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Gram Sabhas

Measuring Public Opinion in Challenging Contexts

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

As we have discussed in other blog posts, public opinion is particularly important in countries with weak institutions of governance and accountability. Especially in fragile and conflict states, it can lend legitimacy to the government, help creating a national identity, and support governance reform. Unfortunately, public opinion is particularly hard to measure in those societies where it could be most important.

Deliberation - What?

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The practice of deliberation has had its place in participatory governance, in development and other areas, for some time. What do you think of when you hear "deliberation"? Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting? India's Gram Sabhas? Parliament? America Speaks? It's all that - and so much more.

In the most common understanding, deliberation is some form of interpersonal discussion about an issue of public concern. This can range from everyday talk about political issues at, say, the kitchen table, to formalized group discussions that aim at solving a common problem. One definition comes from Delli Carpini, Cook, and Jacobs*, who state that deliberation is "the process through which deliberative democracy occurs," a "specific, important, and idealized category within the broader notion of what we call 'discursive participation'." The category is ideal because, à la Habermas, it requires a range of ideal characteristics to be truly deliberative, first and foremost openness and equality of discourse.

Beware the Context - Deliberation for Development II

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Earlier this month, CommGAP hosted a conference on "Deliberation for Development: New Directions." The meeting was headed by the World Bank's Vijayendra Rao and Patrick Heller from Brown University and provided a vast and rich overview over the issue of deliberation as it concerns our work on the ground. Here's a little summary of the day, which by no means captures even a fraction of the wealth of information and knowledge that was presented, but may be an appetizer for our forthcoming book gathering all those contributions.

The first speaker, Arjun Appadurai of New York University, spoke about the importance of context: success of deliberation depends on factors outside the deliberative frame, mostly social and political power structures. Individual deliberation events may fail more often than not, especially if it's about allocating resources for the poor. However, while isolated deliberative occasions may be a failure in their own narrow context, in aggregation over time even those failures can alter those very contexts that made them fail at the outset.

Deliberation for Development

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

CommGAP and the World Bank Development Research Group Poverty & Inequality are hosting a conference on "Deliberation for Development: New Directions" on Friday this week. We have a number of high profile speakers and commentators lined up, who have done cutting-edge research on deliberation and how it can increase development effectiveness. The conference will be convened by the Wold Bank's Vijayendra Rao and Patrick Heller from Brown University. Arjun Appadurai (New York University) will talk about "Success and Failure in the Deliberative Democracy," Ann Swidler (Berkeley) and Susan Watkins (University if California) will discuss "Practices of Deliberation in Rural Malawi." JP Singh of Georgetown University will compare the participatory character of the WTO and UNESCO, while the World Bank's Michael Woolcock will examine the link between deliberation and the rule of law. Gianpaolo Baiocchi (Brown University) will talk about "The Global Translations of Participatory Budgeting” and Gerry Mackie (University of California) will address the educational effects of public deliberation.

The “State-Sponsored” Public Sphere

Darshana Patel's picture

In India’s 2 million villages, public meetings at the village level called Gram Sabhas (GSs) have provided a structured, institutionalized space for dialogue between the local government and its citizens.  In a recently released paper on the topic, Vijayendra Rao and Paromita Sanyal have coined these GSs as “state-sponsored” public sphere.  In fact, these meetings are mandated by national legislation. 

In India, these public meetings not only offer a space to dialogue and feedback between citizens and local power holders, they also pair it with real decision-making on how to manage local resources for beneficiaries for public programs.  This is the most striking feature of the GSs.  While the government provides data on families living below the poverty line that could be eligible for local resources, the GSs are required to have these lists ratified by those attending the meeting.  Citizens can directly challenge the data in “a forum where public discourse shapes the meaning of poverty, discrimination and affirmative action.”