The concepts of citizenship, democracy and governance are not new in human society, but they are being constantly defined and re-defined in the light of experience. While the concepts of citizenship and democracy date back to antiquity and the origin of governance can be traced to the Renaissance period, the French revolution of 1789 with its emphasis on liberty, equality and fraternity charged them with revolutionary meaning. At a later conjuncture of history - in the era of decolonization in the mid-20th century - these concepts assumed a new significance, creating a revolution of expectations in the new states that came into being after prolonged anti-colonial movements. But since then these terms have lost much of the charmed reverence that they commanded earlier. Many of the promises held out by these magic words are ringing hollow as the gap between people’s rising expectations and the actual performance of the state representing these ideas is now wider than ever before. The deprivation of a huge number of women, and poor and marginalized people of their citizen rights and entitlement to basic services, the reduction of democracy to a mere electoral game, the crisis of the state manifested in governance failures and a propensity for bureaucratic centralization in the developing countries have entailed a need to constantly re-evaluate the concepts of citizenship, democracy and governance. It is now urgent to find ways to restore the whole range of rights and entitlements associated with citizenship, to re-invigorate democracy and to restructure governance in the light of felt needs and experience. This need is paramount in the South Asia region where the colonial legacy compounded with patriarchal and feudal values still persists strongly and democratic institutions are yet to be rooted due to continual military interventions and civil war in some countries. The divide of gender, class, caste, ethnicity and such other factors also tend to obstruct the development of citizenship, democracy and governance.
On the other hand, the process of globalization based on neoliberal economy with its various impacts has launched over the last few decades a new discourse in which citizenship, democracy and governance rate high. Civil society has also emerged as a dynamic and critical democratic force challenging the state and the market. Composed of a matrix of various citizen groups, human rights organizations, women’s movements, people’s organizations and the private not-for-profit voluntary sector commonly known as non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), civil society strives to close the gap between democratic ideals and actual democratic practices. These concurrent developments have now provided a setting for critically analyzing the multidimensional aspects of concepts like citizenship, democracy and governance in their complex inter-relationships so that their full potential can be realized to the benefit of human society, especially the poor and marginalized.
2. Aspects of citizenship
The most common perception about citizenship is that it is the link between a person and a state or association of states. Sometimes it is equated with nationality which, however, has ethnic connotations. Citizenship is commonly understood to give one the right to work and live in a country and to participate in political life. One who does not have citizenship is usually considered stateless.
The history of citizenship is quite long as it stretches from the Greek city-states to modern times. But a significant shift in the concept occurred during the Renaissance when people transitioned from being subjects of a king or queen to being citizens of a city and later to a nation-state. A citizen considered himself subject to the city’s law and no longer remained content with having a lower social status than the nobles. City dwellers thus sought to rise above a subordinate social status and demanded a greater role in the form of citizenship which gradually resulted in a set of rights and duties. The discourse of French Revolution actually revolutionized the concept of citizenship as the citizen was then liberated from subordination to the prince or the priest, exercising the liberty of belief in matters of faith, demanding from the state a system of public and secular education, and instead of obeying the given laws actually participating in the social act of making the laws whereby the state and society are to function. The development of citizenship is thus an expansion of the rights and political participation of the citizen, which has remained central to the concept in modern times.
However, in this onward march the question of women’s citizenship remained unaddressed for long periods of history. Amid the proclamation ‘We, the people’ in the United States and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in France, Mary Wollstonecraft had to ask: what, then, is the gender of the citizen? Do women have the same rights as men? The issue of women’s voting right emerged in the latter half of the 19th century with the rise of sizeable women’s organizations in some parts of Europe and North America though women all over the world had to wait long to be voting citizens. It was only in the early 20th century that women got their right to vote, first in New Zealand and then in the American State of Wyoming. However, by 1960 women gained this right where elections were allowed except a few Islamic countries and Switzerland.
It is also to be noted that notwithstanding the declaration ‘All men are created equal’ in the founding document of the republic in the United States in the late 18th century, slavery of Black Americans remained constitutionally guaranteed there for nearly another century. Also, the legal segregation of the white and non-white races in the United States ended only in the mid-20th century.
Thus the idea of citizenship is an evolving one, drawing on the outcome of various struggles and experiments across the world. It is also organically linked to the development of democracy which is all about participation, representation and inclusion. Citizenship needs to be active and participatory which demands that people of all sections and denominations meaningfully participate in the decision-making process in an inclusive framework. Their right should be constitutionally guaranteed and implemented through a truly democratic structure of governance. As we have seen from our experience, people who are excluded from the democratic process are actually disenfranchised from democratic life. Active citizenship in the contemporary society therefore must by definition mean working systematically towards more inclusive forms of citizenship as well as more pluralistic expressions of it.
The root cause of social exclusion is material poverty but there are other important causes as well. In 1993 the Commission of European communities defined social exclusion as follows:
Social exclusion refers to the multiple and changing factors resulting in people being excluded from the normal exchanges, practices and rights of modern society. Poverty is one of the most obvious factors, but social exclusion also refers to inadequate rights in housing, education, health and access to services. It affects individuals and groups … who are in some way subjects of discrimination and segregation; and it emphasizes the weakness in social infrastructure and the risk of allowing a two-tier society to become established by default.
It is clear from the above how poverty, inadequate rights to basic services and structural discrimination lead to segregation and impedes access to active and engaged citizenship. Ralph Miliband rightly says, ‘there can be no true citizenship without a rough equality of condition. Both individuals and groups are actively excluded by social conditions and institutional procedures which deny them some - or, indeed all - of the civil, political and social rights of citizenship’ (Marshal 1950).
Despite many innovative efforts at poverty reduction in the developing countries over the past decades, inequality and disparity in many of them are on the rise. The rich-poor gap is widening fast and a huge number of people are being marginalized everyday. Disparity and marginalization in South Asia is an obvious fact due to complex national and international economic processes, and social structures based on gender, caste, ethnicity and religion. Those who are thus pushed down the economic ladder always find themselves in a vulnerable state and cannot enjoy the citizen rights that they are entitled to in a democratic polity. This happens most severely in the case of poor women who suffer doubly.
In many societies particular castes or ethnic groups are said to be lazy or indisciplined or irresponsible. Members of minority religions are suspected of having conflicting loyalties to the state and society. In the South asia region such identities are often used as a basis for discrimination and as an obstacle to citizen rights. In Bangladesh there is a democratic constitution that enshrines full citizen rights of all people, but the constitutional provision of Islam as the state religion forms a basis for discriminatory treatment to members of other religions and women of all religions. This is not compatible with the principles of democratic citizenship. In Sri Lanka the perceived inequalities and disparities between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority are a perennial source of tensions. Although India is culturally diverse and has a long-standing tradition of a plural society, today’s India is facing a grave challenge to its constitutional commitment to citizen rights with the rise of groups that seek to impose a singular Hindu identity on the country. The dalits and other lower classes in India have been facing constant humiliation and growing erosion of their identity, dignity and sense of being part of greater society, the nation and the state. This is a continued challenge to their citizenship despite all the constitutional provisions to secure their rights. In Pakistan the Ahmadias and other minority groups are being continuously battered by different Muslim fundamentalist outfits. The Shia-Sunni conflict and conflicts between various sunni groups are also a perpetual threat to democratic citizenship because exclusion and marginalization are a corollary of any kind of majoritarian assertion.
The pretext of religion is being used against women almost all over South Asia to keep them far away from the rights and benefits of citizenship. Structural discrimination and violence against women also tend to severely curtail their citizen rights. In south asian countries such discrimination and violence against women are endemic. Child marriage, polygamy, divorce, fatwa, widow immolation, and honour killing are some of these maladies subverting women’s status as full citizens in this region.
