Spotlight Exclusives

Deliberation and Poverty: Lessons from the Indian Experience

commentaries commentaries, posted on

This commentary is the latest in the series, entitled “Poverty and Society: A New Inquiry into an Old Question.” Please be sure to read Peter Edelman۪s “Opening Thoughts” to learn more.

Policymakers have long recognized that poverty restricts opportunity. It deprives people of jobs, education, health care, and housing, and constrains upward mobility. Yet poverty does more than thisit also results in a lack of access to forums of influence.

Now an emerging model that۪s making a difference in India might provide lessons for policymakers here in the U.S. who want to provide low-income folks with a meaningful public voice.

The problem of influence is a real one for the lowest earners. Poor people do not have highly paid lobbyists, news about their struggles rarely makes the newspaper, and their social networks do not extend to influential people. Their ability to make themselves heard is therefore constrained.

This means that poor people not only suffer from inequality of opportunity, but also face inequalities of agency the ability to determine one۪s own destiny. This lack of agency can have many consequences. It can engender a lack of hope, despair, and indignity. It can rob people of what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls a “capacity to aspire”to imagine a way out of poverty and find the psychic and material resources to implement it.

Those who care about reducing poverty must recognize the deleterious consequences that come from reduced agency. The good news is that a practice now widespread in India may offer key lessons to policymakers and the public.

Rural India is beset by extreme poverty, with entrenched hierarchies of caste and gender. Yet, every resident of an Indian village can attend constitutionally sanctioned meetings called gram sabhas, held two or more times a year. At these meetings, the lists of those who qualify for antipoverty benefits are vetted and ratified, and allocations of public goods and services are determined.

These meetings have transformed the nature of public discourse in rural India, and have had a direct effect on the lives of 700 million rural Indians. They have given voice to dispossessed groups by providing a forum to express themselves on issues that would previously have been taboo in public, such as challenging upper caste elites, or questioning corrupt bureaucrats. Consequently, gram sabhas have changed the political culture of Indian villages, and have gone some way towards giving dignity and agency to the voiceless.

Gram sabhas have been much more effective when levels of literacy are high, which is a real obstacle when only 69 percent of rural Indians are literate. For instance, in the Indian state of Kerala where, like the U.S., literacy rates are high, gram sabhas have had a transformative effect on the ability of local governments to deliver services to the poor by making them more accountable.

In contrast to rural India, decisions about antipoverty programs in the U.S. are made almost entirely by bureaucrats. Elected politicians may be responsible for legislation that sets up and funds the programs, but everyday choices about whether someone qualifies for a benefit, or whether someone will be given access to a loan or subsidized housing, are generally made by an impersonal official working in a forbidding and bewildering agency.

The impact of this reality has recently been described as “paternalistic”effective at identifying those with special needs such as the disabled and elderly, but ineffective at providing assistance to the severely poor.

Giving poor communities a seat at the table can have a game-changing effect on poverty. This means more than consulting low-income communities. It involves actually providing a forum where the poor can engage decision makers and come up with collective solutions to problems that affect their own lives, and where government agencies can demonstrate that they are responsive to low-income needs. It can also help bring communities into a mutually productive relationship with service providers, like the police and schools.

Pilot programs in Chicago have demonstrated that genuine community outreach when taken seriously by the city government can have beneficial social effects.

These programs can provide electoral returns as well. As mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony Williams promoted a series of town hall meetings in the poorer wards with the help of America Speaks to engage residents in the public policy process and was easily reelected. Adrian Fenty, who followed him as mayor, had a much more top-down style and was handily defeated, largely because he lost support in D.C.۪s poorer wards.

There۪s no question that creating meaningful spaces for low-income people to decide their fates is difficult, but it۪s an opportunity we cannot afford to miss. Not only will real deliberation improve the caliber of decision making, but the example of India shows how it can nurture human elements of poverty that sometimes slip through the cracks. Restoring access to influence has practical benefits, but it will also help revitalize something as importantdignity.

The views expressed in the essay are those of the author and should not be attributed to the World Bank or its member countries.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Vijayendra Rao is a lead economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank.

For a related article by the authors, which appeared in the May 2010 Issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, please visit Sage Journals Online.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives