Are state institutions relevant to the politics of the poor?


In the developing world, more than a third of their urban populations live in areas where the social amenities such as water, healthcare, housing and education are desperately needed. Therefore, the state institutions and their policies– whether or not supported by aid agencies and development banks – need to work harder in addressing these problems. But for many scholars, the attention does not only focus on the role of state institutions or international NGOs but the part of the poor groups themselves. This is because the traditional state-managed approaches to poverty alleviation have not fully met the demands of a vast majority of the urban population.

At present, urban settings play a considerable role on what is required, what poor people can do and how the state institutions address their needs. Satterthwaite (2008) argues that the physical geography helps poor groups establish collective organisations to address their local obligations to the state institutions. Though the state institutions may ignore the situations in the areas of urban poor, the poor people consistently create pressure and ensure that their needs are addressed through collective process and activities.

Because the vast majority of poor urban concentrate in specific sites, it creates the need for infrastructure more critical. Urban concentration makes visible both absolute poverty and inequality and thus can serve state bodies that repress disadvantaged groups or their demands or manage them in ways that diffuse their influence and effectiveness. Bearing this in mind urban concentration put lots of pressure on meager services if any. For instance, it may be difficult to obtain enough clean water as the pipes are not properly laid down and because of the minimal public toilets, human wastes cannot appropriately be disposed and hence may cause health problems.

In developing countries (South Africa and Bangladesh, for example) where the local governments are elected via democratic means are more responsive to the urban poor. This is because the urban poor can hold the elected officials to account. Furthermore, they could put pressure on local councils – and go beyond the traditional protests that had formerly been the tools by which the poor had sought to impact government. Though the critics claim that democratic state(s) may not always be favourable for the urban poor as such groups have a little knowledge of how to organise themselves to get their demands addressed.

The politicians (such as mayors) and senior civil servants of the state institutions with a pro-poor political change in urban areas may create platforms for the urban poor to make their demands met. Many democratic-minded mayors in many parts of Africa, for instance, have expressed concerns for the poor and understood from the onset that a large number of their electorates are from the urban poor hence they are obliged to listen to them for if they want to remain in the office for another term. The critics will argue that it is possible that politicians in democracies might also be beholden to the propertied and wealthy classes. This may not always be true in many democratic societies though, as some politicians with progressive social agenda may be dissatisfied with the poor organisations (or federations) as they suspect that such structures may not align with their political ideologies thereby may not mobilise votes for them.

The relevance of the state institutions in the politics of the poor is mainly felt in the scenarios where both (state and urban) choose to work collaboratively together on housing and essential services. Such partnerships give the poor people an active role in designing, implementing and managing responses to their demands (i.e. Co-production). This is the case in South Africa where the government has supported one of the world’s most extensive subsidy programmes to assist poor households in getting their housing, but unfortunately what has been erected was of poor quality and was also built in less attractive locations. On responding to this, organisations of the urban poor, most notably South African Federation of the Urban Poor, intervened in the programmes and influenced the housing locations and took over their design, construction and management.

On the other hand, state institutions may turn a deaf ear to the demands of the poor people. In extreme situations, the state’s response to citizen demands may be authoritarian, with durable suppression of any protest or demonstration (especially where these are considered to be illegal). The state may carry out murder, unlawful arrest and torture for individuals as a means of controlling such organisations. This life-threatening illustration can also found in democratic countries, particularly those with strict regulations on illegal land occupation which ultimately results in the removal of large urban poor settlements.

Furthermore, the response of the state institutions to poor people’s demands may also be bureaucratic, requiring urban poor organisations to go through conventional bureaucratic channels to make requests and access entitlements – or protest against unfair treatment. The informal nature of the housing and livelihoods of many of the urban poor often makes it difficult for them to use such measures –for instance, getting some entitlement may depend on living in a legal settlement or having a legal address or producing documents such as birth certificates, which they do not have.

The social make-up of urban poor makes the poor groups get the necessary consensus. Reason being the diversity among the urban poor (among other things) in political allegiances and ethnic ties. For instances, the language and religious barriers in poor urban areas make the cooperation of urban poor impossible. The divisions created by caste also adds insult to the injury thus the poor can have little influence to change state policies towards them.

To sum up, my argument is that the influence of the disadvantaged groups on social services and policies has not been given the consideration it deserves by the state institutions. Nor has the vital role that local governments should have in responding to this. Nonetheless we cannot also deny the fact that poor people harbour huge hopes from the state, expecting help from them. Consequently, the most democratic nations pay every price to serve the interests of poor groups and incorporate their poor people’s politics into their key priorities so that the gap between the rich and poor is collectively bridged.

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