Accountability in local governance lies in the democratic sphere where anyone can be questioned, any questions can be asked and any debate can be conducted without a slight fear of authority and the state’s repressive mechanisms, writes Ataur Rahman
BANGLADESH is a unitary republic with the constitutional provision for local government bodies to provide all amenities that people need. For instance, Article 59 of the constitution of Bangladesh stipulates that the local government in every administrative unit of the republic will be entrusted to bodies composed of people elected in accordance with the law and the act of parliament will lay down the functions of the local government bodies which may include administration and the work of public officers, the maintenance of public order and the preparation and implementation of plans pertaining to public services and economic development.
A strengthened and accountable local government system is an indispensable prerequisite for successful self-governing practices in Bangladesh. But local government bodies are still struggling with a self-sufficiency crisis which results from the lack of people’s engagement and non-accountability. Without the decentralisation of power and people’s participation in local governance, there is little scope for an accountable local governance. These are inter-dependent mechanisms which are essentially mutually non-exclusive. There is a widespread perception about local government organisations being subjugated to the elected legislative body, in general, and the chair of each body, in particular. To come out from the suffering of supremacy of the chair and ensuring the transparency and accountability of the union and upazila councils, there is no substitute other than strengthening the execution of standing committees and other mechanisms.
Here in Bangladesh, local governmental institutions are the most effective channels to deliver need-based services to citizens as they can reach local people with less difficulty than the officials of the central government access to services with more ease. The union council, the lowest unit of the local government, and officials of several line departments posted to the union level are charged with providing to the range of services related to health education, social welfare, infrastructure development, fisheries and livestock, agriculture and water sanitation. The latter are mostly accountable to their superior of the upazila level. Union council representative and officials of different line agencies interact with each other and coordinate their activities while delivering services at the union level. In this case, none should forget the relationship between people’s engagement in policy formulation and local government’s accountability. It is not right and moral to impose any development programme without appropriate assent and concurrence of the locality that is going to be impacted. There is precise progress which deserves to be generated in the locality. So, the development process will be overseen by locality’s people and the accountability of elected representatives and government officials will be ensured.
The upazila councils remain non-functional because of the lack of capacity and understanding of their actual role and function as laid out in the law and rules so far issued. The meetings are not held properly, standing committees are not formed, no budget is prepared, grants sent to uapzila councils could not be used keeping to the guidelines and no by-laws as prescribed in law are initiated. A basic setup of democratic, functional and accountable upazila councils is required to ensure a minimal capacity to engage in local development planning and services delivery. Moreover, once empowered and knowledgeable of its roles and functions, the councils will be able to link development activities with key players such as the line departments sitting at the upazila level, the union councils, municipalities and other non-state actors. A strengthened functional upazila council will be the driving force for creating a demand-led local level development plan that addresses among other development needs the main targets and gender equality concerns.
Apart from the relationship between people’s participation and accountability which eventually leads to the strengthened local governance, for strengthening autonomous institutions without failing the executive, standing committees are the reliable sources of democratisation and accountability that we can rely on. Standing committees are small groups of representatives who are assigned, on either a temporary or a permanent basis, to examine matters more closely than the institution could. As standing committees operate under less formal rules, their members are able to discuss issues informally and develop relationships with colleagues who represent different interests. That creates a positive environment which paves the way for compromising small matters and technical improvements in overall functioning.
The Local Government (Union Parishad & Upazila Parishad) Act 2009 and (1998 amended) 2011 created an opportunity to ensure a greater participation of people in the process of development planning and implementation. As per the act, each union parishad and upazila parishad are supposed to form at least 13 and 17 standing committees on different issues such as education, health, family planning, social welfare and disaster management, agriculture and fisheries and livestocks. Standing committees are composed of elected representatives from the councils, civil society members, socially respected people and women representatives of that locality and they are entitled to assist the union councils in ensuring better services and resolving different problems. However, these standing committees are not active in about 90 per cent of the councils because the elected chairs and other members are not properly aware or interested in its functions and jurisdictions. Similar to the standing committee of union councils, the issue of upazila council standing committees has not been perceived well by different actors who have remained engaged in the process of their functioning. Standing committee meetings for the sake of meeting only undermine the whole spirit of local governance. In most cases, even the notice of meeting is not circulated well in advance.
While people’s participation in policy formulation and implementation necessitates the accountable to local government institution through non-institutional process, standing committees are institutional mechanisms applied in non-formal ways. Both mechanisms initiate the process for making local governance institutions accountable. But the despairing reality comes to the fore when these mechanisms cannot create the possible impact on decentralising and democratisation process in real terms. The non-accountability of local governance and overall negligence in this respect have gone too far as deteriorated and non-democratic practices reign over the institutions. These two mechanisms have ample possibilities to ensure the accountability of local governance institutions as discussed earlier but the lack of democratic process and culture of negligence are deterring the way forward. The legal dictum and political practices do not concur with each other as they are world apart because our institutions lagged behind in democratisation and decentralisation. We have to recognise that accountability lies in the democratic sphere where anyone can be questioned, any questions can be asked and any debate can be conducted without a slight fear of authority and the state’s repressive mechanisms. We have to imagine more people-friendly, democratic and accountable institutions with the vision of sustainable development which will ensure the local development in real terms.
Ataur Rahman is an advocate of local governance.
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