Rights, Representation and the Poor in the cities of Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Delhi

Background and Objectives

It is widely believed that an historic shift is taking place in forms of political representation available to the poor, towards social movements rather than unions, ‘voluntary associations’ rather than political parties, and local rather than national concerns. This shift seems to have made it more difficult for the poor to find political representation, particularly in low and middle income countries.

Somewhat oddly, pessimism about the prospects for progressive programmatic politics in the party and union arenas stands alongside optimism amongst some researchers and development policy actors for the success of direct ‘popular participation’ and civil society. However, the onset of democratisation has encouraged analysts to point to a flowering of new forms of community-based associations and see these not only as replacing parties and unions in representing popular interests, but also as being more responsive to their constituencies and autonomous from external influence and control.

The research programme on Rights, Representation and the Poor treated this proposition, representative of an important line of thinking about the existence of a ‘new politics’, based in civil society, as an hypothesis – to be tested against evidence on how people generally, and poorer people in particular, living in mega-cities in India and Latin America interact with the political system.


The study has focused on three large urban centres that have suffered many of the political-economy transformations that are thought to be producing the shift in the form of representation. Survey-based fieldwork was conducted in São Paulo, Mexico City (DF), Delhi and Bangalore over a three year period (2002-04). Data analysis has been carried on since 2003; and results have been presented in (so far) 26 seminars and workshops before a variety of audiences – including those of civil society activists and policy makers – in seven countries.

Two types of surveys were conducted in each city, a Citizen Survey (approximately N=1,200) and an Association Survey (approximately N=200). Unlike most previous research on civil society, the study’s Association Survey collected data from 200 associations in four regions of each city using snowball samples. The samples selected civil organisations that work with lower income groups.


  • Citizens see the government as having primary responsibility for their welfare.
  • Low income is not in itself a bar to political participation; poor people are as active politically as their wealthier counterparts.
  • The ability of citizens to demand access to public goods and basic rights is highly uneven within each city, and between cities. Despite this unevenness, we found that education substantially increases the likelihood that citizens will make demands on government, and being active in associations makes someone more likely to engage in political activities.
  • Associational activity makes it more likely that the citizen’s voice will be heard, however the less well-educated are considerably less likely to be active in associations and therefore we can not underestimate the challenges to enhancing collective action by the poor.
  • There are distinct ‘varieties of civil society’, reflecting differences in the long-running historical relationships between citizens, collective actors and the state in different contexts. There is great variation in what kinds of relations these organisations have with ordinary people and with governments, for example the majority of organisations in civil society are not membership based. These differences can have a profound effect on the impact of an organisation on the political system and more importantly, can make a real difference as to whether and how the voice of the individual, especially the poor individual, is heard.
  • The claims made about the ability of new forms of citizen participation, and of civil society organisations, to give poor people greater voice are overplayed or misperceived.
  • It is often the case that collective actors rather than individuals are involved in participatory processes. If, as our research shows, some individuals (especially poor individuals) are under-represented by collective actors, the question is who the organisation is representing, when it makes its voice heard.

Key contacts

Project details

start date
21 January 2002
end date
21 January 2005


About this project


Image of Peter P. Houtzager

Peter P. Houtzager

Research Fellow

Recent work