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Civil Society and Poverty

Abstract and Keywords

This article explores the achievements of civil society in the area of poverty reduction. It argues that civil society organizations can promote poverty reduction by pushing for macro-level structural changes through advocacy, lobbying the government for policy change at the national level and providing effective services directly to the poor at the grassroots. It highlights the achievement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in disseminating a politics of hope and an empowering mindset that inspires the poor and helps them to voice their demands.

Keywords: civil society, poverty reduction, advocacy, lobbying, policy change, NGOs, politics of hope, empowering mindset

The 1990s witnessed many changes as the Cold War ended and globalization deepened. Two of these changes are especially important for this chapter. First, the evolution of a global consensus that extreme poverty had to be tackled, and second, the belief that civil society should be a major player in this task by mobilizing communities, delivering services, and shaping policies. Yet the growing international interest in poverty reduction results mainly from the efforts of aid agencies rather than a self-sustaining social movement on poverty. The absence of committed leadership and the breadth and vagueness of the concept of poverty make it difficult to create the sharp messages that are required for large-scale social and political mobilization.

This chapter explores the achievements of civil society in the area of poverty reduction. Since both civil society and poverty are contested concepts, analyzing their relationship is difficult, but we argue that civil society organizations can promote poverty reduction by pushing for macro-level structural changes through advocacy, lobbying the government for policy change at the national level, and providing effective services directly to the poor at the grassroots. Success depends on the ways in which civil society groups integrate these three approaches together in different political contexts, since certain strategy mixes succeed in one context and fail in others. In Bangladesh, for example, the success of advocacy and policy change has been minimal due to the nature of that country's governance, while direct service provision has yielded significant results.

(p. 392) 1. Civil Society and Poverty

Most of the literature on civil society and poverty reduction focuses on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Sometimes an NGO can act as an umbrella organization that works with pre-existing community groups, acting as a facilitator and providing technical support. Elsewhere, NGOs create community groups such as microfinance and women's groups to help the poor organize themselves and express their needs, though the sustainability of such imposed community groups is questionable. The very idea of poverty reduction seems to be associated with elite- and middle-class attempts to establish NGOs to help the poor, though faith-based organizations, religious communities, informal groups, cooperatives, recreational, and cultural organizations also play their roles. For example, mosque committees in Islamic cultures and temple and burial committees in Buddhism provide services and assistance to the poor. Unfortunately, these services are rarely documented except in a small number of ethnographic studies. Therefore, this chapter is focused on NGOs.

As for defining poverty, “there are heated debates about ‘what’ poverty is—a lack of income, a failure to meet basic needs, a set of multi-dimensional capability deprivations or an abrogation of human rights. These are not mere semantics as the way one envisions poverty has profound implications for the types of actions one believes are needed to eradicate or reduce it” (Hulme 2010, 37). Definitions of global poverty range from the narrow income concept of one U.S. dollar per day to the broader capability approach of enlarging people's freedoms and enhancing their human development. This chapter argues that in addition to using objective measures, subjective methods including the voices of the poor themselves should be used to evaluate the achievements of civil society in reducing global poverty on both its income and capability dimensions.

In terms of global trends, poverty in the developing world has declined as the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day in 2005 prices decreased from 1.9 billion (or 52 percent of total global population) in 1981 to 1.4 billion (or 25 percent) in 2005 (Chen and Ravallion 2009; Ravallion 2009). However, it is hard to tie the actions of NGOs to this decline because so many different national and subnational experiences underlie these figures. For example China, with a limited civil society, succeeded in reducing poverty effectively in the 2000s; while in Africa, a range of stronger NGO communities did not achieve much success, partly due to the difficult political contexts in which they operated. In contrast, NGOs in Bangladesh have played a major role in reducing poverty. The headcount poverty index in Bangladesh dropped from 52 percent in 1983–84 to 40 percent in 2000 (Hossain, Sen, and Rahman 2000). Some of this decline is clearly attributable to the efforts of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), the Grameen Bank, and other NGOs. One might also argue that poverty reduction was a result of trade policy and growth in the private sector, but Sen and Hulme (2006) demonstrate that almost 25 to 30 million Bangladeshis have hardly benefited at all from the growth of (p. 393) the formal economy in Bangladesh—hence the importance of NGO efforts to reach the poorest. The impact of the 2008–09 financial crisis on the world's poor is still to be confirmed, though it is estimated that between 55 and 90 million more people live in extreme poverty as a result (United Nations 2009).

