Challenges of Local Government Institutions in Bangladesh

1. Ideas and practices of local government:

Most people consider public representatives as local guardians who work with them, and with whom they can share all sorts of personal, social, religious and political thoughts and beliefs. With the increase in power and volume of activities of the government, the responsibility and duty of the local government has also been increased by several times. Around the world most challenges people face are local. So, the best way to solve them is through local initiatives and local leadership by awakening and mobilizing people. Authorities closest to the citizen or rather citizens themselves by getting directly involved can greatly contribute in solving public problems. This is how the local government takes its shape. Local government brings decision-making closer to the people. A strong local government system can ensure good governance through transparency, accountability, effective participation and equal opportunities for all. Most importantly, this system can ensure development at the grassroots level. Strong local government institutions strengthen democracy, ensure good governance, and at the same time quicken the pace of political and socioeconomic development of the country.

1.1. New view of local government:

Local government is based on community governance, and focused on citizen-centered local governance. It is the primary agent for the citizens and leader and gatekeeper for shared rule, is responsive and accountable to local voters. It is purchaser of local services, and facilitator of network mechanisms of local governance, coordinator of government providers and entities beyond government, mediator of conflicts, and developer of social capital. It is externally focused and competitive; ardent practitioner of alternative service delivery framework; open, quick, and flexible, innovative. It is risk taker within limits, autonomous in taxing, spending, regulatory, and administrative decisions. It has managerial flexibility and accountability for results. It is participatory; and works to strengthen citizen voice and exit options through direct democracy provisions, citizens’ charters, and performance budgeting. It is focused on earning trust, creating space for civic dialogue, serving the citizens, and improving social outcomes. It is fiscally prudent; works better and costs less, inclusive and participatory. It overcomes market and government failures. Local government is connected in a globalized and localized world

1.2. Citizen-centered local governance:

Reforming the institutions of local governance requires agreement on basic principles. Three basic principles are advanced to initiate such a discussion:

* Responsive governance: This principle aims for governments to do the right things-that is, to deliver services consistent with citizen preferences.
* Responsible governance: The government should also do it right-that is, manage its fiscal resources prudently. It should earn the trust of residents by working better and costing less and by managing fiscal and social risks for the community. It should strive to improve the quality and quantity of and access to public services. To do so, it needs to benchmark its performance with the best-performing local government.
* Accountable governance: A local government should be accountable to its electorate. It should adhere to appropriate safeguards to ensure that it serves the public interest with integrity. Legal and institutional reforms may be needed to enable local governments to deal with accountability between elections-reforms such as a citizen’s charter and a provision for recall of public officials.

The distinguishing features of citizen-centered governance are the following:

* Citizen empowerment through a rights-based approach (direct democracy provisions, citizens’ charter);
* Bottom-up accountability for results;
* Evaluation of government performance as the facilitator of a network of providers by citizens as governors, taxpayers, and consumers of public services.

1.3. Local government as an institution to advance self-interest: The public choice approach:

The approach has conceptualized four models of local government:

* A local government that assumes it knows best and acts to maximize the welfare of its residents conforms to the benevolent despot model.
* A local government that provides services consistent with local residents’ willingness to pay conforms to the fiscal exchange model.
* A local government that focuses on public service provision to advance social objectives conforms to the fiscal transfer model.
* A local government that is captured by self-interested bureaucrats and politicians conforms to the leviathan model, which is consistent with the public choice perspectives.

1.4. Local government as an independent facilitator of creating public value: new public management (NPM) perspectives:

Two interrelated criteria have emerged from the NPM literature in recent years determining, first, what local governments should do and, second, how they should do it better. In discussing the first criterion, the literature assumes that citizens are the principals but have multiple roles as governors (owner-authorizers, voters, taxpayers, community members); activist-producers (providers of services, co-producers, self-helpers obliging others to act); and consumers (clients and beneficiaries). In this context, significant emphasis is placed on the government as an agent of the people to serve public interest and create public value. This concept is directly relevant to local and municipal services, for which it is feasible to measure such improvements and have some sense of attribution. The concept is useful in evaluating conflicting and perplexing choices in the use of local resources. The concept is also helpful in defining the role of government, especially local governments. It frames the debate between those who argue that the public sector crowds out private sector investments and those who argue that the public sector creates an enabling environment for the private sector to succeed, in addition to providing basic municipal and social services.

