If the local government fails, development interventions get implemented without democratic participation and without assessing the true needs of the people. Such development measures, in turn, would neither be sustainable in the long run nor complement the sustainability of a democracy, which people vote for, writes Nazneen Ahmed
WHEN democracy is understood as ‘the power of the people,’ then this people’s power can very well be used to shape development, particularly when sustainability has become a major concern of development, promoting decision-making at grass roots allows people to make conscious choices about their lives that are more aligned with their individual contexts. Hence, the more democratic participation of the people, the more there are chances of sustainable development.
Indeed, rights of the people to influence the decisions that affect their lives and propose solutions for their own welfare are pronounced in international agreements such as the UN Declaration on the Right to Development of 1986, UN Charters, Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993 on human rights. Hence, the common understanding is that people not only have the right to benefit from development but they also have the right to own the process of development itself that brings these benefits. To fulfil this aim, local government institutions, besides being constituents of the larger democracy, have the potential to emerge as strong agents of development that can reach out to the local communities and help them identify and plan their own needs.
In this respect, Bangladesh has a long history of local government which has eventually given rise to zila, upazila and union parishads. Despite the present three-tier local government system, there is much to be desired in the relationship between the national government, local MPs and the local government. Central bureaucratic control and interference of MPs still loom large in the democratic functioning of the local government.
The Local Government (Upazila Parishad and Upazila Administration Reorganisation) Ordinance 1982 gave birth to the concept of the upazila parishad. It collapsed, however, in 1991. Upazila parishad was reintroduced into the system of local government in 1998 through the Upazila Parishad Act 1998 where MPs were given an advisory role. In 2008, the caretaker government of Bangladesh promulgated the Upazila Parishad Ordinance 2008, removing MPs from the advisory role. However, the entire ordinance was repealed by the Upazila Parishad (Reintroduction of the Repealed Act and Amendment) Act 2009, which reinstated MPs as ‘advisers’ to the parishad.
Apparently, over the years, this institution has undergone many structural changes based on the decisions of the ruling political parties. Indeed, several studies have revealed that the upazila parishads that exist today suffer from severe capacity and autonomy limitations.
So why has this institution not evolved along lines one would expect? And how does this hinder the broader objectives of democracy and development?
A study conducted in 2014 by Dr Mirza M Hassan and Sadiat Mannan of the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development in the project area of the Local Governance Programme – Sharique examines the role of MP in the upazila parishad. It explores how this role has given rise to conflicting interests between MP and upazila parishad chairman.
For instance, on the one hand, the upazila parishad follows a democratic system where decisions are made through voting of members. On the other hand, Article 25 of the Upazila Parishad Act 2009 says that the upazila parishad ‘will have to take the advice’ or ‘shall accept the advice’ (as translated from Bangla) of the MP concerned, who is neither elected to the upazila parishad nor has any voting right in it. Another example of conflicting provision in the act is Article 42 (1) which allows the parishad to plan local development independently. Conversely, Sub-section 3 of the same article empowers the MPs too, as it requires the parishad to accept the advice of the MP in all development planning and execution, thereby considerably weakening the autonomy of the upazila parishad.
The role of an adviser is not necessarily conflicting as long as it does not perform executive or legislative functions. This is not the case, however. In reality, the ‘advice’ of MPs effectively becomes an ‘executive order’, allowing them to overrule or dominate decisions by the elected representatives. This ‘advisory’ role indicates where the actual power of decision-making lies and paves the way for political representatives to influence decisions regarding development activities without consulting the locally elected representatives. Public resources are then allocated and distributed to the lower tier of the government through ‘coordination’ and consensus between the administrative and political actors where the MP plays a critical and powerful role.
Indeed, discussions with the key informants and local citizens during the research reveal that it is an ‘open secret’ that MPs’ nominees, made up of political supporters, are being included in selection committees and beneficiary lists of safety net programmes, namely, food for work (Kabikha), vulnerable group feeding (VGF), test relief, and old-age allowance, among others.
For instance, a certain upazila parishad needed to co-opt a member for its agriculture committee. Despite severe objections from the upazila parishad chairman, the upazila nirbahi officer included a ruling party member although the member was neither a farmer by profession nor had the required technical expertise to offer to the agriculture committee. In fact, this individual was being included in every other committee where the MP could nominate a representative.
This is one of the many cases which bear testimony to the frustrating compromises which upazila parishad chairmen have to make with the formal procedures at the behest of both MPs and UNOs. This example also indicates that the UNO, de facto, plays a central role in facilitating and distributing the MP’s patronage. In fact, not following the directives of the MP (whether formal or informal) has a negative implication for UNOs as they face forced job transfers to remote areas.
Thus, as a result of the abuse of the ‘advisory’ role, what we see today is a strained relation between MPs and upazila parishad chairmen over governance and resource allocation of upazila parishads. More importantly, this has led to the legislators gradually taking over the functions of the executives at the local levels. In the process, upazila parishad has become an institution that is failing in its promise of upholding a representative government system reflecting demands and decisions of the local populace.
Given this scenario and also given the fact that considerable development aid is being invested in local government reforms in Bangladesh, it is only imperative to ask whether upazila parishads are, indeed, living up to the standards of democratic governance, improving the lives and sustaining the rights of those who elected them. If the local government fails, development interventions get implemented without democratic participation and without assessing the true needs of the people. Such development measures, in turn, would neither be sustainable in the long run nor complement the sustainability of a democracy, which people vote for.
Nazneen Ahmed is programme officer, Local Governance Programme-Sharique, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University.