In assessing the role of NGOs in poverty reduction, one can examine four main dimensions: their structure, the space in which they operate, the values they advocate, and their impact on policymaking (Anheier 2004, 29–32). The focus of this chapter is on the values and impact of NGOs—that is, their ability to advocate for values that promote equity and their role in giving voice to the poor, in lobbying policymakers, and in expanding poverty-related service provision. This task is difficult because empirical studies yield ambiguous results. For example, NGOs often succeed in extending services to the poor and in improving their livelihoods; but the long-term social, economic, and political impacts of these projects are questionable. Nevertheless, it is possible to collate the available evidence along three approaches to poverty reduction by NGOs, namely: pushing for structural and social change via advocacy, lobbying the government for pro-poor reforms and changing government policy, and providing for basic needs via service delivery.

2. NGO Advocacy for Global Poverty Reduction

In recent years the success of well-mobilized campaigns around debt cancellation, landmines, and fair trade has demonstrated the role that advocacy can play in promoting anti-poverty policies internationally. Coates and David (2002, 530) argue that “advocacy work has become the latest enthusiasm for most agencies involved in international aid and development.” The use of advocacy work at all levels by NGOs is due to a number of factors. First, their understanding of poverty and deprivation has deepened as they have come to realize that despite decades of foreign aid, the deeper causes of poverty have yet to be tackled. Secondly, the context in which they operate has changed as a result of the growing size and capacity of NGOs in the South. As a result, “Southern NGOs and social movements have become more assertive in challenging power structures within their own countries and increasingly at the international level” through active advocacy campaigns (Coates and David 2002, 531). Thirdly, the role of Northern NGOs is shifting in the light of this development, making new and more effective advocacy campaigns possible in the form of coalitions of different organizations working across local, national, and international levels—Jubilee 2000, the global campaign for debt cancellation, is a good example (Edwards and Gaventa 2000).

However, have these campaigns had any impact on poverty reduction? Answering this question is difficult because the changes resulting from advocacy are nonlinear and long-term. Advocacy depends on cooperation, which is why its (p. 394) impact cannot be assessed by focusing on one organization alone, and attribution is almost impossible above the project level, especially because most of the forces acting on poverty are not controlled by NGOs or are susceptible to advocacy strategies. But there are certainly examples of NGOs that are using advocacy to change poverty policies and reshape patterns of aid and investment in a positive direction. Take, for example, the case of Shack Dwellers International or SDI.

SDI was established in 1996 as an international network of organizations from eleven countries representing more than one million of the urban poor, mostly women, to advocate for their rights and end coercive means of slum clearance. However, SDI does not occupy the leadership of the network; instead it plays a supportive role in monitoring public policy, mobilizing members, and creating new information resources through settlement surveys and the mapping of slums. SDI develops “leadership amongst the urban poor so that they themselves can lead the negotiations with the state and its agencies to extend and obtain entitlements” (Patel, Burra, and D’Cruz 2001, 47). Its main activities focus on building and strengthening community-based organizations of the urban poor and helping them to find and implement community-led solutions to housing and livelihood problems. The network uses saving-and-credit schemes to help members with housing loans, nurtures social capital, and supports them in their negotiations with local authorities and central governments, especially over security-of-tenure and the provision of adequate housing and infrastructure (Batliwala 2002, 403–404; Patel, Burra, and D’Cruz 2001, 47).

