Grassroots Governance: How Poor/Marginalised Households Reinvent Service Delivery in Conflict and Violence-affected Contexts

Grassroots Governance: How Poor/Marginalised Households Reinvent Service Delivery in Conflict and Violence-affected Contexts

What does governance look like from the perspectives of chronically poor and marginalised households? How do patterns of conflict and violence affect their experiences when trying to engage with the state? These were key questions at the heart of the Governance at the Margins research project. From 2017 to 2021 a group of researchers explored this through an in-depth study in rural and urban conflict-affected areas in Pakistan, Mozambique, Myanmar (before the military coup of February 2021). 

We developed a comparative iterative approach called ‘governance diaries’: a cross between a panel survey and multi-sited ethnographies to capture household experiences with governance issues over time. In other words, we explored how poor and marginalised households solve problems and interact with public authorities. We found five commonalities across all research sites within the three countries, which we summarise here with examples from Pakistan.

Multiple and diverse public authorities matter to citizens

Many development programmes and policies identify government as the primary public authority, ignoring many other actors and institutions with similar or greater influence in people’s lives. In Pakistan, poor and marginalised households identified a range of public authorities including local administrators, the military, police, various political parties, religious authorities, landlords, non-governmental organisations, and panchayat (village council) members. 

This multitude of authorities often overlap, either cooperating or competing to mediate between citizens and the state and even provide services. Such reporting creates an impression that poor and marginalised households have a choice of whom to approach when a problem arises. Despite the diversity of public authorities common to all our research locations, we found these to be fewer and harder to access in conflict and violent-affected settings - whether urban or rural.

Atypical local governance structures prevail

Across our research sites, rural and urban, we saw various sources of authority connected to one another through networks. Which ones mattered most, how they were connected, how public authority was built and sustained, who was involved, over what issues, and how varied significantly. The main factors driving this diversity included:

  • the presence of structures with different historical or customary origins;
  • the extent of parallel governance systems;
  • the level of political competition;
  • the level of active violent conflict;
  • the presence or threat of armed groups;
  • geographical location (including proximity to powerful authorities); and
  • the dynamics of centre-local relationships within formal government.

Across all country cases, poor households often recognised individuals, rather than their institutions, as important and trustworthy of action. Local governance systems were not populated by networks; the networks were the system. Although governance networks were different in urban and rural locations for different reasons across countries, what often drove variation was where political power was concentrated. 

For instance, in Pakistan the dominance of landlords and security forces as core powerholders in rural locations made a difference to the networks. In urban areas, the proximity of slums to government departments meant that different kinds of access were possible and important. In Islamabad, for instance, poor households with members working in government offices as cleaners were able to build connections that allowed them to raise problems or find out who could help resolve a problem.

The middle 'men’ of local governance

The confrontational nature of state–citizen relations in conflict and violence-affected settings means that the poor and marginalised rarely engage directly with the state to solve their governance issues. Instead, they engage with, and make claims to, intermediaries. 

In all research locations, intermediaries were essential to the functioning of local governance, serving as the ‘grease’ that oiled the system. Overwhelmingly male, an intermediary such as a traditional leader, political broker, religious leader, or community mobiliser was the first point of contact in the governance chain. These actors were pivotal in determining whether problems experienced by individuals or communities should be escalated, to which authority and how. They proved crucial during Covid-19 and the initial lockdowns in all three countries.

Intermediaries make themselves essential by being able to speak the language of the state, constantly creating and sustaining networks outside their communities (including through social media), and building collectivising power through reciprocity relations with their constituents. They do so via ‘accountability bargains’: strategies and practices employed to gain a greater degree of security and autonomy within the constraints of class, religious affiliation, and ethnicity/caste.

Intermediaries with good connections within the state, and to service providers, were particularly important, but so were groups that claimed to represent people and could mobilise them to act collectively (such as social movements). In Islamabad, two intermediaries from a left-wing party working on housing rights for slum residents often dealt with the municipality on their behalf. Whenever government officials came to demolish houses, residents called these intermediaries for help. When someone got sick or needed medical care, the same intermediaries were the first point of contact.

Self-provision and low expectations are common

Across all three countries, poor households, and many of the intermediaries to whom they turned, did not expect much from the wider governance system. These low expectations stemmed from a distrust of public authorities, historic under-provision of services, limited solutions of problems by higher authorities, which, along with an absence of effective local governance systems, incentivised poor households to avoid using official channels.

Previous negative experiences of seeking an official solution also mattered – either direct experience, or common narratives. Poor households in the informal settlements of Islamabad largely prefer to solve disputes informally rather than involving the police. Their preference is based on their historical experience with law enforcement agencies and police brutality. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people see self-provision as the best solution; often it’s the least-worst result based on their previous experience(s) and political dynamics. In all our research sites, most poor households felt that powerful local elites benefited more than them from self-provision, yet they felt ‘locked in’ to a system providing them limited options.

Women intermediaries are few, but cleverly successful

All three countries have highly patriarchal social norms. Unsurprisingly, women reported needing to go through men for all kinds of services or to get issues resolved, including at the household level through male family members. Although we actively sought out female intermediaries to include in our research, the majority of those identified by households as important in resolving community issues were men. In cases where women did play important roles as intermediaries, this was sometimes limited to issues seen as concerned with women’s domains.

Although norms around women’s leadership in formal spaces were different across the three countries, in general women holding official positions or being the ‘go to’ intermediary challenged established norms. When women played intermediary roles, they often drew on more indirect strategies to navigate a patriarchal environment. For example, in rural Pakistan, women’s exclusion from public decision-making spaces meant they had to rely on males within the household as their proxies to represent them. Women intermediaries also used gender norms to their advantage at times and were seen as more appropriate leaders than men. A female intermediary in Pakistan mobilised other women to protest, specifically because men would not physically attack them in public.


Affaf Ahmed, Consultant, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Mudabbir Ali, MPhil scholar NIPS, Quaid-i-Azam University

Danyal Khan, Punjab Coordinator, Huqooq-e-Pakistan Project

Miguel Loureiro, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex

Rizwan Wazir, MA student Public Economics, Law and Politics, Leuphana University



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