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26 March, 2018 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 26 March, 2018 01:27:06 AM

Strengthening local government in Bangladesh

The issue of strengthening local government is important in the backdrop of argument that the local government leads to the social and economic development
Arun Kumar Goswami
Strengthening local government in Bangladesh

Strengthening local government is the key to sustainable development in Bangladesh, as in elsewhere. Bangladesh’s successes in implementing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and attempts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hinge on capacities of local government and local governance.  One of the pillars of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs, and one which represents a critical improvement over the MDGs, is the pledge to “leave no one behind”. As part of its current cycle of work the Committee for Development Policy (CDP) addressed multiple dimensions of the pledge to “leave no one behind”. Amid all this discussion on poor and middle-income countries, many are wondering what will happen when Bangladesh sheds its LDC status and becomes a developing nation. There are three criteria a country must fulfil before graduating from low-income country status to developing country status. The first one is having a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of $1,242. Bangladesh’s current per capita income is $1,610. The second one is Human Assets Index (HAI), which has to be 66 or above. Bangladesh’s HAI is 72.9. And the last one is having an Economic Vulnerability Index below 32. Bangladesh’s EVI is 25.

Having fulfilled all three criteria, the country now has been awaiting a formal approval for inclusion in the list of developing countries. Bangladesh will formally become a developing country with the approval of United Nations Economic and Social Council.

The government considers the country’s promotion as a major achievement. By this time, this piece would be published on March 25 the programme of reception to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would be implemented on March 22, 2018. On that day, processions were brought out throughout the country. This celebration continues until March 26, Bangladesh’s Independence Day. UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Bangladesh Mia Seppo have already congratulated the country for the achievement. However, the main concern of such great achievement of the country is ‘whether the local government is sufficiently strong to have the national level achievements reflected?’

There is no denying the fact that strengthening ‘local government’ and local governance’ is the key to address the question. Nevertheless, the issue of strengthening local government is important in the backdrop of argument that the local government lead to the social and economic development. This paper attempts to investigate into the governmental steps to strengthening local government, local governance for sustainable development in Bangladesh.  

There are 8 divisions, 64 Zila, 491 Upazila Parishad, 11 city corporations, 327 municipalities, and 4554 Union Parishad in Bangladesh. The area within each police station, except for those in metropolitan areas, is divided into several Union Parishads with each union consisting of multiple villages. District elections are held for each union (or ward), electing a Chairperson and a number of members. In 1997, a parliamentary act was passed to reserve 3 seats (out of 12) in every union for female candidate.  In October, 2015 a major shift had taken place from the centuries-old non-partisan local government system.  During that time the cabinet approved the five laws on local governments which allow registered political parties to nominate candidates in the local body elections. It also permits the candidates to use party symbols and even the portrait of their party leader(s) while campaigning. Moreover, similar to parliament elections, party leaders and ministers might be allowed to take part in the campaign of local government elections.

In post-independent Bangladesh, the Awami League government led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had taken several steps for reforming local government. These are, abolishing the system of basic democracies; authorised the public officials to fill the void created by the termination of some government bodies; and a three-tier system, Union Parishad, Thana Development Committee and Zila Parishad was introduced in 1973. Besides, the system of district governorship was introduced with 4th amendment of Bangladesh Constitution in 25 January, 1975. However, this system could not be implemented due to the assassination of Father of Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman along with his family members in August 15, 1975. Consequently, the country had been running by Generals, Ziaur Rahman and H.M.Ershad.  The economy and development of the country suffered serious setbacks at the hands of successive military and autocratic regimes. Even during the elected government under BNP-Jamaat alliance in 2001-2006, economic progress stumbled again and the country plunged into economic stalemate under that regime. During this period (2001-2006), power generation and distribution network broke down; farmers were killed for rallying for fertiliser, and spiralling inflation wreaked havoc on public life. Both domestic and foreign investments became stagnant. Poverty and unemployment escalated. The vibrant rural economy lost its momentum.

At this miserable moment, Sheikh Hasina presented ‘Din Bodoler Sanad‘ [Charter of Change] Vision 2021 before the nation with a view to establishing an equitable society as envisaged by Bangabandhu in his inclusive political philosophy. In this Charter, she outlined the vision of a middle income and digital Bangladesh to be achieved by 2021. With overwhelming popular support, Awami League again formed government at the beginning of 2009.  Sixth Five Year Plan of the country was taken and most part of it was accomplished during this period. In continuation of its earlier term, the Awami League government came to power in 2014.  During this term, the government had completed the Sixth Five Year plan and taken Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-2020) for implementation.