2. History of Local Government Institutions in Bangladesh:

Bangladesh shares its history with the undivided Indian subcontinent. The British in India in fact gave local government a legal shape with municipal administration system for the first time in 1793. But, prior to that, an identical system of local village society did exist in India, where Gram Panchayet (local government village tier) had a significant role. In the gradual development of the system, the Bengal Act 1842 and Municipal Act 1850 were introduced. The local government system got a stronger foundation when 118 Municipal Boards were formed in Bengal in 1947 after inclusion of provisions relating to a newer system of social arbitrations, conservancy activities and appointment of choukidars (guards) for maintaining security in villages and towns. In 1972, the local government system got a newer magnitude in independent Bangladesh.

After independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Constitution of Bangladesh emphasizes the need for establishing local government with a representative character (Chapter 3, Article 59). Article 59 mandates the creation of elected local bodies at each administrative unit- District, Upazila (sub-district) and Union (currently lowest tier of local government). To put it simply, these bodies are for the management of local affairs by locally elected persons. Local government, by definition, is democratic self-governance and so accountable to the people.

There are two types of local government settings in Bangladesh, rural and urban. At the rural level the existing system provides a three-tier structure, which is Zila (district) Parishad (office), Upazila Parishad, and Union Parishad (UP). At the urban level the six largest cities have City Corporation status, while the rest are known as Pourashavas or Municipalities. These bodies are entrusted with a large number of functions and responsibilities relating to civic and community welfare as well as local development.

The UP is responsible for executing 48 duties. Among them 38 are optional and 10 mandatory. These responsibilities are divided into four categories. These are civic duties (building roads, bridges etc), tax collection, maintaining law and order, and lastly development work. In spite of the importance and potential of local government institutions, they remain weak in Bangladesh. The past few years show they have become even weaker.

3. Challenges of Local Government Institutions in Bangladesh:

3.1. Attitude of public administrators toward local governments:

Bureaucracies resist changes out of the fear of alteration or disturbance of the status quo and their resistance primarily grows out of fear of disrupting organizational communication. According to Henry Frank Goodnow says, bureaucracy is a two-edged sword, which can be a force for good or for evil. It may prompt democracy or totalitarianism. It may be feared or respected or merely accepted. Joseph La Palomba comments, the presence of a strong bureaucracy in many of the new states tends to inhibit the growth of strong executives, political parties, legislatures, voluntary associations and other political institutions essential to viable democratic government.

Warren Bennis summarizes some of the deficiencies in bureaucracies, which adequately suit the characteristics of bureaucracies in Bangladesh as well:

* Bureaucracy does not adequately allow for personal growth and the development of mature personalities.
* It does not take into account the “informal organization” and the emergent unanticipated problems.
* Its systems of control and authority are hopelessly outdated.
* It has no judicial process.
* It does not possess adequate means for resolving difference and conflicts between ranks, and most particularly, between functional groups.
* Communication (and innovative ideas) are thwarted or distorted due to hierarchical decisions.
* The full human resources of bureaucracy are not being utilized due to mistrust, fear or reprisals, etc.
* It cannot assimilate the influx of new technology or scientists entering the organization.

3.2. Participation by the people:

The Constitution of Bangladesh implies direct participation of the people in forming the local bodies and in managing the affairs of such bodies. There are different levels of participation, participation in decision-making, participation in implementation, participation in benefits, and participation in evaluation.

