Civil Society or “Comprador Class”:
Participation or Parroting in Bangladesh’s PRSP
Dr Palash Kamruzzaman
In recent years, the idea of civil society has undergone something of a
renaissance and its efflorescence is often considered to be the most likely
route out of development ‘problems’ in the poor countries, particularly in
Africa (Diamond; Linz and Lipset 1988, Harbeson; Rothchild and Chazan
1994, Landell-Mills 1992, Mercer 2003).
Its present vogue is a result of the way the concept has been used over
recent years to protest against the impact of global neo-liberalism, third-
world debt and imperialist war. Civil society organisations are often
identified as key sources of mobilisation and resistance to the power of
the global financial institutions and the central states of the most
economically powerful nations (Lavalette and Ferguson 2007).
Dominant development discourses have scripted the liberal
interpretation of civil society as the only game in town (Mercer 2003).
What is a Civil Society?
Civil society comprises the realm of organizations that lie between
the family at one extreme and the state at the other (Hegel 1821)
Civil society is the sphere of institutions, organisations and
individuals located between the family, the state and the marketin
which people associate voluntarily to advance common interests
[Civil society as] an anti-hegemonic force in society, whose
purpose is to aggregate the interests of power of the marginalised
members of society (Habermas 1996).
Civil society is bourgeois society that maintains the dominant
economic interests within it (Marx 1843/1979).
Contemporary dimensions of civil society
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) therefore are a wide array of
organisations: community groups, non-governmental organisations
(NGOs), labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organisations,
faith-based organisations, professional associations, and foundations
(World Bank 2006).
Civil society embraces:
Institutionalised groups: such as religious organisations, trades
unions, business associations and co-operatives.
Local organisations: such as community associations, farmers’
associations, local sports groups, non-governmental organisations
and credit societies.
Social movements and networks (DFID 2006).
In whatever sector it [development] took place, meant going to another part
of the world, to ‘normalise it’ according to their (the dominant and powerful)
way of viewing the reality, to make it similar to their world (Freire 1974).
In the late 1960s, and throughout most of the 1970s, there was a sudden
upsurge of interest that ordinary citizens might have a part to play in the
decision-making process (Richardson 1983).
From the 1970s to the 1990s, a generalised consensus took shape that
people’s participation in projects was an important component of
development programmes and a means to their success (Cornwall 2000,
Participation constituted a ‘new paradigm’ of development as participation
meant empowerment and mutual respect and enabled poor people, to express
and analyse their individual perceptions and shared realities (Chambers 1997).
The World Bank seeks ‘stakeholder participation’ instead of ‘popular
participation’ (World Bank 1996). Their participation is crucial, as these
stakeholders include the borrowers (i.e. representatives of client countries,
elected officials, line agency staff, local government officials), indirectly
affected groups (i.e. NGOs), and the Bank itself (its staff).
Participatory development ostensibly implies discarding mainstream
development’s neo-colonial tendencies, Western-centric values and
centralised decision-making processes. Decisions are often made on the
basis of inadequate participation; for example, beneficiaries are consulted
after the programme design and goals have already been set (Kapoor 2005,
It creates a ‘feel good’ community experience, but covers up the
backstage influence (Oxfam 2004).
Marriage between Civil Society and Participation
In supporting civil society in the South, donor agencies pursue a combination
of broad goals. These include promoting democratisation, hastening economic
development, reducing poverty and strengthening civil society as a goal in itself.
Support for the emergence and strengthening of NGOs has formed a central
part of this agenda (Archer 1994, Howell 2002, Howell and Pearce 2002).
However, donor assistance is not limited to fostering democratisation. It also
accords with a broader agenda of promoting neo-liberal economic policies
(Howell 2002, Howell and Pearce 2002).
In most developing countries civil society empowerment strategy has been
focused almost entirely on the agencies known as nongovernmental
organisations (NGOs) (Stiles 2002). However, the principal hazard of an
emergent civil society lies in the active and well-meaning efforts of international
agencies and bilateral and aid donors to fabricate a civil society (Sobhan 2000).
Civil Society Participation in the PRSP approach
In December 1999, the Boards of the WB and IMF suggested a new
framework for the HIPCs and other poor countries. This was expected
to be country-driven, results oriented, comprehensive and long-term in
perspective, and in line with the principles of the Comprehensive
Development Framework (CDF). They were to be embodied within a
Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), which was expected to serve
as a framework for development assistance beyond the operations of
the Fund and the Bank (IDA and IMF 2002: 3).
The Executive Boards of the World Bank and IMF consider each
PRSP based on staff assessments, which include a detailed analysis of
the PRSP and a recommendation of whether or not to endorse the
PRSP (IMF and World Bank 2000, emphasis added).
