The complex nature of the challenge posed by state-society relations to the realisation of citizenship rights in the poorer countries of the world reflects the incapacity or unwillingness on the part of the state to guarantee basic security of life and livelihoods to its citizens and its proneness to capture by powerful elites that perpetuate this state of affairs.
Consequently, access to resources continue to be defined by position within an unequal social order that is largely constituted by the ascribed relationships of family, kinship, caste and so on. These relationships pervade all spheres of society, rendering irrelevant the idea of an impersonal public sphere which individuals enter as bearers of rights, equal in the eyes of the law. Indeed, given their reliance on patron client relations for their basic survival and security, the idea of individual rights is unlikely to have much meaning or relevance in the lives of most poor people.
This paper explores the hypothesis that the possibility of belonging to alternative associations whose membership is not ‘given’ by position in the social order holds out the greatest promise for democratising the social order. Bangladesh offers an interesting context in which to explore this hypothesis because while it embodies most the problems of bad governance outlined above, it also has a large number of civil society organisations, many of whom work primarily with the poorer sections of society.
The research focused on the working poor who are most likely to belong to these associations. Analysis of their narratives about their lives and livelihood and their views about rights and social justice suggests, not surprisingly, that there is nothing inherently democratic about civil society organisations in Bangladesh, even those ostensibly oriented to the interests of poor people.
What appeared to explain the extent to which organisations were able to achieve democratic outcomes appeared to depend, first of all, on the extent of their commitment to the promotion of citizenship rights among poor people and secondly, on the extent to which they were able to carry out their commitments without interference from the state. In the context of Bangladesh, the state appeared to be far more pro-poor in rural than in urban areas.