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Citizens and the State: Working Across the Demand and Supply Dichotomy

Darshana Patel's picture

Citizens are assigned various roles in the development process (service users, project beneficiaries, and consulted stakeholders). But how can citizens move from being just users and choosers of social services to makers and shapers of policies and processes so that they can ultimately lead their own development?

“The most effective citizens are the most versatile: the ones who can cross boundaries. They move between the local, the national and the global, employ a range of techniques, act as allies and adversaries of the state, and deploy their skills of protest and partnership at key moments and in different institutional entry points.”  Blurring the Boundaries: Citizen Action Across States and Societies

This is one of the conclusions of a 10-year research initiative by the Development Research Center on Citizenship, Participation, and Accountability (the Citizenship DRC). The Citizenship DRC is a global consortium that has investigated the relationship between states and its citizens in over 25 countries from across the globe and in over 100 case studies.

The Citizenship DRC describes a dichotomy between governance reforms that focus primarily on state-led institutions and initiatives that build citizens’ capabilities to voice their demands from the state. Development practitioners with experience in this work acknowledge that we need to work through both state institutions and citizens. (Even if a policy or institutional space exists, it does not automatically mean that citizens have the capacity to fill this space.)

The research goes further to suggest that we need to work not only on “both sides of the equation” but also across it.  In the spaces where citizens and the state interact, both sides defend their positions and contest for power. But these spaces can also allow alliances to be built and foster deliberation and shared decision-making. Rather than putting the primary focus on building “good institutions” that treat citizens as end-users, institutions must be designed through the perspective of citizens and how they can engage with them.  To facilitate this relationship, intermediaries such as NGOs and donors should build the capacities on both sides to ensure that this engagement is meaningful.

The research also reinforces the notion that a one-size-fits-all approach to citizen engagement will not be successful. Even small differences from one context to another can influence how accountable and inclusive these spaces can be. What works in one context will not necessarily work in another and the onus is on the actors that drive and fund these initiatives to be more thoughtful.

Tokenistic participatory exercises and spaces are not only meaningless in the long run but they can sometimes reinforce existing social inequalities. Participatory spaces can be captured by local elites, exclude the very communities that these spaces are meant to serve and discourage these communities from wanting to see the process through.  These are unintended but damaging consequences. 

Finally, systems designed to measure our progress must be fine-tuned to capture behavioral and social changes.  Because building citizen engagement is a slow and cyclical process, it cannot be confined to short project cycles. A system of measurement in this area must realistically capture the changes that can be achieved in one project.  A 3-year project most likely cannot reduce poverty through citizen engagement but it can induce small but significant changes in how citizens’ view their own agency and in the state’s culture of accountability.

This research provides some guidance for all actors in this field of work (including NGOs, government officials, and researchers) but one advice it has posed for donors is especially relevant for organizations like the World Bank. Large international development organizations tend to work in silos, with separate units that dialogue with governments and civil society. There is some overlap but they do not seem to fully inform one another. This divide must be crossed within our own institutions if we want to work across this demand and supply dichotomy.


Photo credit: flickr user Thomas Hawk

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