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5 Policy dialogue

In the context of the present evaluation, policy dialogue relates to the involvement of CSOs and their influence on the Government’s agenda in development and implementation of policies and strategies at national and local level. The ToR suggests policy dialogue covers both policy development and implementation at both national and local level and it is foreseen that it may take place through official platforms (direct) or indirectly. The ToR states that policy dialogue is to be seen as the process, and influence as the result. In the following chapter, we discuss how policy dialogue is perceived in the Bangladesh context, whether it is effective, transparent and inclusive, and whether there is de facto space for CSO to effectively engage in policy dialogue.

5.1 Understanding of ’policy dialogue’ in the Bangladesh context

“Policy dialogue” is a term which is not used much in Bangladesh except to refer to invited formal, controlled (and elitist) spaces such as the Bangladesh Development Forum[27] for which a carefully selected small number of well-known economic and development Think Tank personalities are screened and invited. These CSO “representatives” have no say in setting the agenda or framing the discussions.

However when the phrase ’citizen engagement’ is used there is a much broader understanding concomitant with the intention expressed in the ToR. This phrase and its Bangla translation accommodate the more messy non-linear and organic processes of policy influence rather than the events interpretation of policy dialogue. The processes of engagement are regarded as important as the outcomes. However there is a current emphasis on policy dialogue events (rather than processes) and a perceived need for like-minded solidarity to achieve change. It is rare to find processes where debate and dissent are considered strategically important ways to consolidate positions as forces for change.[28]

Policy influence may involve a mix of informal and formal means, spontaneous and orchestrated events as well as serendipity that results in change. Bangladesh has a history of claimed space citizen action inspired by successful movements of the past (The Language Movement, Freedom Fighters and Women’s Movement). As a result of development programmes since the 1970s, the principles of people’s participation have been consistently promoted. The Cooperative movement was exceptionally strong during the 1970s and 1980s and people’s organisations and federations have long been part of the fabric of organisational activity especially in rural areas. However, many were formed as conduits for organising project benefits (e.g. water users groups, farmer field schools, Water and sanitation committees, local contracting societies, micro-credit groups, literacy groups, income generating groups, nutrition groups) rather than means to exercise voice and demand accountability. Despite later project intentions to build these capabilities, the reality was in many cases that after withdrawal of project support these entities failed to sustain. The voice and accountability aspirations were thwarted by insufficient recognition of the time and effort required to build these capabilities and understanding that as these were not the motivations to engage in associational activity, people were not necessarily interested in this as a priority. It is now more commonly accepted that building a rights orientation and capacity to demand entitlements let alone engage in influencing policy and practice takes a minimum of seven to ten years of mentoring and support and needs to target those who want to be involved in organisation-based voluntarism.[29] The rights based approach was enthusiastically adopted by many NGOs more than a decade ago but the realisation in terms of groups of citizens exercising their own agency is only just bearing fruit with isolated examples of successful outcomes.

Government’s inclusion of participatory processes within their mode of current operation was primarily driven by Development Banks and bilateral donor conditionality and insistence during the 1980s and 1990s.[30] Participatory Poverty Assessments and investment in large infrastructure (roads and water) development projects in particular mandated citizen involvement and set the precedent for the current government policies.

Effectiveness of policy dialogue

Effectiveness of policy dialogue is difficult to judge. In some situations ’being there’ (i.e. included) is sufficient to assure that CS voice is being given space or excesses of state are being curtailed. Most CSOs operating with DP funds are required to provide some sort of results-based management framework for what they intend to achieve. Their performance against these objectives is then used to assess effectiveness. As discussed in Chapter 2, attribution in policy influencing is extremely difficult to prove. It also noted that linear and short-term models of change may lead to exaggeration of success as the contribution of others before and in parallel are generally overlooked. Development outcomes are generally couched in terms of permanent change in behaviour and attitudes which facilitates improved service delivery geared to reducing inequalities and inequities. This suggests steps beyond legislation, policy formulation and improved creation of new or expanded participatory space and official platforms for civil society engagement to translating these into improved service provision for people living in poverty. However, the implementation of improved practice is long-term and process milestones (such as new legislation) are also valid indicators of effectiveness.

