1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Special Events (2000 - 2009)

Civil Society Participation under the New Aid Approach: Pluralist prescriptions for pro-poor interests? (Draft)



One of the most remarkable issues in the new aid approach is the place and role of civil society participation. It is mandatory and governments will have to prove that they undertook a genuine effort to involve civil society stakeholders in the drafting of the document. It is expected that civil society will monitor implementation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) and that they can provide valuable inputs back into the policy cycle. By now, a lot has been written on the wrongs and rights of introducing participation as a mandatory element in the PRSPs. In terms of assessing these participatory exercises, the aid paradox seems to strike again: it works where it isn’t really needed, and where it is needed most, it doesn’t work.

PRSP processes have most clearly succeeded where they tended to coincide with a national project for poverty reduction (articulated by political leaders and widely shared by citizens). Notwithstanding the disillusionment with the results and impact of the processes, there are also positive sounds. In many countries, the PRSP processes created political space for civil society, especially for NGOs, and it contributed to broadening the debate over economic and social policies. The participation exercise also gave an impetus to civil society organizations engaging in networks, forming umbrella organisations and strategic alliances.

The results are thus, at best, mixed and the huge number of assessments have led to an equally long and impressive list of recommendations: discussions on macroeconomic issues should be opened up to civil society stakeholders, capacity building initiatives should prepare the poor for participation, participation of mass organisations and social movements should be stimulated so as to increase the legitimacy of the processes, participation should be institutionalized so as to ensure more control over the whole policy cycle process, from agenda-setting to policy formulation, decision making and implementation.

The paper argues that most of the wrongs and rights of these participation processes can be linked back to a theoretical discussion on how the state should relate to society, and which model is more effective to ensure policy influencing. We will, in this paper, look into both the corporatist and the pluralist schools and see that the PRSP in design is closely related to the pluralist interpretation of participation. Most of the criticisms voiced around the actual shortcomings of these processes, on the other hand, are closely linked to the corporatist school. The paper demonstrates that there are huge problems with the pluralist assumptions, and that literature seems to suggest that neo-corporatist models lend themselves better for deeper forms of participation, including on macroeconomic issues. A closer look at some cases shows that the reality is quite complex: corporatism has its own set of shortcomings, and more conditions are needed for the corporatist model to work effectively under a PRSP setting. The paper takes a closer look at four countries: Viet Nam, Uganda, Bolivia and Senegal. Important to mention is that this paper does not aim at giving a full account of what the participation processes in these countries entailed and what their impact has been. It zooms in on some events or remarkable moments which illustrate the tension between form and nature. The aspects highlighted in these cases show that both corporatist and pluralist interaction patterns are imperfect and neither of them offer sufficient guarantees to ensure pro-poor participation It is important to clarify that pro-poor participation and participation of the poor are two different things. According to some, achieving poverty reduction may be better served by supporting alliances and coalitions around a pro-poor agenda than by poor people participating. They underline a well-known fact that poor people often participate in politics on bases that objectively have little to do with their interest in poverty reduction, or that may be counterproductive to any goal of poverty reduction, yet at the same time both hold promising potentials.