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Whose decision is it anyway?

Much of the world’s poverty is due to the lack of representation of the poor in the decision-making bodies. Policy-making institutions ...

Written by Rahul Ramagundam |
May 11, 2005

Much of the world’s poverty is due to the lack of representation of the poor in the decision-making bodies. Policy-making institutions remain impervious to direct influence that comes from the representation of the poor. Poverty, therefore, is less about incorrect economic prescription but really a matter of correct governance, empowerment and entitlement.

Poverty is not because the poor are indolent or their governments are notoriously porous or insolvent. It is due to the fact that the poor lack representation in the bodies that decide on the health of their bodies. Their voice is muzzled; genuine representation becomes scarce.

Sadly, despite abounding paeans for democracy, the exclusion of the people is the norm. It is as true for India’s fight for a Security Council seat in the United Nations as it is for the Dalit-Musahar’s fight for his right to vote at a Bihar booth. People are excluded from the decision-making bodies not as an afterthought, they are removed at the very bottom of the process. It begins from the beginning of the representation mechanism itself. Such exclusion at the base translates either into lip service to pro-poor policies or an active frustration of measures that could genuinely be hospitable to the poor.

The systemic corruption that often leads to the leaking bottom is also a product of such exclusion of the poor. It is genuine representation that ensures systemic accountability and precludes the possibilities for corruption. Control of representative mechanisms is a way to appropriate resources. It leads to poverty as the resources get misappropriated in fewer hands. Thus, systemic corruption — often brandished to be the cause of third world poverty — is nothing more than a symptom of the deep-rooted absence of stringent representative mechanisms.

It is not so much that governments are porous, therefore, but that the representative mechanism by which those governments are conceived is exclusionary. This explains the continued existence of extreme poverty in most of the Third World. This is also apparent in the UN unabashedly toeing the US line when it comes to policing the nations of the world. As long as the skewed representative mechanism remains intact, no amount of Millennium Development Goals and pious aims can make poverty history. Much of the developmental aid will continue to flow down the drain. Most poverty eradication strategies will remain merely a declaration of intent.

Poverty could be banished if the poor are genuinely represented in the decision-making bodies. For this, the electoral system must be made free from malpractices. Presently, in India, democracy is still a privilege of few. The often-cited poll-percentage during the elections to state or central assemblies is prone to contestation. A flawed electoral system gives rise to misconceptions about the deepening of democracy.

It also leads to faulty policy formations that are supposedly meant to eradicate poverty and deficient diagnosis of policy miscarriages. India’s governability crisis is born of a flawed representative system. Her governing institutions never respected its own citizens. Institutions have constructed an elaborate screening arrangement to exclude people from having a genuine say in the making of decisions in these institutions. Even now, most of the governing apparatus continues to have colonial connotations; most laws are arcane and the systemic ideology is self-aggrandising. Most of the post-colonial societies are afflicted by extreme poverty as the colonial state excluded people’s participation in governance, a practice that the post-colonial state has continued to practice.

Strengthen the representative mechanism and allow free and fearless participation of the poor in it and poverty shall soon be banished. A budgetary dole is no replacement for genuine representation. The real stumbling block in ending poverty is a representation system that excludes participation. Genuine representation could alter authority structures and bring parity in resource-use. It is the poverty of representation that nurtures poverty.

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