But in reality, the spirit of people’s participation in local bodies has not always been adequately maintained. The society of Bangladesh is basically a hierarchic system based on a person’s social position, caste, status, educational background, seniority, and gender. The principle of hierarchy in interpersonal relationship, is, and for hundreds of years has been accepted as necessary and morally right in rural Bangladesh, even among the Muslims. In a hierarchic system, roles and duties in relation to others are defined in details. If these are not followed, chaos and conflict are expected to result.

A patron-client relationship binds group members with specific norms and values. These norms determine role definition and role expectation, i.e., the role of a patron and a client. The concept of obedience and deference to patrons by a client is an important value in a hierarchic society like Bangladesh. Patterns of rights and duties maintain both order and balance in our society. Superiors in the society are supposed to give orders and advice to those with a lower status. People having low ranks are treated as children and they enjoy little opportunities. The patron-client or parent-child relationship developed over centuries has taught the superiors to be harsh and commanding towards the subordinates, and has taught the subordinates to be respectful to afraid of the superiors of the society. Due to power distance in the society, the subordinates seek direction and guidance from the superiors. Subordinates or those with lower rank in the society feel dejected when they don’t receive favor from the superiors. In practice, the people being loyal to the superiors are bestowed with favors (even undue), and those who do not are distanced and discriminated.

This dynamics of social belief and behavior inhibits the common mass in participating in decision making process of the local government institutions, or holding them accountable for their activities.

3.3. Structural defects:

Decentralization of political and administrative authority at the local government level that has the potential to de-concentrate decision-making and bring people closer to public governance have the merit of weakening abuse of power, strengthening accountability and combating corruption convincingly. This is revealed through a recent UN survey that demonstrates that introduction of elaborate audit systems, corruption commissions etc. without due regard to the rule of law, independence of judiciary, civil liberties, economic and political decentralization make little or no impact on corruption. Corruption resells in loss of confidence in local government among the people. Funds for projects like Food for Work or disaster relief are all too often misused by local leaders; even VGF (Vulnerable Group Feeding) cards go to their relatives and friends rather than those who really need it.

The extent and quality of people’s participation have been variable. The most direct participation is the opportunity of casting votes during the election to local bodies. But elections are not held at regular intervals. Since Independence in 1971, successive governments have tried to use the local government system for their own political interests. The party or regime in power wanted to make the local government representatives their power base and manipulated the system to this end.

Regarding the structural or constitutional defects in local government, it can be said that the country is being governed through a constitutional, democratic system, while local government is being run through a presidential system. In local government all the powers centre around one person. This unchallenged power of an individual is giving rise to corruption and autocracy in local government bodies, where a chairman of a UP or municipality, or the mayor of a city corporation, enjoys all the power. Members of a UP and the ward commissioners of municipalities or city corporations hardly have any role in the implementation of any development project or program in the locality.

They fear local administrations might be rendered ineffective and law makers might end up lording over Upazila Parishads, running the risk of letting corruption creep into the system, if MPs (Members of Parliament) are allowed to have their previous controlling authority over the elected local governments.

Recently National Institute of Local Government (NILG) and Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) Bangladesh jointly conducted a study titled “Exploring the challenges and potentials of UP standing committees”, which was intended to explore the role of standing committees in the decision making process at the UPs. The study report published on 6 May 2009 says that 60% of the committees are not functioning, and it identifies some major reasons for non-functioning of the standing committees, such as, apathy of UP chairmen, ignorance of members and lack of resources and proper monitoring system. The report says the UP chairmen dominate while taking decisions and do not think that the committees are very important in this regard.

3.4. lack of fund and influence in fund utilization:

UP receives a major portion of the funds from the Annual Development Programme (ADP). This funding system is full of loopholes creating serious setbacks in development activities. Funding by ADP is paid in installments, which are called block grants. This block grant does not flow to the UP directly; rather it is channeled through the Upazila. At the Upazila level interference from the administration usually slows down the flow and hampers the development plan. The criteria for allocation include on population, size of an area and the level of backwardness. As the administration controls the distribution process, it tends to be biased.