The PRSP tool has thus became among the most important
documents for national planning, and lies increasingly at the centre
of development assistance and debt relief to poor countries
(Swallow 2005, Driscoll with Evans 2005).
As of May 2008, fifty-nine countries have a full PRSP, and in
addition to this, Interim PRSPs (IPRSPs) of nine other countries
can be found in the World Bank website.
Analysts generally agree on two major achievements:
• poverty reduction has been brought to the centre of national
• the PRSP processes have generally been more transparent and
participatory than other national planning processes (Booth
2003, Hanmer; Ikiara; Eberlei and Abong 2003).
The government prepared and submitted its final version of PRSP
Four effective participatory strategies were put in place
A high-powered National Steering Committee headed by the Principal
Secretary to the Prime Minister and drawing on all the major public
sector ministries was established
A National Poverty Focal Point was established in the Planning
Commission to act as the secretariat for the strategy formulation
19 thematic groups were constituted under the relevant ministries for
preparation of thematic reports that feed into the final strategy
Regional consultations were undertaken with representation from a
wide cross section of society including elected functionaries and grass
roots organizations (GED 2005)
Participation or Parroting?
….let me tell you how government led local consultations take
place. The audience is undoubtedly extremely hierarchical…such
a meeting starts with the introductory speech from the admin
person and then the distinguished persons…followed up by
somebody from the trade union… business groups must also say
something in such a ‘vital’ meeting…then the chair will ask
someone or two from the poor to say something ‘very briefly’.
By this time no one really cares what s/he is talking about
because the organisers are not in any mood to listen to them. In
the meantime they have already heard from the ‘key people’
(Ahamad 2006 Pers. Comm.).
Participation or Parroting (cont.)?
“…if the standard procedure forces someone to go to village or
remote area and to listen to the poor, then to save his/her job s/he
will do so and things will move forward in a way set by the elite at the
centre. Participants in these meetings participate because they have
been ‘invited’ and may remain silent in an unfamiliar environment.
The PRSP committee cannot claim the consultations took place in
local people’s own set-ups. These were convened in an orthodox
format. Participation in the PRSP was ‘standard’ participation and
there are speculation that this exercise did not genuinely intend to
include ordinary people in” (Yunus 2006, Pers. Comm.).
“…in the national level meetings a few common names and faces
were present who generally go to most consultations…I was invited
to couple of meetings possibly because the organisers knew me”
(Arefeen 2006, Pers. Comm.).
Experts as development brokers
Many (development professionals) understand all too well that formal
models are slippery in application, finding ‘fraught accommodation with
the political economy of place, history, production and territorial
government’ (Craig and Porter 2006:120)
Experts enjoy a privilege position in brokering development; they assume
a growing importance and capture significant resources in the mediated
cultures of development (Lewis and Mosse 2006)
Development involves a great number of interactions between actors of
different statuses, with varying resources and dissimilar goals, “for whom
development constitutes a resource, a profession, a market, a stake or a
strategy” (Olivier de Sardan 2004:11)
Participation can produce a shopping list. Moreover, participation can be
very cacophonic [in contrast to polyphonic] – it was the professional task
to distil and prioritise our goals and target which we did in [the making of]
the PRSP (Rahman, H. Z. 2006, pers. comm.)
Civil Society or a ‘Comprador Class’ (cont.)?
....the audience will know a few key words and phrases, depending
on which NGOs they are attached to. If the NGO works on
agriculture then the participants already capable of talking about
hybrid and genetically modified (GM) crops. If it is a gender based
NGO they are able to talk about women’s empowerment, domestic
violence and other similar issues. If the NGO deals with micro-
credit they can talk about interest rates, empowerment and accessing
the market and other resources (Muhammad 2006, pers. comm.)
Civil Society or a ‘Comprador Class’?
The ruling class of Bangladesh welcomes and expects frameworks
like this where there is space for mutual benefit and interest. The
political leaders, the bureaucrats, the elites and neo-elites need such
programme to establish a firmer grip on national development and
also to secure their material and political interests. Whenever a
proposition is made or a step taken to privatise state owned sectors,
the elites and neo-elites feel elated because ultimately they enjoy the
benefit with or without the association of international
collaborators. Somehow they persuade the process to go on. I call
them as a comprador class who always accept external approaches
and enjoy benefits from these. Along with elites and political leaders,
bureaucrats also represent this group and benefit from it (Ahmed M.
2006, Pers. Comm.)
Participation a Rhetoric? An Iron Hand in the Velvet
Civil Society : A means for validation? In its modern
form that help maintaining the [global] exploitation,
appropriation and hegemony?