What’s missing from the ‘Active Citizens + Effective States’ formula in From Poverty to Power?

Oh dear. Be careful what you wish for. When I wrote From Poverty to Power (the book, not the blog), we came up with a nice subtitle fp2p-3d-book-coverthat seemed to capture a common thread linking the very diverse topics covered in the book – ‘How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World.’ But now I’m starting to regret it.

At the time (the book was published in 2008), I was concerned with getting INGOs to engage more fully with states, whether at national or local level. INGOs should not just be about building civil society organizations, but also helping them engage with those in power. We certainly do more of that now, (I’m making no claim to attribution here – the book mainly just systematized what was emerging in Oxfam’s collective brain). In particular, INGOs increasingly find themselves in a ‘convening and brokering’ role, operating in the interstices between citizens’ movements and states.

But as I do my rounds and talk to staff and partners, I am increasingly kicking back against a new intellectual trap – we are in danger of constructing a binary world in which citizens (‘rights holders’) simply demand a string of actions from states (‘duty bearers’). I have at least three serious objections to this approach:

The first is that the world of politics and power is not binary. As I found in Tajikistan, NGO staff may have a default position of just seeing states and ‘people like us’ in organized civil society groups, but ask them to scratch the surface of any village, city etc and they rapidly identify a far richer ecosystem of institutions and social capital– faith organizations, savings groups, funeral societies, sports associations, respected figures (teachers, nurses, doctors). It is coalitions of such groups and individuals that drive/block change, not an over-simplified and somewhat barren bi-culture of state and civil society.

cartoon_truth to powerThe second is that civil society itself is not monolithic. Instead, it is granular, made up of any number of more durable institutions, whether formal or (more often) informal. NGOs need to immerse themselves deeply in these ecosystems to understand their work with civil society.

The third is that in practice simply siding with rights holders to put pressure on duty bearers seldom works. In country after country, the latter, for example village officials, sidle up to us and say sotto voce ‘we really want to do our job better, but we have no idea how – can you help please?’ So we end up arranging training for the representatives of the state, not just supporting the demands of its citizens. And frequently, we go further and bring the two together to find solutions together, PDIA style.

There’s at least one other major weakness in the ‘Active Citizens-Effective States’ formula – economic power is absent. At the time I wrote the book, lots of people wanted me to include ‘cuddly private sector’ (or something like that) as a third part of the equation, and I resisted arguing (rightly, I still think) that states and citizens act together to set the rules within which the private sector emerges, operates and evolves. What I missed (especially as I read up on the literature for a subsequent PhD) was the broader issue of economic power and the way it shapes and misshapes politics, as discussed in our recent paper on inequality. That should have been more prominent.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think the ‘active citizens and effective states’ formula is a useful aide memoire. But as I lurch towards my next book (working title ‘How Change Happens’) expect things to get more complicated.

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One Response to “What’s missing from the ‘Active Citizens + Effective States’ formula in From Poverty to Power?”
  1. Andrew Wells-Dang

    I couldn’t agree more, Duncan. Not only are civil society and states not binary opposites, they are both ‘multi-lithic’ composites of many different levels, institutions and competing interests – and ultimately made up of people. It’s particularly obvious in Vietnam where I work that the institutions and people in ‘the state’ and those in ‘civil society’ often overlap: people ‘wear multiple hats’, organisations are ‘amphibious’ or ‘straddlers’ (all terms used in the academic literature on civil society in Asia, including my writing). And I think the observation applies to an extent everywhere – even the ‘developed’ countries on which our theories of civil society are supposedly based! So… we shouldn’t worry too much about whether someone is ‘part of civil society’ or not, just work with the key stakeholders that matter and try to find common ground and build trust among them. (That’s often a stiff enough challenge as it is!)

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