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Citizens' Agency

Ajit Menon

By Duncan Green
Oxfam International and Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2008, pp. xvi 522, Rs. 995.00


Do ‘active citizens’ and ‘effective states’ change the world? According to the sub-title of the book From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green they do. Yet, as the author himself recognizes there is ‘good’ change and ‘bad’ change. What Green means by good change is change that helps ‘build a secure, fair, and sustainable world’ (p. 16).   So what constitutes active citizens and effective states? Green defines active citizens as those who use their rights and obligations that ‘link individuals to the state, including paying taxes, obeying laws, and exercising the full range of political, civil, and social rights’ to ‘improve the quality of political or civic life, through involvement in the formal economy or formal politics, or through the sort of collective action that has allowed poor and excluded groups to make their voices heard’ (p. 12). Effective states guarantee security, provide rule of law and pursue inclusive economic growth. The author correctly argues that what links active citizens and effective states together is politics and that too often discussions about development are about policy not politics (p. 13). He also argues that an active citizenship and effective state should be pursued as early as possible in a country’s development in order for it to have a chance to result in meaningful change.   Few would contest the need for active citizens and effective states given the chronic problems the world continues to face. Poverty, seen as multiple deprivations, continues to be high in many parts of the world and inequality is increasing both within and between nation states. As highlighted in Part 4 of the book, risks and vulnerabilities are also multiplying in diverse ways including increasing informalization of employment and in terms of new threats such as climate change. Moreover, the international system (Part 5) continues to be significantly shaped by the priorities of Western countries, often with adverse impacts on developing countries be it in the form of financial pressures from lending agencies or the international trading system. The book is successful in detailing the many ways in which development is unfair and discriminatory at multiple scales, i.e. within particular countries and regions and amongst social groups.   Based on his extensive experience within Oxfam, the author also highlights, however, the ways in which citizens have tried and succeeded to change their own realities. Whether it be the Chiquitano of Bolivia winning legal title to indigenous land or slum dwellers in ...

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