How can a citizen-centred approach to development build effective states by improving relations between state and society? This paper from the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability, gives an overview of current debates and analyses citizens’ own views on these issues. It argues that a state’s legitimacy is strengthened by civic participation, which often grows up around local issues, and can be empowered through donor support.
Unaccountable, “fragile” states have often been avoided by aid agencies, and efforts to make these countries more receptive to donor funding have focused on state institutions, rather than local social processes or organisations. The “seeing like a citizen” approach examines citizens’ perceptions of the institutions with which they interact.
“Citizen” is an under-used term which should be employed in a political sense that emphasises citizens’ rights and their relationship with the state. “Participation” is a concept increasingly referred to in Poverty Reduction Strategies, but groups still remain marginalised through poverty, language and ethnic divisions. Participation must be accompanied by accountability that recognises the fluid boundaries between state and society and the power imbalances between political elites and poorer citizens.
Various findings are made on the origins and avenues of citizens’ participation in the state:
- A sense of citizenship often initiates through belonging to associations at local, rather than state, level. Local Bangladeshi courts and Mexican health groups encouraged individuals to think collectively, while marginalised communities in Nigeria and Brazil viewed themselves as members of families or neighbourhoods, rather than nations.
- Extending state services to individuals is a significant but not sufficient step in promoting a sense of citizenship. Communities also stress the need for dignified, consultative treatment by state actors.
- Citizens’ engagement occurs through state-created bodies, civil society organisations (CSOs), self-organised social movements and parallel governance structures, like the Zapatistas’ autonomous areas in Mexico. State bodies’ effectiveness depends on their inclusiveness and pro-poor commitment; CSOs benefit from local knowledge and a rights focus; and self-mobilised groups may encourage government dialogue or further marginalise excluded individuals.
- Legislation and constitutional provisions have allowed poor people to claim rights in Brazil, South Africa and India, but gaps exist between law and implementation, for instance in Bangladesh.
- Citizens’ participation strengthens state accountability and engagement with society. Non-state service delivery, such as oil companies’ involvement in the Niger delta, can complicate accountability mechanisms.
Donors should support local civic participation but avoid distorting indigenously generated processes through external targets or artificial impositions of consensus:
- Donors should promote citizenship by encouraging the extension of basic services in a sustainable manner which respects the dignity of local communities and municipal governments.
- By providing project support and social funds, donors can ensure that state-invited forums are inclusive and committed to pro-poor considerations.
- CSO involvement can be promoted by donor-funded, independently-managed civil society programmes which reassure governments about grassroots mobilisations.
- Donors should promote self-mobilised movements which hold governments accountable but do not trigger conflict or crowd out marginalised groups.
- Legally enshrined rights, accompanied by judicial capacity development, are essential for state-building, but laws can fail to address poor people’s problems or violate their rights.
- Donors should ensure deregulated, foreign interventions in developing economies are accountable and meet poor citizens’ needs.