked to change “attitude and behaviour” so that the elected representatives as a team could adopt a pro-poor vision of development. Very quickly the Union Parishad started to own the process, articulated their own vision of developing a “hunger free” union and committed to work with the most marginalised.
The Union Parishad then identified the most marginalised communities where traditionally resources were fewer and worked with the community leaders to foster development.
Simultaneously with the Union Parishad and CARE staff facilitated a three-stage process with the poorest communities leading from (1) analysis of their environment, condition, and resources; to (2) self-realisation, the articulation of their own vision of development and strengthening their capacity to act in pursuit of their self-defined goals; and to (3) solidarity, or collective action to achieve this vision of development, which often aimed at “open defecation free” communities and “hunger and dadon (advance labour selling) free” communities.
Emerging from this process are people from within the communities who show the willingness and ability to lead development activities and support others. These individuals are referred to as 'natural leaders'. The beauty of community-led development was that it empowered the marginalised to be confident in raising collective voices and claiming entitlements. Finally, Botlagari Union Parishad was assisted in creating participatory spaces for both elected representatives and the marginalised to interact.
The inclusive governance process practiced by Botlagari Union Parishad has brought very positive changes throughout the union. Findings of a study (“Promoting Inclusive Governance in Bangladesh: Empowering the Extremely Poor”, Roopa Hinton, May 2010) reveals that the voice of the most marginalised, particularly women, has been promoted by Union Parishad in Botlagari. There are more spaces and opportunities for the marginalised to participate in Botlagari – a much higher percentage of the extreme poor are also participating in Botlagari Union (35 percent) than in other surveyed Unions (3 percent). Natural leaders from the marginalised communities reported greater awareness and knowledge of UP plans and budgets than other sample populations, with a stronger positive effect among women than men. The decision-making of the Union Parishad is more responsive towards the needs of the under-served population. Also, much better targeting of safety net programmes is taking place, reaching to the poorest and to the marginalised communities where resources are less concentrated.
But does this inclusive governance process contribute specifically in changing the livelihoods of the poorest? A study entitled “Inclusive Governance: Transforming Livelihood Security, Experiences from CARE Bangladesh” (Roopa Hinton, May 2011) shows that it is contributing to extreme poverty eradication and the nature of livelihood and coping strategies had changed, with a general trend towards more equitable terms. In the case of Rahima (see two graphs), working as a domestic worker had comprised 25 percent of household livelihood in the past. She had now replaced this with working in the Government Cash for Work Programme, which paid 120 Taka per day, and agricultural labour, which paid 60 to 70 Taka per day. Both of these activities represent a significant improvement compared to the terms associated with working as a maidservant. This has been a common trend in Botlagari with the poorest.
In Bangladesh, the greatest hope lies with the institutionalisation of democratic practices at the grassroots level. People's participation, especially the participation of the most marginalised, in local development processes can transform realities. The inclusive local governance process helps to uphold the social accountability mechanism, which helps the UP to perform better. More importantly, it is creating spaces for both Union Parishad and local communities to work together in addressing extreme poverty and marginalisation. The Botlagari Union Parishad has demonstrated the possibilities with the participatory inclusive governance model.
With the funding of ardent supporters, the Botlagari Model has been implemented in more than 50 unions in the Northwest and it is now in the process of being tested in the Haor and Southwest regions. The organisation is now working with Horizontal Learning Program to share the model with larger number of Union Parishads and development partners. As the time progresses, the model is incorporating issues around gender, climate change and disaster response and economic governance. This has only been possible as the key focus of this model is context-specific and participatory and builds on the vision set by the Union Parishad itself. By institutionalising an inclusive governance model, incorporation of diverse voices and bringing decision-making closer to citizens, broadening and deepening the influence of citizens – all are possible, which can ultimately contribute to transforming Bangladesh in a meaningful way.
The writer is Director, Extreme Rural Poverty Program, CARE Bangladesh.