Cornell University-SEWA-WIEGO Conference on Membership-Based Organizations of the Poor

This conference, held in Ahmedabad, India in January 2005, was predicated on the hypothesis that membership-based organizations of the poor (MBOPs) – organizations whose governance structures respond to the needs and aspirations of the poor because they are accountable to their members – are central to achieving equitable growth and poverty reduction.

The conference was co-organized by Cornell University, SEWA, and WIEGO. Conference organizers were Martha Chen (WIEGO and Harvard Kennedy School), Renana Jhabvala (SEWA), Ravi Kanbur (Cornell University), and Carol Richards (Burma Forum).

An MBOP is distinguished from a conventional NGO. However well-intentioned,an NGO operates as an outside entity that is not formed out of a membership base of the poor. Political parties are membership-based organizations but are not exclusively concerned about the welfare of the poor. Trade Unions are membership based, but only some are directly concerned with advancing the cause of poor workers. Cooperatives are classic membership-based organizations, but again not all of them are focused on the poor.

The example we have in mind when we talk of MBOPs is that of SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India. SEWA is governed by its members, poor informal sector women whom SEWA serves through a range of activities. As a MBOP, SEWA acts as a channel for carrying the voice of its members to policy makers and in turn helps to transmit the benefits of poverty focused government projects and programs to its members. Its twin pillars are economic activities to enhance income earning opportunities, and organization to enable its members to claim and exercise their rights in the economic, legal and social spheres.

Some MBOPs have been remarkably successful, while others have failed. The conference addressed these types of questions:

  • What structures and activities characterize MBOPs?
  • What is meant by success?
  • What factors account for success? In particular, what are the internal (governance structure and leadership) and external (policy environment) factors that account for success? Are these factors replicable across countries or even within countries?
  • What are the constraints to successful MBOPs expanding, or to new ones being formed?
  • What sort of policy environment enables the success of MBOPs, and the formation of successful MBOPs? What types of institutional reforms are needed to ensure the representation of the poor through their own MBOs?

Papers presented at the conference were published by Routledge in an edited volume:
Chen, Martha, Renana Jhabvala, Ravi Kanbur, and Carol Richards, eds. 2007.
Membership Based Organizations of the Poor. London: Routledge.