When the State is Absent, Can the Poor Step in? Accessing Basic Services through Collective Agency

Ibrahim, Solava (2010). "When the State is Absent, Can the Poor Step in? Accessing Basic Services through Collective Agency" Paper presented at the 7th annual conference of the HDCA, 21-23 September 2010, Amman, Jordan.

The provision of basic services is a crucial means of reducing poverty. In reality, though, the state fails the poor in service provision through limited access and bad quality services. In this case, the poor have one of two choices: (1) either to strengthen the accountability mechanisms to pressure the state to provide these services; or (2) to step in and provide the missing services through their collective agency. This paper argues that in the absence of an efficient responsive state the poor use their collective agency indirectly as a means of calling the state to respect their rights to basic services (accountability model) or directly by providing these services through their coordinated collective action (self-provision model). The paper first explains the relationship between service delivery, capability building and poverty reduction and emphasizes the crucial importance of the ‘quality of capabilities’. This section presents a new theoretical framework that extends the analysis of capabilities to account for the level, quality and impact of the achieved functionings on the individual’s (and communal) well-being. Section 2 presents the ‘voices of the poor’ and their evaluation of two basic services in Egypt: education and health. It clarifies the defects of these two crucial services and their impact on the poor’s educational and health achievements. Section 3 examines the challenges and dilemmas of service delivery while section 4 explores how the poor seek to improve the quality of these services. It presents the case of quarry workers in Upper Egypt who adopted the accountability model by advocating for their rights and calling upon the state to respect their rights to basic health and social security services. This case study demonstrates how the workers succeeded through collective agency to gain their right to safe working conditions and to access health and social insurance. Section 4 also presents the ‘self-provision’ model of service delivery explaining how the poor can use their collective agency to provide services directly thus fulfilling the role of the ‘absent’ state. The paper concludes by comparing both models and explaining the crucial role of collective agency in both models and their implications for service delivery to and capability building of the poor.
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