Measures to remedy the barriers to the development of citizenship in every country require a set of coherent policies to be implemented efficiently. such policies should include actions to redress people’s socio-economic exclusion; to ensure the political participation of diverse ethnic, cultural and religious groups; to control the assertion of any kind of religious majoritarianism and to ensure gender equality. Also, there should be explicit efforts to build multiple and complementary identities, which would generate a feeling of unity in diversity, a ‘we’ feeling. The institutional and political space should then be open to citizens in which it would be possible for them to identify with both their country and their other identities. It would also be possible for them to repose their trust in common institutions and participate in democratic politics and the decision-making process.
3. Dimensions of Democracy
Probably the most common definition of democracy is that it is government of the people, by the people and for the people. This meaning was fully present in classical Greek thought as demokratia, which is itself a composite of two words: demos, for ‘people’ and kratos, meaning ‘rule’ even though in practice Greek democracy denied slaves their citizen rights. Over the centuries the theory and practice of democracy have evolved and diversified and people’s democratic rights greatly expanded. The 20th century in particular has seen a massive expansion of all kinds of right despite some formidable challenges being posed to the advance of democracy.
Extensive representation and inclusiveness of as many people and views as possible translating into the functioning of a fair and just system are considered a cornerstone of democracy. Checking unaccountable power and manipulation by the few at the expense of the many is also regarded as one of its important functions. These functions are generally done through elected representatives who come up through free, transparent and fair elections. But this has also given rise to a narrow institutional view of democracy limited to ballots and elections. Many contemporary political commentators have championed this view. Even an astute analyst like Samuel Huntington has observed that ‘Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non.’ But this minimalist view of democracy has some serious limitations.
In a society where inequality, disparity and exclusion are widespread the poorer classes mostly find themselves busy with the struggle to survive. They are not always politically organized and united due to their lack of access to education and information. They do not usually have the benefit of their constitutional rights as the ruling classes can manipulate those opportunities in their own interest. Although women, the poor and other marginalized people have their constitutional right to vote, this opportunity does not necessarily translate into their empowerment. The elected representatives may compromise the interest of people to serve their own interests. They are subject to various pressures inherent in society, such as pressures from those who finance their elections. These complex realities often undermine the effectiveness of formal democracy based on public balloting.
It can thus be argued that an effective democracy is not possible without enhancing people’s political and economic capabilities. If the majority of people lack social and economic security then their voting right or the right to free speech does not automatically lead to an effective rule by the people. In the same way, mere economic competence or equality without the formal opportunities of a democratic system such as public balloting, the right to free speech, a free media, the freedom of association etc cannot guarantee the benefits of democracy. An effective democratic system therefore presupposes the simultaneous development of all the opportunities and capabilities of people. Amartya Sen has rightly seen an intimate connection between justice and democracy, with some important shared features. Emphasizing people’s political and civil rights, he has advocated a shift from the niti-oriented electoral understanding of democracy to democratic nyaya which will promote social justice and security.
In today’s globalized world, there is a strong trend to confuse the cause of free markets with the cause of democracy. But there is strong evidence that markets subvert rather than promote the factors integral to the development of democracy. Economic liberalization leads to a concentration of economic wealth in the hands of a few and in political systems where money generates advantages, it leads indirectly to the concentration of political power as well. Those who have money and power tend to dominate the electoral system, leading to distortions in the state and society. It is therefore urgent for both civil society and the state to keep watch on this subversive potential of markets and ensure that the poorer segments of people are not cornered and disenfranchised through the processes of markets.
