Governance, Social development and inclusion

CLEAR Synthesis: How Covid changed state-citizen relations in Bangladesh

COVID-19 emergency response activities, Shahjahanpur, Dhaka.

Bangladesh witnessed significant changes in citizen-state relations during the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes were triggered by several factors including the government’s push for digitalisation of citizen engagement at the local level, changes in autonomy of local government, and changing civic space for non-governmental organisations (NGO) facilitating citizen engagement in holding the state accountable. The state was quick in its response to the public health crisis, took emergency measures such as lockdown and relief programs, rolled out an effective vaccination programme with 88% of the population receiving one dose of the vaccine. It addressed economic vulnerabilities through the expansion of social protection, deploying relief programs, and targeted stimulus packages for ready-made garment workers and small and medium-sized enterprises. However, the socio-political impacts of the pandemic and the state’s responses to it are still being understood.

The CLEAR research programme focused on understanding the social and political impacts of the pandemic. It had four broad thematic areas, namely (i) poverty and vulnerability, (ii) service delivery, accountability and governance, (iii) rights of marginalised population and disadvantaged groups, and (iv) innovations in technology and programmatic policy implementation. One of the cross-cutting findings of CLEAR research was that state-citizen relations changed during Covid-19 and this blog will present some of the key aspects of this change.

We highlight accountability-related findings of five projects, namely two associated to the service delivery and accountability theme (the Feedback State co-ordinated by ARC, MJF and BIGD; and Rethinking Accountability led by University of Bath, along with CARE, and A2i), one from the poverty and vulnerability theme focused on the ‘new poor’ and multidimensional poverty (Becoming Poor led by IDS and BIGD), one under innovations focusing on digital applications and sexual and reproductive health rights (Digital Health Platforms led JPGSPH, BRAC University), and one led by IDS on the Chronicles of Hard Times (Durdiner Diaries) that explored how new poor navigated governance needs using various formal and informal channels. Common across all studies was a mixed methods approach, with a combination of primary and secondary data – qualitative and quantitative – from digital ethnography to longitudinal surveys, qualitative panel studies, process tracing, validation workshops, and policy workshops.

Low expectations and trust in government

Across the five projects we found that the Bangladeshi government was committed to responding to citizens needs during the pandemic however these commitments were not reflected in the expectations of citizens from the state. Citizens generally had low expectations from the local government and more expectations from the central government. In some places, our respondents perceived government support to be a right, although there were residents who lacked the documentation or recognition of their citizenship rights. In other places, we found that people did not expect much from the local government and trust them less than the central government, while in several others there was a general lack of expectation from the state.

Across our studies we found that citizens had low trust in local government and did not expect much from them as they perceived them to be corrupt and distributing social protection unfairly based on party affiliation and networks. For instance, both Durdiner Diaries and Rethinking Accountability found that citizens had limited expectations from local government due to a lack of trust in them. Still, in the Feedback State citizens reportedly expected the state to listen to them and be more transparent about service delivery mechanisms. However, they too found that in practice majority of citizens did not trust the state to address the complaint and therefore did not even voice their grievances.

Shame and networks shaping support

We found that seeking financial help was a source of shame for new poor respondents. While Becoming Poor found that seeking support from the state was seen as less shameful by the urban new poor than seeking it from family and friends, Durdiner Diaries found that despite the shame attached to seeking help, the new poor did seek financial support from family and friends to sustain themselves during the pandemic. Often these interactions took place at the local level so issues with patronage and intermediation persisted, affecting people’s experiences with the state. Difference in political affiliation or other identity factors played a role accessing intermediaries and government support, which meant people engaged with accessing state support with varying levels of success.

Fragmented accountability mechanisms and limited voice

Our findings also show that various accountability mechanisms were set up and new channels through which citizens could make themselves heard by government, with varying levels of success – a particular success story was the use of the 333 phone helpline – in terms of use and responsiveness, and more openness within government to listening to citizens’ concerns and complaints during the pandemic.

Issues included the fact that people were not using complaint mechanisms as they did not believe it would make a difference, the fragmented nature of accountability mechanisms, and that direct engagement with local authorities remained the default approach. How these accountability relationships with the different levels of government played out has continued to affect state-citizen relations, especially in relation to service delivery and access to social protection, and especially the more marginalised groups.

The ones falling through the cracks

A common observation across CLEAR studies was that in every research site there was always a group systematically excluded from welfare services and emergency relief during the pandemic. Several people pointed out that their exclusion was linked to the fact that they had poor relations or connections with local political authorities or that local leaders did not care for them. Some of the key groups falling through the cracks of state responsiveness include the new poor (Durdiner Diaries), low-income urban residents (Becoming Poor), local migrant workers (Rethinking Accountability), digital illiterates (Digital health platforms), and those unaware of accountability mechanisms (Feedback State).

Despite having networks which enabled them to receive assistance through intermediaries and the government, many new poor struggled to access official help as they were often deemed ‘not poor enough’. Besides this, many new poor faced issues of shame and honour while seeking support due to their middle-class status. Another group suffering from social norms were the residents of low-income urban neighbourhoods, who experience stigmatisation and discrimination especially when moving outside of their neighbourhoods to access services. Unable to enrol their children in schools, being under constant surveillance of the police, turned away at public institutions when being honest about where they live, many felt like second-rate citizens. Though emergency relief was available in urban areas during the pandemic, government social protection was patchy and difficult to access. Like the case of new poor, having the right connection and networks was paramount to access relief provided by community leaders and government during the pandemic.

One group in particular that struggled to access these local networks were local migrant workers. As migrants from other regions, they are not local voters and as such have limited value to local politicians. Many felt stuck between local governments in their home villages and their place of work, particularly because processes being only partly digitised meant they had to travel back to their home villages for essential documents and had to pay additional ‘speed money’ to get things done quickly.

People who were digitally illiterate were most likely to be dependent on intermediaries to help them access digital services provided by the government. In several situations this increased their vulnerability to corruption, making them pay more than the government-mandates prices for accessing services. Finally, there were those unaware of accountability mechanisms. This happened because of a lack of awareness or clarity regarding which mechanisms to use for what type of demand, the fragmented nature of the mechanisms in place, as well as the lack of trust built by the government in these systems and the people working to resolve the issues.

Digitalisation of governance not a panacea

While accountability mechanisms might be present on paper, the mechanisms were highly fragmented and few people aired their grievances through these mechanisms. When claims and demands were sought, it was often through individualised ways, with a minority using hotlines. An even smaller proportion of citizens used online systems to report complaints and we found almost no forms of collective action demanding accountability.

Digitalisation of government services and social protection is often framed as a solution to human errors and corruption, but our findings reveal that it comes with its own share of problems. Digitalisation of government services can be vulnerable to lack of transparency on processes, rent-seeking behaviour, abuse in accessing digital services, and data security. Without the necessary digital infrastructure and ecosystem which allows everyone to freely access services in an informed way, many citizens became dependent on intermediaries and rent-seeking actors to help them access these services. Additionally, the fragmented accountability mechanisms lead to unawareness of mechanisms from the perspective of citizens and a lack of a holistic picture on grievances for the state.

Further reading:

CLEAR Synthesis paper 4: Accountability and Citizen–State Relations in Bangladesh: Findings from the CLEAR Programme

Miguel Loureiro
Niranjan Nampoothiri