The complex nature of the challenge posed by state–society relations to the realization of citizenship rights in poorer countries reflects the unwillingness as well as incapacity on the part of the state to guarantee basic security of life and livelihoods to its citizens, and its proneness to capture by powerful elites. Identity, affiliations, and access to resources continue to be defined by one’s place within a social order that is largely constituted by the ascribed relationships of family, kinship, and community. These ‘given’ relationships pervade all spheres of society and render irrelevant the idea of an impersonal public sphere that individuals enter as bearers of rights, equal in the eyes of the law. This paper explores the proposition that the possibility of belonging to alternative associations whose membership is chosen rather than ascribed by social position offers pathways to a more democratic social order. Bangladesh offers an interesting context to explore this proposition both because it embodies many of the problems of bad governance outlined above and because it contains a large number of civil society associations, many of which work primarily with the poor. The paper is based on interviews with members of some of these organizations in rural and urban areas of the country.
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