How the Poor Can Have a Voice in Government Policy
Caroline M. Robb
Development thinking has changed significantly in recent years. Policymakers have recognized the ability of the poor to make a valuable contribution to the analysis of poverty and are consulting them directly. This new participatory approach has resulted in a broader definition of poverty and better-informed public policies that are more responsive to the needs of the poor.
By the end of the 1990s, there was growing recognition by governments and civil society of the need to change the way national strategies to reduce poverty were developed and implemented. Previous strategies had met with little success in Latin America and Africa, and poverty was on the rebound in East Asia after the financial crisis of 1997-98. It had become clear that, to succeed, poverty reduction programs needed to be developed by the countries themselves—rather than imposed from the outside—and that the input of the poor was critical to the development of effective poverty reduction strategies.
In September 1999, the World Bank and the IMF agreed to major changes in their operations to help low-income countries achieve sustainable poverty reduction. Henceforth, programs supported by the two institutions will be based on government-driven poverty reduction strategies (PRSs) developed in consultation with civil society and summarized in poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs). In addition, the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, launched in 1999 by the World Bank and the IMF, links debt relief with poverty reduction. The PRSPs provide the basis for debt relief under HIPC as well as for all World Bank and IMF concessional lending.
In formulating poverty reduction strategies, policymakers have begun consulting the poor directly through participatory poverty assessments (PPAs), a methodology developed during the 1990s by governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions, and donors. Although many methods have long existed for consulting the poor on the development of projects, PPAs are different in that their findings are intended to be used in national policymaking. To date, more than 50 countries have undertaken PPAs with assistance from the World Bank; an equal number of PPAs have been conducted by other agencies, including the United Nations Development Program, bilaterals, and NGOs.
What is a PPA?
A PPA is a tool that allows us to consult the poor directly; findings are transmitted to policymakers, thereby enabling the poor to influence policy. Unlike a household survey, which consists of a predetermined set of questions, a PPA uses a variety of flexible methods that combine visual techniques (mapping, matrices, diagrams) and verbal techniques (open-ended interviews, discussion groups) and emphasizes exercises that facilitate information sharing, analysis, and action. The goal is to give the intended beneficiaries more control over the research process. PPAs are usually carried out by intermediaries such as NGOs, academic institutions, government extension workers, and local consulting firms. The approach "stresses changes in the behavior and attitudes of outsiders to become not teachers but facilitators, not lecturers but listeners and learners" (Chambers, 1997). To ensure follow-up at the community level (a principle of participatory research), many PPAs (for example, those in The Gambia, Tanzania, and Uganda) have involved the development of community action plans subsequently supported by local governments or NGOs. Using PPAs to extract information just for research purposes, with limited participation and no link to policymaking, is considered bad practice.
Policy analysis in the past was focused on a classic statistical approach to poverty based on indicators of income, health, and education; poverty itself was measured by a money-metric poverty line derived from traditional household surveys. It has been recognized that an approach dominated by economic analysis fails to capture the many dimensions of poverty, while a multidisciplinary approach can deepen our understanding of the lives of the poor. PPAs, with their focus on well-being and quality of life, have consistently shown that such problems as vulnerability, physical and social isolation, insecurity, lack of self-respect, lack of access to information, distrust of state institutions, and powerlessness can be as important to the poor as low income (Box 1).
Moreover, because PPAs go beyond the household unit of traditional surveys to focus on individuals, intrahousehold dynamics, social groups (based on variables such as gender, ethnicity, class, caste, age), and community relationships, they capture the diversity of poverty. They have shown that people's priorities and experiences are affected by such variables as gender, social exclusion, intrahousehold allocation of resources, the incidence of crime and violence, geographical location, access to networks of support, and relations with those in power.
PPAs have three key elements. First, they increase our understanding of the multidimensional nature of poverty and enable us to include the perspective and priorities of poor people in our analysis of poverty and formulation of policies. Second, they promote wider ownership of researchers' findings and increase the influence of these findings on policymaking by including a cross section of other groups (for example, NGOs, policymakers, administrators, civic groups) in the process. Third, they can help countries increase their capacity to analyze and monitor poverty, as has happened, for example, in Mongolia, Vietnam, and Zambia.
PPAs often take less time and cost less than household surveys because they use a selected sample of communities (Box 2). As a result, they are not as extensive, representative, or standardized. They nonetheless provide more in-depth analysis of the views of the poor and the political, social, and institutional context, as well as insights into the reasons people become—or cease being—poor and their survival strategies.