As a political system democracy has been in place in most of the South Asian countries but the region still has a long way to go to take the benefits of democracy to millions of poor, women, marginalized and vulnerable people. The quest for substantive democracy in the sense of social and economic security beyond a formal one is an unending struggle facing those who nurture a vision of a poverty-free, gender-just, secular and egalitarian society. Despite considerable headway on the count of democracy in some South Asian countries, the democratic deficit that is yet to be remedied has its roots in the colonial, patriarchal and feudal legacy. In the late colonial era democracy was conceded in South Asia in ways meant to extend representation and promote economic growth without effecting any fundamental change in the power relations. The guiding motive was to diffuse opposition and protect elite authority. Although the Indian subcontinent became independent in 1947 with the hope of a democratic future, the hangovers from the old colonial conception of representative politics and disciplinary institutions of state as well as patriarchal and feudal structures and ideas persisted in the attempts to build new societies. The current tendency of bureaucratic centralization, continual military intervention in some countries, and state violence almost all over South Asia is mostly a staggering outcome of structural inequity and a lack of democratic norms in all spheres of life ranging from the family to the state.
India, the largest country in the region and its longest functioning democracy, has definitely a better track record than its neighbours in sustaining the institutions and practices of formal democracy. Parliament, judiciary, election commission and such other institutions are quite viable and effective in India. But Pakistan and Bangladesh, still vulnerable to open and disguised military interventions in politics with a variation in degree, are struggling ahead with their frail democratic institutions. Of course Bangladesh is a little better off with its record of regular elections and improving scenario of social development. The Sri Lankan state fought a war with the Tamil Tigers for over two decades, resulting in a high incidence of civilian casualties and human rights violation. Nepal, too, was engaged in a decade-long civil war with Maoist guerillas until peace was reached in 2006. The country has already abolished monarchy but it is yet to have a stable political system and institutions in place.
Despite a rapid advance on some counts of human development in some of the South Asian countries, the overall picture of the region in this field leaves much to be desired. The weakness of social policies on school education, basic healthcare, child nutrition, essential land reform and gender equality reflects the inadequacy of democratic governance. Corruption is widespread and discrimination and structural violence against women are rampant in South Asia though the picture varies from country to country.
Democracy is still one of the most valuable achievements of humanity and the alternative to democracy is autocracy and dictatorship. Democracy expands people’s choices about how and by whom they are governed and thus stimulates the process of human development through the principles of participation and accountability. What needs to be done now is to widen and deepen democracy to promote development and protect the freedom and dignity of all people. Building institutions is a must but what is more important is to instill democratic values and norms into all institutions of state and society. Family, the basic institution in our society, is steeped in inequity and patriarchal values which are imbibed by children, who, as adult citizens, carry such hierarchical values and norms into state institutions, leading to a crisis in governance. A priority task today is to effectively redress these iniquitous, patriarchal values and structures persisting in all institutions. Radical reforms in the education system are necessary for institutionalizing pro-women, pro-poor, humane values. Generating tolerant values in society and recognizing the dignity of all citizens is also a priority task. Inclusive and interactive political processes should be brought into play so that divisive communal and fanatic thinking can be subdued. There should be adequate safeguards for minority rights. To cultivate a pluralist culture an active and energetic media, free not only from state control but also from corporate and political pressures, should be in place.
National governance in Bangladesh is highly centralized and elitist. The government decision-making process should be decentralized and made more inclusive. Democratization of local governance is fundamental if it has to be effective in promoting good governance. This would mean making space for wider people’s participation by way of inclusion of women and marginalized people in the local government bodies, and expansion of the role of local government in development.
Civil society should play an increasingly stronger role as a force of resistance against oppressive structures and exploitation and as a facilitating agent as well. It should critically engage with the state to identify gaps and inadequacies at the level of policy and implementation while at the same time collaborating with the state in enhancing gender equality, poverty eradication and development. If civil society can effectively contribute to its core functions of mass awareness-raising, articulating people’s demands and mobilizing them to claim their rights that will greatly help to advance the cause of democracy.