The allocation is also prone to political interference. The interference by MPs in the UP affairs, particularly in development activities, has weakened the UPs’ independence. The MPs often dictate the development activities to be undertaken, most of the times without consulting with the local elected representatives or assessing actual needs. Ruling party MPs tend to intrude more in the UPs’ development planning. Even if there is no ruling party MP in the area the local leaders of the ruling party meddle in the process.

Moreover, the UP authorities usually have no idea how much money they are about to receive, which makes planning for future development work impractical. The development projects get stalled if the installments do not arrive on time, which is often the case. Most UPs receive the installments when the fiscal year is about to end.

ADP allocation to UP is less than 2 per cent of the annual budget. For development activities, this amount is considered inadequate. The maximum amount in implementing a development project is only Tk 50,000 which is also insufficient. Furthermore, this fund is not released unless bribes are paid, as local UP members claimed.

3.5. Political government’s willful stance on local government institutions:

The new Upazila Pashishad Act passed by the current Awami League government provides that the Members of Parliament would be advisers to the Upazila Parishads. According to the law, no development plans can be taken or no programs can be implemented by the Upazila Parishads without the advice of the concerned MPs, and even any communication between Upazilas and the government must be informed to the MPs. This act explicitly contradicts the notion of modern government with its three branches – legislative, executive and judiciary – being mutually interdependent. While the voice gets stronger for separation of powers among its branches in order to ensure checks and balances, the government rather tends to merge the branches into one. In principle, the legislators are supposed to enact laws, make budgetary allocations, debate policy issues, approve foreign treaties, and most importantly exercise parliamentary oversight over the executive actions through standing committees. This act is in contradiction with Article 59 of the Constitution, which empowers the locally elected persons to run local affairs. In the name of advice, the MPs will obviously exert their authority to control the affairs of the local bodies, which denounces the democratic spirit of representative local bodies.

A judgment in 2008 by Justices ABM Khairul Haque and ATM Fazle Kabir states that “The Local Government Bodies in every administrative units of the Republic are charged with the functions relating to administration and the work of public officers in the local area, the maintenance of local order and other nation-building development activities there. Neither the Ministers nor the members of Parliament can abdicate the functions of the elected members of the Local Government Bodies in respect of their functions in the concerned administrative units.” It further says, “While the Executive Government under chapter-II would run the administration, development and other ancillary matters for the entire country as a whole, but at the same time the people at the grass-root level should also be made responsible for the development of their own respective areas, on the formation of local government bodies, in order to bring the development and also administration to their door steps so that they can be responsible as well as self-reliant and also become part of the over-all nation building process.”

In another judgment in 1992, the Supreme Court holds that “Parliament is not free to legislate on local government ignoring Articles 59 and 60.” It further states about the functions of local government bodies… “local elections, procedure for public accountability, independent and substantial sources of income, clear areas of independent action and certainty of powers and duties and the conditions under which they would be exercised.”

As per the law, at least theoretically, the Upazila Parishads have lost their characteristics of local government bodies, since in the name of advice, the MPs are authorized to control the activities of the bodies.

Squeezing the hope for effective local government:

As a matter of fact, what one has come to expect in Bangladesh is that after a party is overwhelmingly voted into power, they try and monopolize as much power as they can get, appoint loyal people to important posts and then seemingly do everything possible to tarnish their names. The current government has respected its own election pledges to strengthen local government, and has abused its mandate as well. There was a hope that the current government would provide further authority to the Upazila chairmen by changing the previous Upazila ordinances, but practically the government has abolished the local government commission.

The current law has already given rise to a row among Upazila chairmen and MPs, and it is likely that this discord will affect the chain of the party leadership, which will further destabilize the political arena of the country. The Parishads will face serious difficulties if the MPs are provided with offices in Upazila Parishad complexes, and it might also disrupt local development. Interference of MPs with the functioning of the local government has been blatant, they said alleging that lawmakers want to get involved in Upazila level development because an enormous amount of money is circulated through the local development circuit.

