Has Civil Society Helped the Poor? - a Review of the Roles and Contributions of Civil Society to Poverty Reduction

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"Has civil society helped the poor? - A review of the roles and contributions of civil society to poverty reduction”

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University of Manchester,

Brooks World Poverty Institute

Solava Ibrahim1 and David Hulme1 (March 2010)

Solava.Ibrahim@manchester.ac.uk David.Hulme@manchester.ac.uk

BWPI Working Paper 114

Creating and sharing knowledge to help end poverty

Brooks World Poverty Institute ISBN : 978-1-907247-13-2

www.manchester.ac.uk/bwpi

 

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Abstract
This paper sets out to explore the achievements of civil society in the area of poverty reduction. The focus is mainly on three domains (1) Advocacy; (2) Policy Change and (3) Service Delivery. Three case studies illustrate how poverty can be addressed at various levels and through different approaches: (1) Shack Dwellers International (SDI) operating internationally to advocate for the urban poor’s rights; (2) civil society organizations participating in the formulation of PRSPs to call for pro-poor policy reforms at the national level; and finally (3) the example of BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) providing services to the poorest at the grassroots level. Drawing on these case studies, the paper explains the keys to success and reasons for failure of civil society organizations in tackling poverty reduction effectively. It concludes by pointing out the challenges faced by civil society in the area of poverty reduction and presents recommendations on ‘what is still missing’ for civil society to play a more effective role in poverty reduction.

Keywords
Civil society organizations, poverty reduction, Bangladesh, NGOs, advocacy, democracy.

Acknowledgements Thanks to Dr Michael Edwards (Demos) for his comments on this paper.

 

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1. Introduction

The 1990s saw many changes as the Cold War ended and globalization began to drive social and economic change. Two of these have particular significance for the subject of this paper. First, the evolution of a global consensus that extreme poverty had to be tackled, culminating in the MDGs. Secondly, the belief that civil society should be a major player in this task – mobilizing communities, delivering services and shaping policies. The question is then: can civil society play a major role in delivering the world’s biggest promise, i.e. poverty reduction? Despite the importance of global poverty reduction, no movement has ever been developed around this issue. Why are there environmentalists and feminists but not ‘poverty-reductionists’? The growing international interest in poverty reduction results mainly from the efforts of aid and donor agencies and the energies of thousands of civil society organizations – rather than a selfsustaining social movement on poverty. The absence of a committed leadership, the vagueness of the poverty concept and its divisive nature renders it rather difficult to create sharp messages required for social movement mobilization. Given the absence of such a social movement, the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) becomes vital in advocating for, participating in and promoting sustainable poverty reduction. Although many CSOs are currently operating in these three domains, their role initially started in the domain of humanitarian relief. It was only later that national and international NGOs succeeded in widening their development agenda to provide services, lobby for policy change and advocate for the poor’s rights.

The aim of this paper is to explore the achievements of civil society in the area of poverty reduction. As both ‘concepts’ – civil society and poverty – are highly contested, analyzing their relationship is not an easy task. We therefore focus mainly on the role that civil society should, could and did play in promoting poverty reduction. We argue that civil society organizations can promote poverty reduction by pushing for macro-level structural changes through advocacy, lobbying the government for policy...
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