SDI's success has been well documented in the literature and is demonstrated in its growing size, its widespread impact on the lives of its members, and its ability to successfully advocate for change in housing and urban development policies at local, national, and international levels, including the investment policies of the World Bank (Patel, Bolnick, and Mitlin 2001; Mitlin and Satterthwaite 2004b, 288; Batliwala 2002, 407). Its success is due to at least four reasons. First, SDI enjoys high levels of legitimacy through representation because of its democratic nature, strong internal accountability systems and the constant reinvention of its relationships with grassroots actors (Edwards 2001, 148; Batliwala 2002, 406). Secondly, SDI has gained wide international recognition and has become a partner with the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) and the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure, but its main focus is on responding effectively to the specific needs of the urban poor in each locality (Patel Burra, and D’Cruz 2001, 52; Satterthwaite 2001, 135–138; Edwards 2001, 149). Thirdly, SDI's success is due to the use of knowledge and research to support its advocacy activities, knowledge that “is conceived as embedded in the lives and experiences of the poor themselves” (McFarlane 2006, 294). Fourth, SDI has created an empowering mindset among its members that encourages them to fight for their rights, making “community-based organizations the leading force in the struggle against poverty, with NGOs playing a supportive role, helping link people's organizations with mainstream governmental or private institutions, and acting as researchers and fundraisers” (Patel, Burra, and D’Cruz 2001, 48). The case of SDI thus demonstrates the importance of international partnerships, mutual learning, (p. 395) knowledge exchange, and community empowerment as strategies through which NGOs can promote poverty reduction through advocacy.

Advocacy movements bring the poor's struggles to public attention, spread the “politics of hope” and inspire the poor and disenfranchised by showing that change is possible. Rather than conventional approaches to advocacy in which NGOs generate campaigns on behalf of the poor, the success of SDI and others like it shows that effective advocacy rests on strengthening the bargaining power of the poor themselves to defend their rights and enhance their capacity for organization and collective action. As Mitlin and Satterthwaite (2004b, 282) explain, “poverty-reduction requires more than an official recognition of the poor's needs. It has to include strengthening an accountable people's movement that is able to renegotiate the relationship between the urban poor and the state (its political and bureaucratic apparatus at district, city and higher levels), and also between the urban poor and other stakeholders.” One of the challenges that NGOs face is their reluctance to accept that groups of the poor often develop as alternatives to professionally driven solutions. It is therefore essential that when operating in the advocacy domain, NGOs view their role mainly as supporters and facilitators and do not “take on what individuals and community organizations can do on their own” (Mitlin and Satterthwaite 2004b, 283). NGO advocacy can best help the poor not by speaking on their behalf, but by helping them to express their voices, articulate their needs and defend their rights effectively.

3. Changing Government Policy

NGOs can influence government to adopt pro-poor reforms through a number of strategies. First, by monitoring the allocation of government resources in favor of the poor—for example, by calling for participatory and gender-based budgeting. Second, by facilitating public debate around poverty-related problems so as to influence policy design, build new alliances, gain new supporters, and encourage policymakers to establish programs that address these problems. For example, in Peru indigenous peoples have the right of prior consent before economic activities take place on their lands as a result of the efforts of indigenous peoples’ movements and their NGO partners (Bebbington et al. 2009, 11). Many NGOs work with local governments to gain acceptability, and use a nonconfrontational approach to ensure that their suggestions are listened to (Mitlin and Satterthwaite 2004b, 286). Therefore, NGOs operating in this domain are also usually pragmatic and seek to cooperate with political parties who have a pro-poor agenda. Through partnerships with state agencies and by establishing a supportive institutional environment, NGOs can successfully scale up their initiatives to ensure their sustainability and reach.

The success of NGOs in affecting government policy depends on a number of factors, including the political context and the role of external actors in the formulation of (p. 396) poverty reduction strategies, and the policy capacities of NGOs themselves. The participation of NGOs in policy processes can become tokenistic because “although NGOs are working effectively to deliver services and care to poor and vulnerable groups…they lack the structures and mechanisms to work at the policy level” (Hughes and Atampugre 2005, 13). To improve their performance in the domain of policy change, it is therefore important to build NGO capacity to understand policy processes, access information more effectively, and improve their monitoring and evaluation skills. To effectively lobby government for policy reforms, it is also necessary that NGOs build partnerships and bridge the gaps that often exist between their staff, local communities, and policymakers, and form stronger alliances with other organizations in civil society (Hughes and Atampugre 2005, 19).

