Governance and Development Review home page Centre for the Future State website
Most recent reviews on the site Complete list of reviews Search reviews by subject Contact the Governance and Development Review

< Go back


Limitations of Grassroot Organisations


A recent review has focused on how authority and control are exercised within civil society institutions and between civil society and the state. While the context for Diana Mitlin's discussion is the poverty reduction activities of grassroots organisations and NGOs in urban areas, her analysis of the themes and issues has wider applicability and echoes the findings of those who study other settings. Although the article does not present new research or even new arguments, it merits attention for the range of research on which it draws, the sharpness of the analysis and the clarity of writing. Her conclusions question donor orthodoxy and optimism on the role of 'civil society', and reinforce the growing critical writing on this theme.

The research shows that, while grassroot organisations can secure improvement to their neighbourhoods, they bring about little fundamental change in situations characterised by extensive poverty, low state capacity and relatively low levels of aspiration among lower-income groups. These organisations are not in a position to represent the interests of the urban poor and help them address their multiple needs but suffer problems of leadership and participation. These problems are linked to relations of patronage between state officials, politicians and community leaders. Relationships between external groups and community leaders maintain and reinforce structures that serve their interests, and these are not challenged through strong accountable relationships between organisational leaders and their members. Mitlin concludes that institutions of civil society reflect the society and social processes in which they are embedded and, in this context, grassroots organisations are rarely able to play a transforming role.


The weakness of this article for policy-makers will lie in its relative lack of policy suggestions gleaned from the cumulative body of research reviewed. There is some discussion of organisations which have sought alternative, more democratic and accountable forms of organisation and a mention of participatory budgeting as a mechanism for devolution of decision-making. She also highlights the dangers for organisations of isolation, which allows relations of patronage and clientelism to thrive. However her main suggestion, prioritising an understanding of how grassroots organisations can be supported to address the needs of their poorest members, is rather vague and unsubstantial. Nonetheless, the implication of the research reviewed comes through loud and clear - that policy-makers should question their current a-political and a-historical faith in the ability of civil society organisations to bring about substantive change in the lives of poor people.

Source: Diana Mitlin "Civil Society and Urban Poverty - Examining Complexity" Environment and Urbanization, Volume 13, Number 2, October 2001, pp151-173.
Environment and Urbanization is published by International Institute for Environment and Development and is available online via CatchWord (

Keywords: civil society, grassroot organisations.

Commentator: Sarah Lister, IDS (February 2002).

< Go back


      Top | Home | Latest reviews | Archive | Subject search | Contact | CFS site