The term ‘governance’ was used as a synonym for government since the 15th century. However, in the 1980s, there was a shift in its meaning. From then the term has generally come to mean the interactive role of a multiplicity of stakeholders in the functioning of a state. The stakeholders in this sense include both government and non-government partners such as the private sector and civil society. This understanding of the private sector and civil society as partners of the government is a change from the traditional notion of the private sector and civil society playing a subordinate role. Thus the idea of governance indicates a polycentric state where decisions are taken at multiple centres through a process of interaction. The emphasis in this new paradigm is on a departure from excessive government to increased governance which was compatible with the global policy environment in the late 1980s.
Subsequently the term good governance came into being as opposed to bad governance which was identified by western donors as the main reason for the failure of massive aid programmes in many developing countries. From the early 1990s good governance has become an integral part of the development agenda sponsored by donors. It has found its place among the routine conditionalities of the aid package provided by them to the developing countries.
The promotion of good governance has a connection with the rise of neoliberal capitalism after the disintegration of the former socialist world. It was first thought that a good governance package would be conducive to the transition of East European socialist countries to capitalism. In 1990 the then French President Francois Mitterrand and some other western leaders publicly presented some ideas about good governance. They suggested to the donor countries that the aid given to the developing countries should be tied to a package of good governance. Then the donor countries and organizations reached a consensus on some common parameters of good governance but the importance they gave to its constituent elements varied according to their respective preferences. However, three elements were common to the good governance package (i) a competitive market economy, (ii) a well-managed state, and (iii) a democratic civil society. The first condition implies that a developing country seeking to be well-governed would have to open its market for unfettered investment and trade. The second condition requires the state to transfer its economic enterprises to the private sector due to the former’s management inefficiency. This condition also includes a variety of elements such as the government’s accountability, transparency, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, democracy, political pluralism etc. The third condition emphasizes the need for a vibrant civil society and a free media.
Despite its avowed commitment to democracy, pluralism, freedom of speech etc, this prescription shows no concern about economic pluralism and recognizes only one economic system, that is, neoliberal capitalism. This over-emphasis on the free market as a panacea for all ills in the state and society is neither compatible with the principle of democratic pluralism nor does it help to rectify the defects in the functioning of the market. Instead, by severely curtailing the role of the state it seeks to subordinate the state to an all-powerful, unbridled market and throw millions of poor people at its mercy. This privileging of the free market has made a few hundred multinational corporations (MNCs), which are based in the developed countries, control the whole world economy. These MNCs are not accountable to any particular state or association of states and there is no international convention or process to ensure their transparency and accountability. They are accumulating huge profits, a share of which goes to a small section of the population of the developing countries. There has also been a rise of a new consumer middle class with considerable purchasing power in these countries. But at the same time poverty, unemployment and disparity are starkly on the rise all over the world.
This is by no means conducive to good economic governance. A society afflicted by poverty is bound to suffer from widespread injustice and discrimination in all areas of life. Corruption in the developing countries has been a major concern today. It is undeniable that corruption is a main hurdle to the development of these countries. But it is also true that before the current wave of globalization, corruption was limited mainly to some state organizations and nowadays it has become rampant in society due to the expansion of a profit-oriented, unbridled market system and the unethical competition between different corporate lobbies to procure contracts from developing countries through bribing policy-makers. However, a section of the upwardly mobile middle class and government officials are the main beneficiaries of this corruption boom. This has also had a negative impact on the efficiency of the government bureaucracy which is responsible for the implementation of any good governance package. The gap between government policies and implementation in all sectors in many developing countries bears testimony to this.
Improvement of governance is a must for poverty eradication and promoting sustainable development in the developing countries. It is also an imperative from the perspective of the Millennium Development Goals which provide a guideline for change and improvement in the quality of life. For improved governance civil society must play a proactive role. Civil society should complement the state in its positive interventions on the one hand and try to curb the coercive role of the state and restrain abuse of power through increased mobilization and empowerment of people on the other. Reducing the role of the state is a common good governance prescription given by donors. But actually the ‘retreat of the state’ from the realm of popular entitlements, health, education, employment, preservation of natural resources is a mere recipe for making poor people more vulnerable and helpless. The state should be allowed to play its role in providing basic services to people, with a deeper level of citizen participation in governance.
