Friday March 24, 2023

Towards grassroots democracy

March 01, 2019

A rural woman narrated her story of transformation in an experience-sharing workshop organised by the EU funded Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support (SUCCESS) Program in Hyderabad, Sindh last week.

Addressing an audience of rural development practitioners, civil society representatives, government officials, journalists and fellow women from rural areas, Mariya Partab articulated the vision of inclusive democracy for the poor. As an elected president of one of the Local Support Organizations (LSOs) formed through financial and technical assistance of one of the Rural Support Programs (RSPs) in the poverty-stricken rural areas of Sindh, Marya Partab was able to move out of poverty. It was not only her story but that of 548,000 rural women who have been able to transform their lives through the SUCCESS programme implemented by RSPs.

LSOs have been formed at the union council (UC) level as apex institutions of village organisations managed, governed and led by poor women who were hitherto excluded from the mainstream national political and economic life. One day before this experience-sharing workshop, hundreds of rural women of different LSOs gathered at Haji Mir Bahr village of Tando Allayar whose intrepidity of public speeches was so inspiring that even the most educated, articulate and urbane would envy this eloquence.

Once suppressed and unrepresented, poor women have now become the architects of a simmering movement of change in rural Sindh. Most of us would not believe in such stories unless we see them ourselves. As they say, development is a messy process and its impact is incremental with small steps towards a larger goal of transformation. The impact of investment in rural development is gradually unfolding in Sindh – despite all the political, economic and structural issues of poverty and underdevelopment. It is all anecdotal and experiential, reflected through strong voices of poor rural women whose mobility was once restricted to male-dominated domestic spaces.

This is the time to invest more in rural development to build an inclusive and prosperous Pakistan. One must learn from the enduring struggle of Shoaib Sultan Khan and his team of rural development whose conception of rural transformation has worked well across South Asia. Look at the human development indicators of Bangladesh, where successive governments have invested in rural development to transform their nation into a fast-growing country. The secret of this impressive journey of development in Bangladesh lies in investment in promoting and protecting the rural economy and helping build those enabling institutions of the poor.

The current government’s rhetoric of investing in human development in Pakistan can best be demonstrated through investing in those village organisations created through RSPs which will otherwise wither away in the course of time. This will also strengthen local government institutions and will usher in an era of grassroots democracy in Pakistan.

There is an emerging dimension to grassroots democracy which remains unattended in the mainstream discourse of politics and development. Democracy as a process to enhance downward social accountability is what constitutes its real strength and it works as an incremental force to diffuse the foci of power. However, downward social accountability is not a mechanical process to be triggered through the ballot box but rather more of an institutional arrangement.

Let us explore first what downward social accountability entails. All human relationships are governed through institutions mediated by an unwritten principle of reciprocity. From family to professional networks and from corporate entities to the state, all are socially and historically constructed institutions governed by the principle of reciprocity. Faced with the changed realities, these institutions keep evolving and reshaping over time to redefine human relationships.

Having said that, all human relationships which are mediated through institutions are not always established on an even keel or on a principle of equality. Institutions are socially constructed mechanisms to help diffuse the conflict caused by human will to absolute freedom and to help articulate collective interest for the larger cause of social protection and socioeconomic necessity.

Despite their inherent feature of mediating social relationships, not all institutions are democratic in nature. As institutions grow, they become more bureaucratic and are governed by standard rules and regulations which are formulated to exert effective control and to reduce individual discretion. In our modern societies, institutions are driven by the economic and political interests of different social classes living in a nation-state. Since modern societies are complex and heterogeneous in nature, they need a multitude of institutions to represent the interests of different segments of society.

Institutions in a politically and economically divided society are also based on the interests of diverse groups and they cannot be seen as a cementing force for all of society. Therefore, in our modern society one can find diverse networks of social, professional and political groups – each vying for the protection of their professional, economic and political interests. Social groups that are organised can easily protect their collective interests as compared to those groups which have not created their own organisation. For a democracy to work effectively as a system of downward social accountability, it is vital that the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid must have their own organisation to influence policymaking in the modern nation-state.

The state is one of the most complex modern institutions which has evolved into a supra political entity; most of us are made to believe that the modern nation-state is a neutral and overarching political structure above society. But this is not true because the state is an institution to protect the collective interest of an organised ruling elite through legislation if left to its own devices. Legislation may provide legitimacy to the action of those who are well organised and have resources to control the state.

All institutions, including the state, are not neutral entities. Rather, they are driven by the collective interests of the socioeconomic class they represent in society. The state has monopoly over the use of violence against disruption of the status quo – and in doing so it tends to protect the interests of those whose stakes are well served in a given political and economic system.

How to make the state accountable to those who are at the bottom of socioeconomic pyramid then? The only viable answer to this question is that, unless the poor have their own institutions – run, governed and led by the poor themselves – there would be no downward accountability in favour of the poor in a political system. The institutions of the poor thus created are key to help articulate the collective political and economic interests of the poor. The downward accountability of a government to its people will effectively be used to promote and protect the grassroots’ democracy.

Are there any viable ways to promote such grassroots democracy in a developing country like Pakistan, where the political will to strengthen democracy has always been shaky? The answer is yes. Apart from a generic and elitist political debate on democracy, we must now focus on investing in those institutions which have the potential to build a critical mass of socially responsible and economically active citizens who could contribute to nation-building.

We are fortunate to have a strong network of rural development programmes in Pakistan with immense experience to help the government achieve its goal of building a strong local government structure. The government must commit resources to help RSPs scale up social mobilisation and institutional development programmes at the village and UC levels to form inclusive and democratic organisations across the rural areas of the country.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.


Twitter: @AmirHussain76