CSOs have been effective in primary education policy dialogue and significant outcomes have been achieved (see case study), only small gains confined largely to local-level advocacy have been achieved by CSOs in local governance and the efforts of CSOs to influence CHT land rights and food security remain ineffectual. The importance of political will is strongly evident here. Quality primary education is both a high citizen demand affecting most families and a political aspiration. The Government’s reliance on the NGO and private sector to meet education goals (Government is fully responsible for only 48% of primary education) contributes to their (at times reluctant) acceptance of their inclusion in policy dialogue. Functioning and equitable local government is an increasing public demand but is hindered by the absence of political will to accede control over resources. Furthermore the perceived intellectual complexities of decentralisation and devolution and lack of understanding of how decentralised systems work in other countries are barriers to citizen engagement on these topics. Various vested interests conspire to prevent open and effective dialogue on CHT land rights and food security and it is typified by an impasse.

The education policy dialogue arena is relatively transparent but it needs to be recognised that there is also considerable ’behind the scenes’ influencing and the best CSOs (e.g. CAMPE, the Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM)) are adept at working with Government and building on the social capital accumulated over years of collaboration to make change happen. The nature of behavioural change results in ownership of change and it is hard to attribute this to the ’drip drip’ efforts of individual champions of change or CSO action and is therefore not transparent in the accepted sense. This work goes on largely without resources and is consequently under-reported. As far as inclusion is concerned, invited CSO participation in primary education has often been promoted by donors and has until recently not involved important CSO actors such as Teacher Associations, Parent Teacher Associations, School Management Committees, Associations of Elected Representatives or Student Councils. The views of poor and marginalised groups on education are less often considered.[31] Furthermore as in all the thematic areas, policy dialogue is concentrated in Dhaka and travel time and costs are often prohibitive for those outside Dhaka. CAMPE makes efforts to facilitate regional and district platforms through more than 1300 network members but amplification of voice upwards is not as effective as it could be. Policy influence, although better than in the other themes, is also somewhat ’scatter gun’ and insufficiently and unsystematically evidence-based.

There is little transparency in national level LG policy dialogue which is essentially still largely closed space despite the efforts of CSOs including the LGAs. There are, however, many examples of successful local level policy dialogue where NGOs and local level watchdog or citizen groups have been active. These include fairer distribution of safety net provisions, increased local tax collection, more transparent decision making through open budget meetings, better service provision from schools, health centres and agricultural extension but it is hard to gauge how wide spread these changes and to what extent these examples are anecdotal. Despite the increased efforts at ensuring transparency at local level inclusion is still an issue, not only in local level policy dialogue but also in who benefits. Shiree[32] collects live data from extreme poor households through mobile telephony. This constantly streamed data suggests that the majority of those entitled to social safety nets are still not getting them.[33] The processes of participatory planning and budgeting are aimed toward greater transparency but are vulnerable to lip service or being co-opted unless monitoring and safeguard measures are put in place.

Exclusion is at the core of the problems of CHT land rights and opportunities for policy dialogue are few and fragile. Engagement within the CHT is minimal and outsiders are usually accompanied by police throughout their stay (on the pretence of protecting their security but actually to monitor activities) making open discussion and engagement problematic. The inaccessibility of the CHT and restrictions placed on free movement severely affect opportunities for policy dialogue. The discrimination faced by CHT CSOs and their insufficiently developed alliances with Bengali supporters beyond human rights organisations severely limits progress with their agenda.

The issues of inclusion in invited space for local government policy dialogue are of great concern as civil society space is co-opted for political and vested interest ends. As a result of tacit self-acceptance of discrimination and the avoidance of associational space (often through fear of it being politicised), the marginalised and poor rarely participate and their opinions are under-represented. This is a manifestation of Gaventa’s internalised hidden power (where people do not feel it is their place to participate).

Spaces for CSO to engage in policy dialogue

Spaces for CS engagement in policy dialogue are invited or claimed. There are more invited spaces for national level education policy dialogue than the other themes because of it represents a shared concern, involves Government and NGO service delivery and is less controversial than the other themes. One of the few active parliamentary standing committees is the one for education. CSOs were invited to engage around formulation of the Education Policy and the Sector-Wide Approaches (SWAps). As well as formal invited spaces, they are informally asked to help formulate policy, assist with directives and provide research and advice by government departments directly. By contrast policy dialogue around local government reform rarely involves CSOs and only occasionally invites renowned experts to advise on policy.