In fact the modern state obtained this mandate to provide for people when it was separated from the Church in the late middle ages. This responsibility of the state is more obligatory in agricultural countries like Bangladesh where there has been little industrial growth and millions of poor people, particularly women, still depend for their livelihood on a kind of subsistence economy based on common resources like land, water, forest etc. Due to the rapid growth of population and commercialization of common resources under the impact of markets, this subsistence economy is being severely eroded, making a huge number of women, ethnic communities and other segments of poor people more helpless than before. Fulfillment of their basic needs now requires wider public interventions. NGOs with their focus on women and their efficiency to reach out directly to the poor can definitely play an important role in supporting these vulnerable groups but the state’s role in service provision to them should be enhanced rather than curtailed.
It may be mentioned in this connection that the recent experience of the structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI) carried out across the world has proved that declining public investment in social sectors are relegating the poor to another generation of poverty. The increased impoverishment caused by structural adjustment sponsored by the World Bank and the IMF has in a number of ways befallen women more than men. It is evident that the public provision of essential services contributes to the reduction of poverty while also reducing the pressure on the environment and additional burdens on women. The state should therefore remain effectively functional to maintain an environment in which women and poor people can live with their entitlements and citizen rights.
Civil society should also put pressure on the market to contain the process of displacement, dispossession and inequity generated by its defective working. Well-designed awareness-raising programmes implemented by civil society can go a long way towards making poor people aware of their rights and entitlements to basic services so that they can get mobilized to claim their rights. It may also be considered whether the prevalent system of representative democracy can be positively restructured so that people can effectively monitor the performance of their elected representatives and government officials and exercise continuous influence on them. Empowerment of poor women through organization building and widening their access to resources and institutions is of course an effective step in that direction. It may be pointed out in this context that the question of governance nowadays is not limited to state institutions only, it also includes social, political and market institutions and the inclusion of women and poor people is one of the major indicators of governance.
Although some women have risen to top political positions in some South Asian countries, women’s overall place in the decision-making process in this region is still very inadequate. As regards Bangladesh, the process of political empowerment is extremely slow in spite of strong constitutional mandates and a policy for advancement of women. There are quotas for women in three critical sectors of governance: the parliament, the civil service, and the local government but they are not very effective in facilitating women’s representation and participation. There are now more women in the reserved seats in the parliament than before but women members are still chosen mostly on the basis of their party allegiance and family influence but not on the basis of merit and qualifications. There is also a reluctance among the political parties to nominate women for the general seats. The representation of women in the civil service is still around 12% and this meager representation is bottom heavy with most of the women in middle and lower positions. Women can rarely rise to the highest administrative posts and there are reports that they are often subjected to discrimination in matters of promotion and posting. Although women’s representation in the local government has slightly increased in recent years, it is still far from effective. Women in local government also suffer from discriminatory treatment. Concerted efforts are therefore necessary to enhance women’s quality representation in these areas of governance. While the existing quotas and career development opportunities for women needs to be increased, measures should be taken to create an appropriate environment in which they can contribute effectively. At the same time, there should be a greater emphasis on their overall empowerment process and on raising awareness at all levels about women’s productive role in the state and society.
The problems of citizenship, democracy and governance that are evident in today’s world are mainly due to the growth-centred neoliberal vision of development which entails a corrupt governance system that breeds poverty, inequality, exclusion and marginalization. Whether in South Asia or in other parts of the world, poverty and inequality are structural problems and mere cosmetic reforms to maintain the status quo cannot go far in eradicating them. Only a transformation of the existing system and structures geared towards distributive justice can make citizenship, democracy and governance genuinely pro-women, pro-poor and meaningful to the majority of people in the world.
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