A group of newly elected representatives of Upazila Parishad in a view-exchange meeting at Jatiya (national) Press Club threatened to declare lawmakers persona-non-grata in Upazila Parishd complex areas if the Upazila Parishad Act 2009 is not cancelled immediately. They also formed a forum titled “Bangladesh Upazila Chairmen Forum”. Around 250 UP representatives attended the meeting that decided to hold a council of the forum within three months. The chairmen at the meeting also threatened to launch a tough movement to realize their demand for scrapping the Upazila Parishad Act 2009 and ensure the democratic rights of UP representatives. They feared that taking advantage of the act’s provisions, lawmakers might misuse their power and indulge in corruption. This act will create obstacles for local administrations to conducting development works freely, they added.

3.6. Election of honest and qualified people in a free and fair environment:

It is an important task for us to elect honest and competent people in the next election for the progress of the society. We have noticed how black money and muscle power have dominated in the elections in the last 15 years. What can we expect from those who are going to power through such a system? It is useless to expect anything good from them. Use of money was commonly seen in the local government elections to buy votes to go to power. Culture of accumulation of wealthy and influential members, irrespective of their criminal records, and creation of private army by providing illegal facilities and protection is predominantly existent in the society. That provides the look in a political structure of wealth and physical strength and carries more weight as regards its effectiveness in election and other political operations in the present day social context. Due to hierarchical social system and taboos, absence of equality, social justice and strict laws, and presence of muscle power and black money, and due to political pressure from above, we see time and again almost the same people, or people with same negative or not positive characters, being elected in local government institutions.

3.7. Intervention by central government:

Local government leadership and representation is now only equated with getting elected, with no meaningful mechanisms of representation or functionality. The local government bodies have virtually no power to plan and execute development actions or to formulate their budgets independently. The UP chair and members who are accountable to the voters soon realize the fact that they have practically no power to serve the people and work for local development. Vital services like education, health, and social welfare are centralized at the Upazila level. The leaders have almost no management role in these matters, rather the administration at the Upazila level control these services.

Here are few observations regarding local government by prominent people:

* The local government cannot be strong enough in a country where the local government ministry is too strong and intends to control it. – Dr Mahabbat Khan, Professor of Dhaka University (DU)
* It seems that the local government institutions act like a front organization of the ruling party. They should be independent and a local government commission, not any ministry, should control them. – Prof Dr Salahuddin M. Alimuzzaman, DU
* According to the constitution, the government should encourage the local government institutions, not control them. But some local government institutions are run by administrative officials, which is a violation of the constitution. Although laws allow the local government institutions to realize holding taxes, we cannot do it because of executive orders. – Advocate Azmatullah Khan, president of Municipality Association of Bangladesh
* “The people of Bangladesh were very shocked when the government increased the control of lawmakers over the local government against its pledge of strengthening the local government.” – Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno
* The government does not want to keep the local government anymore as it wants to run the lower tier of the government with the lawmakers and own people. – Matiur Rahman Tapan, chairman of a UP, said in a roundtable
* It is not a struggle between the MPs and local representatives rather it is basically a problem of political culture. – Mahmudur Rahman Manna, Organizing Secretary of Awami League

3.8. Some core issues revealed by Prof Aminuzzaman:

* lack of comprehensive planning for decentralization;
* absence of wider consultation with people before devising decentralization strategies;
* lack of mobilization of popular support in the reform process;
* over-emphasis on deconcentration in the decentralization plans;
* bureaucratic expansion in the name of decentralization;
* bureaucratic dominance remained intact even after decentralization;
* inadequate power and authority to people’s representatives;

The tendency to cry out for decentralization in public and suffocating the sincere efforts in practice is still the order of the day in Bangladesh and most other developing countries. Though the perennial bureaucratic resistance is the principal culprit in this scam, collusive and docile political leaders cannot deny their share.