Because methodological questions arise with both traditional household surveys and participatory research methods, it is essential to use them in combination: the findings of each can help researchers examine, explain, confirm, refute, or enrich information from the other (Carvalho and White, 1997). Which survey comes first should be determined by the conditions in each country. If the PPA comes first, its results can focus the research agenda for household surveys and generate hypotheses. Conversely, the results of household surveys can help identify the poorest geographical areas where research should be conducted and develop questions for future PPAs. The ideal process is an iterative one.
Impact on policy
Participatory policymaking is based on incorporating information gathered from local communities in a broader policy dialogue that includes a cross section of civic groups. But policymaking is a complex—and inherently political—process. Rules, legislation, traditions, networks, ethnic alliances, patronage, political allegiances, and bureaucratic structures all interact to form a complex and fluctuating policy environment. PPAs have had little or no impact in countries where political support for poverty reduction measures is lacking, participation of groups other than the poor is limited, or the government, donors, and participants mistrust each other.
Experience shows that governments should lead the process and key policymakers and administrators should be involved in planning the PPA from the earliest stages, that policymakers and donors should go to the field to participate in the PPA, and that high-level support is required to follow up on the findings and monitor the implementation of key recommendations. In Cameroon, for example, the government disregarded a PPA, even though the field work was of good quality and the results relevant, in part because some key policymakers felt excluded from the process.
In general, open political environments provide greater opportunities for building consensus around policies for poverty reduction. In Costa Rica, where there is a tradition of bringing marginal groups into the political sphere, the government was eager to better understand poverty from the perspective of the poor, and the data from the PPA therefore had an impact on policy. If a government is not fully committed to consulting the poor, it is unlikely to act on research results that run counter to its own interest. In such circumstances, participation should initially be limited to a few groups.
Poverty reduction strategies
The process and findings of participatory research are relevant to poverty reduction strategies at four stages (see Box 3 for a detailed description of the links between Uganda's PPA and its poverty reduction strategy):
Programs supported by the IMF's Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility will be modified to reflect the countries' PRSs. Policies to be implemented under these programs will have a greater focus on growth and poverty reduction. (See "Key Features of IMF Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) Supported Programs" at http://www.imf.org/external/np/prgf/2000/eng/key.htm.) However, more research is needed into how programs and policy reforms affect the poor, particularly (1) macroeconomic adjustments, such as tax increases, reduction or elimination of subsidies, and exchange rate realignment; (2) structural reforms, such as liberalization and civil service reform; and (3) public expenditures. Traditional surveys and PPAs, as well as data gathered through other research methods, will be crucial to good program design.
Benefits of a participatory approach
In many countries, the poor are excluded from the policymaking process and often marginalized. Enabling poor communities to participate in the formulation of policy can empower them; they cease to be merely the passive recipients of (sometimes misguided) state benevolence and donor assistance. The two-way information flow—presenting data gathered during PPAs to policymakers and making information about government policies and budgets available to the public—can strengthen policymaking. Participation by civic groups and the poor in monitoring and evaluation promotes transparency and accountability and enhances people's awareness of their rights—and, in the long run, may encourage them to demand better governance. Furthermore, experience indicates that where there is a broad policy dialogue on poverty that includes different civil society groups, the constituency for reform is widened, the country's sense of ownership of policies is stronger, and policies are more likely to be implemented.
The outcome of many PPAs has been an increase in face-to-face interactions between diverse groups—such as NGOs, local community groups, and local and central governments—and better understanding between civil society and the state (McGee and Norton, 2000). PPAs have also shown that the poor have the capacity to appraise, analyze, plan, and act to a far greater extent than had heretofore been acknowledged by many development experts. Including the poor through a PPA leads to better technical diagnosis of problems and better design and implementation of solutions. When undertaken in an environment of increased trust, PPAs can present opportunities for a more open dialogue and greater understanding between those in power and the poor.
For further discussion of the multidimensional aspects of poverty, see Robert Chambers, 1983, Putting the Last First (London: Intermediate Technology Publications); N.S. Johda, 1988, "Poverty Debate in India: A Minority View," Economic and Political Weekly, No. 2421-28 (November); Caroline M. Robb, 1999, Can the Poor Influence Policy? Participatory Poverty Assessments in the Developing World, First Edition, Directions in Development (Washington: World Bank) (also at http://www.worldbank.org/ html/extpb/ canpoor.htm); and World Bank, World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty (New York: Oxford University Press for the World Bank). Suggestions for further reading:
Soniya Carvalho and Howard White, 1997, Combining the Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Poverty Measurement and Analysis: The Practice and the Potential, World Bank Technical Paper, No. 366 (Washington: World Bank).
Robert Chambers, 1997, Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last (London: Intermediate Technology Publications).
Rosemary McGee with Andy Norton, 2000, Participation in poverty reduction strategies: a synthesis of experience with participatory approaches to policy design, implementation and monitoring, IDS Working Paper 109 (Brighton, United Kingdom: Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex).