Policies have considerable impact on peoples livelihoods. They influence the access people have to livelihoods assets and the strategic possibilities for employing these assets to reach favourable livelihoods outcomes. However, policies developed at central level are often not responsive to the policy needs at local level and, therefore, not conducive to local livelihood strategies. Local populations, especially poor and marginalized groups, have often a very weak or only indirect influence on the policy framework affecting their livelihoods. The development and application of tested strategies and institutional mechanisms to support the participation of the rural poor in policy making would facilitate the generation of policy frameworks to reduce poor peoples vulnerability and enable their access to the assets and services they require to pursue sustainable livelihoods.
There are few documented experiences of participatory policy making (PPM) involving the rural poor, and still less analysis of those that have been documented. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw some initial lessons from these that would aid in the development of strategies and mechanisms to support the participation of poor people in policy making.
In so doing, it is important to take some key factors into consideration:
Policy refers to a course of action designed to achieve particular goals or targets and may be made by governments, private organizations and communities. Policy process refers to the way of making policy and encompasses formulation, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of policy.
Policy and policy making processes are complex and dynamic and they are usually not linear.
Policy affects different groups in different ways. The implications for PPM are that any activities directed at influencing policy must analyse how policy change will affect different groups and ensure that all groups affected are involved, particularly marginalized groups such as women and minorities.
The institutional and organizational environment is not uniform. The implications for PPM are that no one strategy or framework will fit every situation. The context is of critical importance. Moreover, the environment may change either gradually over time or even quite suddenly, due to political and economic changes and other shocks.
Policy and policy making are macro, meso and micro processes. Policies that impact on livelihoods may come from international, regional, national, sub-national or local levels. Analysing and distinguishing the levels of policy and policy making are critical for identifying entry points for potential policy reform.
The first step in developing strategies and mechanisms of PPM is to identify areas for policy reform. A sustainable livelihoods approach can provide an understanding of the livelihoods of the poor, the policy sectors that are relevant to them and whether or not appropriate policies exist in these areas.
Another important step is to identify favourable external enabling environments for PPM. This involved scanning the environment and analysing: the political context; the governance mechanisms, process and institutions; whether there are any windows of opportunities for change; and civil society to see whether there are active civil society groups that could support and facilitate the participatory policy making of the rural poor. This environmental scanning could help identify possible institutional arrangements and participatory mechanisms for supporting PPM.
At the same time, it is critical to identify the constraints that could hinder PPM (e.g. lack of political commitment to reform, lack of effective decentralization, poorly functioning governance, weak civil society, lack of capacity among NGOs and the rural poor). Once constraints are identified, judgements need to be made as to where policy change in any given area is feasible, whether there are alternative avenues to influence policy or whether there are ways to overcome constraints.
A SL approach can help identify the key groups and organizations of the rural poor who should participate in policy making and provide an understanding of their capital assets that enable them to participate. Creating an internal enabling environment is vital to the success of PPM efforts. Information, knowledge, awareness, capacity to articulate demands, and skills in communications and negotiation are all needed for successful PPM.
Finally, efforts to support PPM should include mechanisms for evaluating the participation and the process.