The strategy for establishing strong local governments was taken in the Sixth Five Year Plan (2011-2015). It was then recognised that, the strengthening of local government is a key to institutional development challenge for Bangladesh. It was also observed during that time that institutional evidence suggests that properly instituted and accountable local governments can play a major role in spreading the benefits of development. While the lessons of experience from other countries can play an important role in helping the design and implementation of a proper system of local government, successful local governments must be based on the realities of underlying political, social, administrative and economic realities of Bangladesh. The Government expressed its commitment to instituting an effective and accountable local government to help implement Vision 2021 and the programmes of associates’ development plans.  

According to Vision 2021 of present government, local government will be given due importance with a view to effecting radical change of the political system. Local government institutions will play a critical role in governance as well as in development programmes. Vision 2021 envisages devolution of power, function, and fiscal authority to local government in accordance with constitutional provision for elected bodies at each level of administration. However, in devolving fiscal authority due consideration will have to be made of the scope for resource mobilisation at the local level as well as the capacity of local bodies to manage expenditures. Clearly, large national projects involving power generation, bridges, national highways, irrigation and water management, will have to be left with national level institutions.

In the Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-2020), efforts have been initiated to improve planning and budgeting capacity at the local level. Some measures have been taken to increase the transparency and accountability of local Governments. For instance, union information centres have improved transparency at the local level and few investigations into irregularities have occurred. Training and technical assistance programmes have been undertaken which has helped improve the capacity of local Governments. The a2i initiative has brought progress in the state of e-governance at the local level through the implementation of a well-designed programme of ICT, hardware and software, technical assistance and training programmes. However, the government has taken several measures for strengthening local government. In March, 2017 the acting ERD Secretary Kazi Shofiqul Azam and World Bank Country Director Qimiao Fan signed a loan agreement at the Economic Relations Division (ERD) on Monday for third Local Governance Support Project (LGSP3) that came in continuation of success of its predecessors.

A strong local government that has well defined responsibilities and accountabilities can play a major positive role in delivering basic public services. Elected local government is often better positioned to respond to the needs and preference of the local population. Particularly at the lowest Union Parishad level, local government offers an opportunity for genuine popular participation in the public governance. The closeness to the people means that local government can serve as a key instrument to fulfil Government’s goal of bringing services to the doorsteps of the people. As it is directly interacting with the people, local government also have an important role in delivering programs and building public awareness which in turn meet national objectives as well, such as poverty reduction, disaster management, delivery of social protection services, and support for local economic development.

Harnessing the potential of local government to improve services for the people requires that it have a legal framework that provides a clear mandate for certain services and the human and financial resources to carry out that mandate. The Government has taken several steps to support local governments. It passed revised legislation providing for the functions and operations of Pourashavas, union parishads, and upazila parishads. It has equipped local governments with equipment, particularly in establishing Union Information Service Centres. Nonetheless, the roles of local government at all levels remain relatively small due to the concentration of resources and service delivery through line agencies accountable to central Government rather than locally elected councils and chairpersons. Local governments play a coordinating role and contribute to local development, but have few responsibilities for ongoing service delivery. Rigid guidelines which limit local discretion in determining staffing needs, particularly for Union Parishads, means that local governments lack flexibility to meet local needs. Empowering local government to play a more prominent role in local development requires the transfer of authority for some services with commensurate resources.

Local Governments definitely have a major role in socio-economic development of the grass roots people, but at times their finances are spread thin due to a very large number of socio-economic activities they are expected to perform. Due to lack of local finances they are dependent on central government and that is crucial and sometime may lead to corruption. It depends upon country situation and political culture. Almost all the countries provide facilities to improve the social and economic situation through local government. For example, many of the local government institutions have legal power to establish public committee to get their opinion for development work. But real scenario is differing from the legal provision. The institutional circumstances (and therefore the structure of incentives and organisation) of Bangladesh including many other developing and transition economies is completely different from those in advanced industrial economies, and this requires the literature on decentralisation in the context of development to go beyond the traditional literature.

In the existing system, local government bodies are subject to strong control from higher-level authorities, especially from the central government. In the case of Union Parishad, there used to be a dual control and supervision exercised by both Upzila Parishad and the central government. In the recently approved system, however, control only comes from the central government, such as auditing of income expenditures. In the case of Upazila Parishad and Zila Parishad, similar controls prevail. Thus there are several impediments on the way of strong local government institutions in Bangladesh. These are, absence of real autonomy; financial control over local bodies; excessive controlling by central government; over controlling by the administrative official; limited budgetary allocations; problems of decentralisation; problem related to present Upazila system; interruption of politician; lack of training; improper personnel system. However, as we noticed, steps have been taken to overcome these constraints. Nevertheless, despite all these impediments Bangladesh has been advancing slowly but surely towards strengthening local government institutions, for achieving sustainable development goals under the unparallel and unique leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The writer is, Chairman, Department of Political Science and Director, South Asian Study Circle, Jagannath University, Dhaka





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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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