Fostering Citizen Participation and Accountable Local Government in Bangladesh
Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC), with funding from the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), created the Active Citizens and Accountable Local Government (ACALG) project to promote active citizen participation in rural Bangladesh and increase the capacity and transparency of local government bodies. The project, implemented from 2009-2011 in two districts, used components like training workshops, citizen committees, educational theater productions, and relationship-building forums to create greater linkages between rural citizens and local government. Ultimately, these components did result in true impact by empowering marginalized groups, informing government officials and citizens of their rights and responsibilities, and increasing transparency and accountability of local government. Overall, the lessons learned from this project include:
The idea of an information economy allows organizations to recognize and target the “supply” and “demand” sides of democratic governance, thus allowing for an effective, multifaceted strategy for improving information and participatory channels.
A project can only go so far as the monitoring and evaluation methods it uses; scaling up a project requires sound monitoring and evaluation during and after the project.
In attempting to engage with a rural population, organizations must be creative and utilize both formal and informal channels in order to reach out to those most in need.
As the largest non-governmental organization in the world (in terms of numbers of employees), BRAC provides international development assistance in multiple arenas through elements such as health programs, economic development, human rights aid, and institutional capacity building.
Background of Bangladeshi Government and Community
While urban Bangladeshi government has a different structure, rural Bangladeshi government at the village level consists of the Union Parishad (UP), which comprises the lowest tier of local governance. The Upazila Parishad heads up the subdistrict level and the Zilla Parishad the district level. As the level of government that is meant to have the greatest level of citizen interaction, UPs consist of 13 elected members – one chairperson (chosen by the total electorate), along with nine members and three women from various wards (an area covering multiple villages). Additionally, BRAC introduced Polli Shomajs (PS) in 1998 as a ward-level organization meant to foster awareness of civil rights and democratic practices amongst all members of the local community.
With the movement for democracy surfacing around 1991, the standard of citizen representation and the importance of nurturing civil society were gradually introduced into rural Bangladeshi society. However, even with a strong constitutional precedent for representation through local government, citizens have historically put forth little input into local processes. This is primarily due to:
1. Lack of information: From 2008-2012, the total adult literacy rate was 57.5%, and in 2011, 35.2% of the rural population was at the national poverty line. Poverty and a lack of education coupled with local governments that neglect to provide information have resulted in a rural citizenry that has little knowledge of its rights and duties, along with the services that local government should provide to them. Furthermore, UP members themselves often have limited understanding of the full range of their roles and responsibilities.
2. Exclusionary practices:
a.While each UP must have three female members, these women often face obstacles in implementing projects and exclusion from important decision-making processes (i.e. allocation of funds). Additionally, many female UP members also express a lack of training and knowledge about their roles and the purview of the UP.
b.The rural poor are often neglected in the decision-making processes of “rural elites” and have little say as to the allocation of resources. Moreover, the rural poor face a sort of “economic exclusion” in the sense that they tend to operate in and gain more from informal spaces while feeling like they have little ability to make an impact through formal institutions.
Historically, nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) have played a vital part aiding governance. Due in part to weak state delivery of services and abundant donor funding, NGOs can help improve government services or act as a substitute. BRAC occupies the middle-ground between advocacy and service delivery by providing education, health services and credit while training and giving a voice to marginalized groups.
In response to weak representation and accountability mechanisms, BRAC conducted a baseline survey to understand the level of transparency, accountability, and community participation in the Bogra and Jessore districts (which contain a total of ten sub-districts). Overall, they found that that UP members had minimal understanding about their individual and committee roles, as well as the existence of the PS.On the other side, PS members tended to focus on social initiatives and often did not know of additional channels (i.e. UP standing committees) through which they could increase government responsiveness.
BRAC created ACALG with the intent to foster “citizen participation, improvements in capacity of local government representatives, and [increased] engagement between civil society, local government, and the media.” This project was implemented from November 1, 2009 to October 30, 2011 with $325,000 USD in funding from the United Nations Democracy Fund. The three key objectives can be summarized as:
Bolstering an effectiveness in and accountability of local governance by developing the capacity of local communities and UPs.
Creating and fostering information sharing mechanisms in order to increase transparency and accessibility.
Improving representation by changing local political culture’s attitudes and practices towards marginalized groups like women and the poor.
ACALG sought to fulfill these three objectives through three main components:
Capacity Building: UP members received training on topics such as importance local issues and groups, citizen rights, and responsibilities of local government. PS members received training on their duties as citizens, as well as the responsibilities of and services provided by UPs.
Information Sharing: BRAC implemented two methods here.
a.Political: BRAC created Upazila “forums” so female UP members could have contact with upper level government officials and the poor. They also created governance manuals and facilitated for PS members.
b.Cultural: BRAC put up illustrated posters to convey the rights and responsibilities of citizens and local government. Additionally, they created and staged original (and incredibly popular) plays about pertinent social, health, and political issues in order to increase awareness of ways that citizens can participate in local governance.
3. Advocacy Workshops: BRAC organized advocacy workshops at the grassroots-level, as well as at the Upazila and Zilla levels. Combined with the formation of Citizens Committees, these forums were created with the intention to increase awareness and inclusion of marginalized groups like the rural poor and women.
Results and Takeaways
Overall, BRAC’s multifaceted approach to improving both the demand and supply side of sound governance proved to be relatively impactful. Some highlights of BRAC’s impact within the Bogra and Jessore districts include:
1,357 UP members attended three-day training programs
6,099 theater performances were hosted
300 Citizen Committees were created
3,259 bi-monthly PS meetings
Through ten post-project narrative case stories, BRAC primarily presented ACALG as a model aimed at increasing forwards and backwards linkages between citizens and their local government. The case stories demonstrate success in mobilizing and informing citizens, increasing the profile and involvement of marginalized citizens, equipping UP members (particularly women) to speak up and fulfill their roles, and fostering relationships between various levels of government and citizens.
While BRAC planned to continue and scale up the project after the funding period, it would do well to improve a few facets of the project. As evaluators have already noted, BRAC failed to conduct a full end-of-project survey due to miscommunication between UNDEF and BRAC; however, BRAC did resolve to create other impact evaluation mechanisms such the aforementioned report of ten narrative case stories. While these case stories and results from post-training questionnaires give a general impression of short-term mobilization and increased knowledge of governance, the lack of post-project data makes it difficult to gauge the level of lasting impact. In the future, both the donor and grantee should incorporate and clearly communicate more project and impact evaluation methods. A suggestion here would be to not only conduct surveys of the issues that UP member trainees consider important, but to also survey PS members. In this way, evaluators can have a fuller picture of both sides of the story, allowing them to create more targeted workshops and disseminate pertinent information in the future.
Furthermore, BRAC’s unique incorporation of colorful illustrated posters and popular educational theater performances point to another area for improvement – informal, accessible channels for information. While ACALG increased citizen participation, marginalized groups in rural Bangladesh may still not be reached even with the PS’s increased level of meetings. Here, incorporating a component like “flash seminars” (quick informative and interactive talks) about a particular matter of democratic governance may provide an additional, more relaxed channel through which less active citizens can grow more comfortable with engaging with local government.