As an example of these processes at work, take NGO participation in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). Endorsed in September 1999, PRSPs are “policy documents produced by borrower countries outlining the economic, social and structural programmes to reduce poverty, to be implemented over a three-year period” (Stewart and Wang 2003, 4). Although NGOs were mainly invited to participate in the PRSP process, they have tried to use these spaces to lobby for pro-poor reforms. In Bolivia, for example, the central government initiated a “national dialogue” and linked it to the PRSP process. As a result, nationwide consultations took place at the municipal, departmental, and national levels focusing on the provision of services to the poor in the first PRSP and on the importance of employment, productivity and commodity chains in the second (Molenaers and Renard 2002, 5–7; Curran 2005, 4–5).

Bolivian NGOs faced a number of challenges in using the PRSP process as an effective space to lobby for policy change due to the limited time frame of the process, the limited information available, the language in which the PRSPs were written, the lack of state commitment, the limited organizational capacities of NGOs, and their failure to form a unified front (Stewart and Wang 2003, 12–14; Surkin 2005). In many cases, NGOs were excluded from the design of frameworks and merely participated in “precooked” proposals for policy change (Stewart and Wang 2003, 15, Fraser 2005, 326; Curran 2005, 5; Eberlei 2007, 13). As a result, the consultation process raised expectations and led to frustration and social unrest when the state failed to meet them. NGOs expressed their frustration by sending a formal petition to the government expressing their disapproval of the PRSP document (Curran 2005, 4–9).

Nevertheless, there are two significant achievements of NGO participation in the PRSP process in Bolivia. The first is the establishment of a “social control mechanism” which allows NGOs to monitor the allocation and implementation of debt relief funds, and to follow up on the implementation and reformulation of the PRSP. The second is the Law of National Dialogue, which institutionalized NGO participation in policy formulation at the local level (Curran 2005, 8–9; Molenaers and Renard 2002, 8). NGO participation in these deliberative processes gradually “turned their attitude from ‘Protesta’ (protest) into ‘Propuesta’ (proposal)” (Molenaers and Renard 2002, 8). The PRSP process was therefore an entry point through which NGOs pushed the development process forward in a pro-poor direction.

(p. 397) 4. Service Delivery to the Poor

Rahman (2006) argues that “the NGO sector as a whole has shifted away from its initial focus on promoting political mobilization and accountable government, to the apolitical delivery of basic services” (Rahman 2006, 451). NGOs face problems because the services they provide are often unsustainable due to their dependence on external funding, the difficulties of going to scale, and their inability to recover costs through user charges. Evaluating the performance of sixteen NGO projects in the area of rural poverty reduction, Robinson (1992) concludes that “three-quarters of the projects were successful and had an impact in alleviating poverty” (Robinson 1992, 30), but NGOs faced a number of limitations on their service delivery projects including their inability to reach the poorest (Robinson 1992, 30–34). Effective service delivery requires an integrated approach whereby NGOs work with community groups to improve their conditions while nurturing their relationship with local government (Mitlin and Satterthwaite 2004a, 18). Otherwise NGO service provision may undermine government responsibility to provide adequate and efficient services to the poor (Collier 2000, 122), leading to a “franchise state” in which crucial public services are run by private programs (Rahman 2006, 455).

When these positive conditions are met, NGO service provision can be extremely effective in both the short and the longer terms. In their mapping of South African social movements, for example, Mitlin and Mogaladi (2009) point out that these movements were concerned with solving concrete problems related to poverty reduction, such as shelter, human rights, labor, gender, and the environment. To address these problems, they focused mainly on service delivery, especially the restoration of land to those who have been evicted (Mitlin and Mogaladi 2009, 21–22). NGOs contribute to urban poverty reduction by “often fulfilling the role that government agencies should provide—for instance, provision of water, waste removal, healthcare or the support of centres that assist particular groups (such as centres for street children)” (Mitlin and Satterthwaite 2004a, 18). In general terms then, the role of NGOs in service delivery should be complementary to the government and supportive to local communities. NGOs operating in this domain should emphasize the long-term effects of their projects by asking “how will this have to work in the future, after we leave?” (Collier 2000, 121). The answer to this question is crucial not only for the continuity of the services provided, but also for the sustainability of their poverty-reducing impacts on targeted communities. The case of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) demonstrates how an NGO can successfully and sustainably provide a comprehensive package of services to the poor and even to the poorest.