However, one area where CSOs claimed/created space, which is highly significant for all other thematic areas, especially LG, was in the formulation and eventual insistence on the promulgation of the Right to Information Act 2009. CSOs organised lawyers, campaigned to raise awareness and steered the process. This was a consolidated effort spearheaded by MJF and benefited from the experience in India in 2009. The single focus of RTI legislation galvanised action from a diverse range of CSOs.

At local level the invited spaces for both education and local government are enshrined in new LG legislation (2010). Participatory planning and budgeting is mandatory at ward level and Union Parishad and Upazila standing committees are supposed to be functional. Primary schools are mandated to have school management committees with participation of parents and community and encouraged to have parent teachers associations and mothers clubs as well as conforming to the recent mandate from the Directorate of Primary Education to have elected Student Councils. However, these provisions have generally been either non-functional, dysfunctional, under-utilised and/or may have been co-opted. But it is to these spaces which CSOs have been turning their attention in the last few years in order to increase accountability and transparency and where some success is being achieved. However, despite this, the Reality Check reports (2007-11) indicate that it is more common that people do not complain about services because they have no information about where or how to complain, fear jeopardising future access to services by complaining, do not think they will be taken seriously and do not think it is their right to raise complaints against ’boro lok’ (higher status persons). And of the 1,000 or so participants in these studies only a handful, including local service providers had ever contributed ideas or been involved in planning or influencing activities.

Before the creation of these invited spaces, people resorted to protest (confrontational claimed space) in the form of gheroas[34] and protest marches, sometimes leading to violent consequences (e.g. land rights movement of the 80s, minimum wage protests in 2010). Local injustice is still more likely to spark these kinds of responses which continue to carry the possibility of violent clashes.[35] Rallies, road blockades, human chains and, less often, hunger strikes continue to be common ways to raise issues in the public domain.

More measured claimed space is achieved through the growing number of local citizen watchdog committees (particularly around education, health, environment and corruption), often but by no means exclusively facilitated through NGO interventions. CSOs regularly host Round Table discussions and have strong collaboration with print and electronic media. There are effective networks in education which achieve critical mass for public and government attention but the networks in LG are still in infancy and struggle for public recognition. CHT land rights activism is extremely constrained but benefits from networking among local and international human rights organisations. Food security claimed space is minimal and ineffectual except around issues of food prices where people regularly mount street protests. Public Interest Litigation (PIL), or the threat of, has recently become a means of claimed space engagement e.g. two successful PIL in education and two pending PIL cases in LG. PIL has not been used in CHT land rights or food security but about ten test land cases have been pursued by Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) on behalf of Adivasi plaintiffs.

[27] Which is chaired by the Ministry of Finance on behalf of the Government and the Local Consultative Group of donors.

[28] A consultation arranged by Nijera Kori on the draft shrimp policy which brought together Members of Parliament (MPs), government officials, human rights organisations, NGOs and farmers and residents of the areas affected by commercial shrimp cultivation is a rare example of this.

[29] Conversations with CSO staff, review of end of programme evaluations in particular Samata evaluation 2007.

[30] E.g. Rural Development Projects carried out by the Local Government Engineering Department. Participatory Poverty Assessment, 1999 supported by World Bank, Sida and DFID.

[31] The Sida commissioned Reality Check studies designed to amplify poor people’s voices around primary education (and primary healthcare), while appreciated and reference in some quarters have had very little influence on policy dialogue. DAM’s ’Amplifying People’s Voices’ 2011 was another rare but laudable effort to include grass root opinion.

[32] A fund manager programme of DFID channelling funds to NGOs working for extreme poor.

[33] Live data viewed on March 22, 2012 showed only 18% said they received safety net provisions this month.

[34] Bangla term for a particular type of protest where officials are surrounded in their offices and prevented from leaving the building.

[35] E.g. in March 2012 there were a number of media reports of health facilities being ransacked by people protesting negligent treatment.

This page forms part of the publication 'Support to Civil Society Engagement in Policy Dialogue' as chapter 8 of 20
Version 1.0. 03-01-2013
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