Going back on their word

Jalal Alamgir
Pulished in the Daily Star on 11 July 2009.

BANGLADESH’S democratic deficit looms large at the local level. Elected union and upazila councils have little power against top-down political and fiscal decisions. In its election manifesto, Awami League wisely promised to empower local-level decision-making. But unwisely, party MPs have moved away from empowering local communities either financially or politically.

The recent budget allocates just over a fifth of ADP to local government, which is a small proportion compared to most other countries of South Asia. Both union parishad chairmen and upazila chairmen have justifiably asked for a larger share.

But allocation is only part of empowerment; the crucial element is the ability to spend it independently. Under current convention, most local government money will be spent according to the wishes of ministries and MPs. The World Bank notes correctly that Bangladesh remains “one of the most centralised large countries in the world.”

There is strong evidence from around the world that devolution and decentralisation lead to better government performance. For poverty alleviation in particular, which is the aim of the ADP, participatory decision-making has a more positive impact than do centralised approaches. Local democracy matters, greatly. But when it comes to decentralisation, Bangladesh repeatedly ends up preferring, for mainly political reasons to strengthen local government, but not local democracy.

In India, which is a federal system to begin with, constitutional amendments in 1993 further empowered local democracy, especially grassroots level panchayats. The panchayats got taxation powers, a better share of state revenues, and the elected bodies became stronger decision-makers about the development track of their respective localities.

It was not easy for Indian states to give up some of their decisional authority. Many state-level politicians continued to meddle in grassroots democracy. In places where reforms were genuinely implemented, such as Karnataka and Kerala, financial and developmental performance improved. Studies show that local communities felt, for the first time, that they had power to shape the course of their lives.

AL’s manifesto clearly had the same spirit when it promised: “Union, upazila and district councils will be strengthened through decentralisation of power.” Furthermore, AL’s Vision 2021 assured that “self-reliant local self-government institutions will be established at upazila and zila levels.” Even the recent budget speech echoed this stance: “To empower people and to decentralise the power of the central government, the union and upazila parishads will be vested with additional powers.”

But what has happened on the ground threatens to relegate these pledges to mere rhetoric. The new parliament passed a law in April to make MPs advisors to upazila councils, stipulating further that local councils would be bound to accept the “advice” of MPs.

In one swift stroke, the paranoia and triumphalism of new parliament members dampened the enthusiasm for local democracy that the local elections of January 22 had created. Then, in May, the LGRD ministry published guidelines that further eroded the independence of other elected council members against the executive.

Elected union and upazila council chairmen strongly — and rightly — opposed this move. As one of the chairmen lamented: “I wouldn’t have contested the upazila election had I known beforehand that parliament would make such law.” Another noted: “It seems we are elected just to sit idle in our offices.” Some chairmen even threatened to declare MPs as persona non grata in upazila complexes.

The problem is not advice. MPs should be able to influence affairs in their constituencies. The problem is mandatory advice, which will choke local independence and perpetuate the ties that keep local leaders dependent on central politicians.

In exercising their power, but not wisdom, the MPs seem to have forgotten that they rely on local leaders in their own election campaigns. The mistrust will surely affect the implementation of local aspects of the ADP. Moreover, budget 2009-10 envisions greater revenue mobilisation at the local level. How would that come to fruition without strong cooperation from locally elected bodies?

The Indian experience showed that stronger local democracy led to better checks and balances, healthier competition within governmental authorities, and better civic culture due to people’s participation.

If these are outcomes that Bangladesh too has reason to value, then the parliament must reconsider its bill and take genuine steps to strengthen local democracy. The ruling party MPs were elected on a mandate of change, including empowerment of local democracy. They need to stay true to their word, fiscally and politically.

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