Many NGOs help the poor directly through service provision, but BRAC occupies a particularly important position as “the developing world's largest NGO in terms of the scale and diversity of its intervention” (Chowdhury and Bhuiya 2004, 371). Founded as a charitable organization in 1972 to help in Bangladesh's reconstruction after the country's liberation war, its humanitarian efforts were later expanded (p. 398) to provide more permanent solutions to the problems of vulnerable groups (Lovell 1992, 23; Chowdhury Mahmoud, and Abed 1991, 4; Rahman 2006, 454). BRAC's development strategy stresses the importance of empowerment and conscientization, encourages participation and self-reliance, and adopts sustainable and people-centered approaches with a special emphasis on women and the poorest (Stiles 2002, 842; Lovell 1992, 24–33). This organization is worth careful examination because “it turns standard notions about development, business, poverty alleviation, and management on their head. And it confronts the idea that the drivers of development in poor countries must inevitably come from abroad” (Smilie 2009, 3).

Through its innovative services in education, health, agriculture, and income generation, BRAC has succeeded in bringing about lasting change in the lives of millions of poor people (Hulme and Moore 2010; Mustafa et al. 1996; Husain 1998). Four million children (70 percent of them girls) have graduated from its Non-Formal Primary Education program (NFPE) (Lovell 1992, 48–50), and “its extensive network of schools…provide[s] more non-formal education than the government” (Stiles 2002, 843). Millions benefit from BRAC's innovative community-based health care services and BRAC cooperates with the government to improve the national health system, with an emphasis on women's health and child survival programs (Lovell 1992, 58; Afsana and Rashid 2001, 79; Streefland and Chowdhury 1990, 263). BRAC also helps the poor through rigorous research that enhances the productivity of their enterprises, for example through new systems of chick rearing, poultry vaccination, and improved cattle breeding (Smilie 2009, 3). BRAC's poverty reduction program depends on creating an enabling environment for the poor by promoting gender equity and human rights; enhancing the poor's access to education, health care, housing, adequate technology, minimum income, and employment; and ensuring their entitlement to food and assets (Chowdhury and Bhuiya 2004, 373–376). Through the Rural Development Program, BRAC nurtures the entrepreneurial capabilities of the poor, while its Rural Credit Project serves the graduates of this program and helps them not simply by extending credit, but also by encouraging their collective activities (Chowdhury Mahmoud, and Abed 1991, 11). Its micro-credit schemes have made loans totaling more than $1 billion.

BRAC's most important contribution to poverty reduction is the Income Generation for Vulnerable Group Development Program, which aims at using “a combination of food aid, savings and training in activities with low capital requirements as a means of enabling the marginalized to climb the ladder out of ultra-poverty” (Halder and Mosely 2004, 387). The program has been very effective in reaching the ultra-poor and has successfully “deepened the outreach of its poverty-reduction activity and achieved impressive results” (Matin and Hulme 2003, 647). Although BRAC's main focus is on service delivery, it is “gradually moving beyond a ‘supply side’ approach, concentrating on the delivery of services or development projects, to a ‘demand side’ emphasis, helping communities articulate their preferences and concerns so as to become active participants in the development process” (Clark 1995, 593). The main reason for BRAC's unprecedented achievement in reducing poverty is the diversity and complementarity of its activities, which do not (p. 399) depend only on micro-credit, but use different paths to reduce poverty and vulnerability through income generation, asset building, and addressing immediate consumption needs (Matin, Hulme, and Rutherford 2002, 286–287). BRAC's comprehensive programs, innovative service delivery projects, empowerment strategies, people-centered approach, and focus on the poorest are the main reasons for its remarkable success in poverty reduction.

