Book Review: Poverty Reduction Strategy in Bangladesh – Rethinking participation in policy making

By Berenice Scandone

Palash book

Palash Kamruzzaman, 2014: Poverty Reduction Strategy in Bangladesh – Rethinking participation in policy making, Policy Press: Bristol

In recent years, participatory decision-making has increasingly affirmed itself as the new recipe for effective and sustainable development policy. The recurrent failures of traditional top-down approaches to development and poverty reduction in poor countries have brought about a widespread demand for increased participation of civil society in the decision making process, coupled with the perception that this would eventually lead to more successful development programmes. But is this really always the case? It is with this question that Kamruzzaman engages in this bold and thought-provoking book, drawing on the experience of a country which has often been considered as a test case for development.

Taking the formulation of Bangladesh’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper as a case study, Kamruzzaman explores both the theoretical premises and promises of civil participation and its actual reality in the context under investigation, shedding light on the gap which exists between the two. In particular, he demonstrates how participation has in this case been constructed “ad hoc” to meet donors’ requirements and ensure the granting of aid, rather than being truly inclusive of the views of all segments of society. In this way, donors’ call for participation in the formulation of anti-poverty policies is unmasked and presented for what it really is, as a new, subtle way of legitimizing the imposition of the same old growth-based, neo-liberal agendas. Given this recognition, the challenge then remains as to what can be done in order to promote a truly effective approach to poverty reduction. To this end, Kamruzzaman argues for the potential of drawing on local interpretations of need and of possible ways out of poverty, in contrast to the adoption of universal frameworks. This, however, would require a long-term political vision and commitment which is unlikely to be found in the context of current hierarchical aid relationships.

For those who are not particularly familiar with the topic of aid and development policies in Bangladesh, the introduction to this book will be especially helpful, as it provides the reader with a brief but comprehensive overview of the country’s situation since its independence in 1971, and of progress made so far. Having introduced the reader to the topic, Kamruzzaman then sets out to develop his analysis of participation in anti-poverty policies by dividing it in two parts. The first is concerned with discussing theoretical understandings and debates over poverty reduction in Third World countries and the efficacy of participatory approaches to policy making. In the second part, the findings from extensive qualitative research on the process which led to the approval of Bangladesh’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper are presented, providing a substantial amount of evidence against which the theoretical premises considered in the first part of the book are tested.

The first part of the book provides a critical evaluation of the theoretical underpinnings of international donors’ commitment to participatory policy-making. The requirement as a condition for further aid grants of stakeholders’ participation in the production of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, has been introduced by donors in response to increasing pressures over past failures of traditional top-down approaches to the development of poor countries. While this has been applauded and celebrated by many as a big step forward, Kamruzzaman shows instead how participation can in fact be seen in this instance as “an iron hand in a velvet glove” (p.25). This becomes evident when we consider the asymmetrical power relations in which different stakeholders are involved, and their differential capacity to make their voice heard. In the case of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, in particular, donor agencies still hold major leverage in policy formulation, especially as they retain the power to ultimately approve or dismiss the final proposal. This generates a situation of dependency on donors, where participation is deprived of its meaning and effectively becomes a way of validating Western-imported approaches to poverty reduction, based on growth achieved through neo-liberal, market-oriented economic models. The efficacy and desirability of such universal frameworks is however dubious. Poverty is in fact a multidimensional and contextually-defined concept, and poverty reduction strategies need therefore to take into account local characterisations and understandings of its social, cultural, political and structural aspects. The reliance on externally defined frameworks for poverty alleviation has further undermined the position of the lower sections of the population, whose views and needs are scarcely taken into account. On the other hand, aid relationships have produced a vast interest group within receiving countries, made of government exponents, consultants, experts, bureaucrats etc., who all gain something from the development business and have therefore their stake in maintaining it as it is.

Drawing on a large amount of empirical data collected through interviews, online surveys, and content analysis of national daily newspapers, Kamruzzaman explores in the second part of his book the experience of participation within Bangladesh’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper formulation. In doing so, he demonstrates how despite claims from those who were directly involved in the process that there was “enough” participation, this had in fact been constructed “ad hoc” to comply with donors’ prescriptions rather than being genuine and inclusive. This is apparent both in the contents of the strategy and in the process aimed at ensuring participation. The contents of the document substantially reproduce donors’ suggestions and neo-liberal agendas. There is no mention of issues which are of great importance to the local population, such as land reform, nor does the strategy take into account fundamental aspects of the local context such as religion, culture and social structures. In terms of the process, its timing, location, and the way in which it was administered, all worked to prevent real participation from the lower strata, while effectively silencing their voice. Within this process, Kamruzzaman highlights the emergence and operation of a local “compradores class” (pp.160-165), represented by members of the elites, political leaders, experts, and bureaucrats, who actively work to establish donors’ interests and agendas in the receiving country. Rather than being driven by an actual commitment to poverty reduction, this group is ready to comply with donors’ will in order to maintain current aid relations and retain their share of profits. In such a context, participation is very much unlikely to generate any meaningful change towards improving the lives of the least advantaged. What would be needed instead, Kamruzzaman argues, is a strong and committed political leadership, a focus on local understandings of poverty and of possible ways out, both in the formulation and in the implementation of policies, and sustained efforts to promote engagement “from below” at every level of governance, starting from local institutions.

Throughout this book, Kamruzzaman unveils the ways in which poverty reduction strategies and the requirement for participatory decision-making work to perpetuate Western hegemony over Third World countries, albeit introduced and exercised in new, more subtle forms. He also makes a solid case for Bangladesh in particular, and for developing countries in general, to take an approach to poverty reduction which is firmly rooted in local contexts. In this respect, however, the book is unfortunately unable to offer examples and practical suggestions which go beyond general prescriptions. Further research would therefore be especially useful at this point to investigate local understandings of poverty, especially from those who experience this poverty every day, and the ways in which current social, economic, political and cultural structures can provide a basis on which to build on for promoting effective and sustainable reforms. While this book will especially appeal to development practitioners and students, its clarity of language and engaging flow also make it accessible to those laypersons who are interested in knowing more about poverty reduction in developing countries.

Berenice Scandone is a PhD candidate in Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath, exploring issues in ethnic diversity and social cohesion through networks of relations  among the Bangladeshi diasporic communities in the UK.

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