UP Elections: Then what?

Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar

Elections of nearly 4,500 Union Parishads (UPs) are now in the process of being completed. An important question that must be asked at this time is: after elections, what next? Answering this question will require a clear understanding of the purpose and potential roles of local government institutions (LGIs), especially UPs.

LGIs have four potential roles: remedying democratic deficits, delivering services, promoting economic development, and achieving good governance.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government except for every other form we have tried. Similarly, representative democracy, as is practiced today, is not the most ideal system because it has many ‘deficits’. Such deficits include, among others: lack of effective citizen participation, lack transparency and accountability of elected representatives, and lack of inclusiveness of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. A strong local government system, especially at the grassroots level, which is the conduit for establishing grassroots democracy, can effectively remedy many of these deficits. In fact, without elected local bodies, democratic governance itself is incomplete.

Grassroots democracy, often viewed as ‘poor man’s democracy’, can truly deepen and in the process ‘democratise’ democracy. That is why Article 59 of our Constitution mandates the rule of elected representatives through a parallel and autonomous system of local government at each administrative unit. Thus, the effective functioning of UPs will help promote participatory democracy, which is by far superior to its representative alternative.

LGIs, especially UPs, are effectively government at the doorsteps of the people. In addition to promoting meaningful citizen participation, they can also ensure effective delivery of services to which people are entitled. Unfortunately, our UPs have very little resources or manpower to be able to deliver the range of services people need and want. Thus, if we are to make the service delivery function of UPs effective, the government must transfer more resources to UPs, including human resources, especially those responsible for providing health, education and agricultural services at the grassroots.

Local government bodies also have constitutionally mandated development functions to perform. Again, they lack adequate resources to make much of a difference in this area. Nevertheless, the LG representatives are local leaders and, by using their catalytic leadership, they can carry out popular campaigns against many social ills and help solve problems like dowry, child marriage, school attendance, good sanitation practices, nutrition awareness, environmental degradation and so on with little or no money at all. Thus, they can truly turn development into a movement.

It must be noted that most problems people face are local and they must also be solved locally. According to the subsidiarity principle, problems that cannot be solved at the lowest level of LGI, should be solved at the higher level up, and then at the next higher level, and so on. In such a scheme, UPs become the most important local body for delivering services and promoting economic development. Thus, creating a truly hunger and poverty free Bangladesh will require important policy changes to devolve more power, authority and resources to LGIs, especially to the UPs, and to help them function effectively.

Good governance, especially promoting transparency and downward accountability, can only be effectively achieved by starting at the lowest level of LGIs, namely the UPs. In fact, a social movement to achieve transparency and accountability can be fomented from the grassroots up. Thus, UPs are also critically important LGIs for promoting good governance.

The functioning of Ward Sabhas which hold village assemblies at the Ward level at least twice a year as provided in the latest UP Act, can effectively address the service delivery, economic development and good governance role of UPs. In fact, the provision of Ward Sabhas, first included in the UP Ordinance promulgated during the last Caretaker government, represents an institutional innovation precisely to address these issues through people’s participation, including participation of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. Thus, one of the must important priorities of newly elected UP bodies should be to make Ward Sabhas functional and effective.

It may be noted that Ward Sabhas have three functions to perform: local level planning including carrying out campaigns, the practice of transparency and accountability, and the selection of beneficiaries of various government schemes according to certain pre-determined criteria, such as landlessness, widowhood and so on. It may further be noted that our prime minister in one of her books published in 1995 emphasised the need for holding such village assemblies for poverty eradication and ensuring the participation of the poor in them.

The present UP elections offer a unique opportunity to promote democracy that is truly participatory, accountable and inclusive and also to promote broad-based economic development. Nearly 60,000 newly-elected grassroots leaders, many of whom are young and highly educated, can be empowered to spearhead such an effort. This will obviously require policymakers and other stakeholders to think `outside the box’ and undertake innovative capacity-building initiatives immediately after elections.

The proposed capacity-building efforts must have twin objectives: enhancing the capacity of UP representatives as well their communities. Most of the newly-elected representatives are political activists who have been elected for the first time. They have never had the opportunity to run anything, and the challenge is to turn them, especially the UP chairs, into executives and help them run UPs in a professional manner, adhering to basic management and accounting principles. This will require hands-on training of the UP bodies and close follow-ups. I will also require developing appropriate accounting software and training the functionaries to use them. Furthermore, training must also enhance their leadership skills so that they can become true change agents while making them aware of the relevant statutes.

The modern strategic planning methodology may be used to help UP representatives carry out their responsibilities to improve the lives of the people of their unions. They may be helped to identify five-year strategic goals and then to develop yearly work-plans to achieve those goals. One important goal, for example, could be the effective functioning of Ward Sabhas. Another strategic goal could be to develop a five-year development plan for the UPs, especially focusing on achieving certain MDG goals. Yet another strategic goal could be to prepare participatory budgets on a yearly basis. One attractiveness of such a methodology is that it will create ownership of the plan by the elected representatives.

Capacity building of the community also must be a focus in order to enhance the capability of the community members, including women and other disadvantaged groups, so that they can effectively participate in the affairs of the UPs and also hold the elected leaders to account. For example, women bear most of the responsibilities for family wellbeing, yet are currently denied information, resources and voice in decision-making. Thus, broad-based participation will first of all require raising the consciousness of the ordinary people, including the disadvantaged groups, to empower themselves with the realisation that they are citizens with certain rights and responsibilities. This will also require creating champions within the community who will be able to animate and mobilize others for participation in Ward Sabhas and other affairs of the UPs. It is needless to say that, without the necessary capacity building of the community, UPs will not be able to reach their potential and bring about measurable improvements in the quality of lives of their constituents.

The writer is Secreatry, SHUJAN.

Reference By: The Daily Star, 6th July 2011

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