5. Synergies and Lessons Learned

Each of the three strategies reviewed in brief above interacts with the others. For example, service delivery can create the necessary knowledge base for advocacy and policy change, since NGOs will be in a better position to collect the information required to advocate for pro-poor policies. However, when they operate in service delivery mode, NGOs also need to be careful not to adopt an exclusively needs-based approach that neglects the poor's human rights, and fails to challenge the structures and policies that brought about these deprivations in the first place. Given these mutually reinforcing linkages, an integrative and collaborative approach is the best way for NGOs to use the data and experience they gain through service provision to call for wider policy changes in favor of the poor and advocate for structural transformations that can help sustain these gains over time. NGOs can also focus on building the local organizational capacity of the poor, strengthening their ability “to work together, organize themselves, and mobilize resources to solve problems of common interest. Organized communities are more likely to have their voices heard and their demands met” (Narayan 2002, vii). But these strategy mixes are also dependent on the nature of the political environment in which NGOs operate, especially the effectiveness of the state.

The experiences reviewed in this chapter demonstrate that the success of NGOs in promoting poverty reduction is dependent on a number of factors. First, the quality of the relationships between NGOs and the poor is crucial: “the extent of success also depends upon the extent to which such organizations have resources or decision-making powers that can support urban poor groups, and on the space given by such organizations to urban poor groups in defining priorities and developing responses—or, more fundamentally…in actually conceptualizing participation” (Mitlin and Satterthwaite 2004b, 289).

Second, poverty is multidimensional, and therefore requires the adoption of a multifaceted strategy. For example, to address inadequate incomes, NGOs need to provide the poor with relevant training and the skills required to access better-paid jobs, widen their possibilities for self-production, extend the safety net through public works programs, and lobby for policy change in the provision of better and cheaper services. Inadequate and unstable assets can be addressed through emergency and asset building credit schemes, nurturing social capital for communal (p. 400) access to resources, and improving the poor's access to housing, health, and education. To overcome the problem of inadequate shelter, NGOs can help the poor to access new land and reduce building costs in addition to lobbying government to legalize informal settlements. Deteriorating infrastructure and social services can be addressed by increasing the capacity of local governments. The poor lack security, which is why NGOs need to lobby for the establishment of social safety nets, especially for the most vulnerable groups. Finally, through advocacy and policy reforms, NGOs can also protect the rights of the poor, enhance their bargaining power and help them overcome their lack of political voice.

Third, NGOs must personify the values they stand for. While calling for democracy, development, and social justice, NGOs need to demonstrate that their organizations adopt these values in their own activities and in their relationships with grassroots groups. Their role should be one of facilitating community-led solutions to ensure the sustainability of poverty reduction efforts. Fourth, the success of NGOs in tackling poverty depends on their adoption of an integrated approach that combines elements from all three strategies into a mutually supportive mix that is appropriate and effective in each context, combining practical and strategic actions by focusing on concrete, short-term solutions while also addressing the long-term dynamics that perpetuate poverty. Finally, knowledge and mutual learning are crucial for enhancing the effectiveness of NGO roles in poverty reduction. Knowledge helps NGOs not only to design more effective poverty reduction policies but also to enhance their bargaining power and credibility when calling for pro-poor reforms.

6. Conclusion

Although NGO achievements in the field of poverty reduction are not always easy to identify, it is clear that their efforts can help to disseminate a “politics of hope” and an empowering mindset that inspires the poor and helps them to voice their demands. NGOs should not lead this process, but they can act as facilitators in ways that leave enough space for the poor to articulate their own needs. If NGOs are to play a more effective role in poverty reduction, they need to overcome a number of limitations. First, they need to move away from a needs-based to an integrative approach that respects the rights of the poor and helps them to improve their living conditions in sustainable ways. Service delivery programs managed by NGOs should not replace government services, but rather complement and strengthen them—as is the case with BRAC.

Secondly, successful advocacy for the rights of poor people is based on adequate knowledge and deep understanding of their needs, context, and demands. Third, the impact of NGOs on policy change is limited so long as they maintain a competitive and mistrustful relationship with their governments. NGOs need not only to cooperate (p. 401) with government, but also to coordinate their own activities and thus create a unified front that can lobby for sustainable pro-poor national policies. To do so, they need to build their own capacities and improve the skills required to engage in policy dialogues, work with grassroots organizations, and develop and articulate credible alternative policy choices that can help to improve the lives of the poor.


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