Professor Dr. Tofael Ahmed (Professor, Chittagong University) and Professor Dr. Niaz Ahmed Khan, DU in Banglapedia (www.banglapedia.org) say, decentralization scenario in Bangladesh is little encouraging. In their words, evolution of decentralization in Bangladesh is characterized by: (a) domination by and complete dependence on central/national government; (b) unrepresentative character; (c) grossly inadequate mobilization of local resources; (d) limited or lack of participation of the rural poor in the decentralized bodies; (e) successive regimes’ marginal and superficial commitment to devolution or decentralization in practice.

Prof Aminuzzaman further said, it seems that the local government institutions act like a front organization of the ruling party. They should be independent and a local government commission, not any ministry, should control them.

It is utterly unfortunate that Upazilla level of Bangladesh local government, which has the makings of being a strong local government body, is not being put into operation only because of resistance from the elected lawmakers afraid of losing their supremacy in their respective constituencies.

3.9. Power distance as an obstacle to local government:

Most importantly, and somewhat paradoxically, a culture of accountability springs from an interaction between civil society and appropriate institutions, which generally have to be created by a strong central political force. However, the evidence from Bangladesh is more ambiguous on this point, suggesting that while decentralization was a significant catalyst for associational activity, the prevailing servant-master relationships between villagers and bureaucrats and council representatives did not easily support the making of complaints about bad behavior or lack of accountability.

4. Ways Out:

* For strengthening local government bodies, the hegemony of MPs, particularly imposed by the recent Act, must be curtailed.
* To make the local government institutions more functional, we need a decentralization policy in the light of our Constitutions.
* The political governments should not enact any laws, which undermine the spirit of the Constitution, or violates any articles.
* For increasing income of the local government bodies, land transfer fees can be increased, the local government bodies can be authorized to use jetties, water bodies and khaslands (state owned lands) and impose tax on electric poles, mobile phone towers and bill boards, will significantly increase the income of the local government bodies.
* Strengthening local government is the primary objective of the upazila system. Thus, agriculture, land administration, health and family planning, primary education, rural electrification, poultry, fisheries, live stocks, horticulture, social forestry, milk production, cooperatives marketing, etc. should be transferred to the Upazila Parishad. There should be, in fact, more devolution of power and delegation of authority to the Upazila Parishad.
* Large allocation from the ADP can be given for meeting financial needs of the local government institutions, which will build their capacity and will ensure grassroots development.
* The UPs can be authorized to construct roads, culverts and bridges in their respective areas.
* Honorarium of elected chairmen and members need to be enhanced, and an environment can be created so that honest and competent people could be elected.
* The current Upazila Act should be amended immediately.
* Activation of the UP standing committees can be done through joint monitoring and supervision by both public agencies and civil society bodies.

5. Conclusion:

Experiences in other parts of the world show that the closer the authorities and resources are to the people, the greater the benefits they bring for society. In Bangladesh, local government structures remain weak, posing as a major obstacle in achieving the goal of poverty alleviation programs. Local government as a political institution to ensure development and public participation in development activities is far from being an efficient tool of governance in Bangladesh. Being mostly poor and illiterate, particularly at the grassroots, the people hardly go to bureaucrats with their problems because they are afraid to approach them. As such, they approach the local public representatives, whom they consider as local guardians well aware of their needs and feelings. But, no step was ever made to train them up. Elected local bodies in the administrative units in fact ensure effective participation of the people in decisions that affect them, and this participation is a prerequisite for creating a democratic polity at all levels, which will deepen its roots. If people’s voices are heard, and their opportunities of participation are upheld, democracy can be strengthened. If local government bodies are not strong and well functioning, development at the grassroots level cannot be ensured. To materialize the dream of building a democratic Bangladesh free from poverty, building a strong local government is a must. As such, bringing about reforms in the local government is now the demand of the time. The Charter of Change or Vision 2021, to turn Bangladesh into a respectable nation with the transformation of political culture and making the society corruption free, will be difficult to achieve unless a strong, honest and dedicated local level governance system emerges to support the central government.

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