A development strategy for a hunger-free,

self-reliant Bangladesh

Prof Badiul Alam Majumdar


A strong local government structure is a fundamental pillar of an independent country and a vibrant democratic society...A politically empowered, economically viable and technically skilled local government system, which is transparent and accountable to the people, can ensure freedom and make the independence meaningful. Such a system will also establish true grassroots democracy.

Creating a hunger-free, self-reliant Bangladesh is our national commitment. Our Constitution made this commitment explicit and unequivocal. Accordingly, successive governments since independence in 1971 have made poverty eradication and improving the lives of the people their highest priority. The international community has also provided a substantial amount of resources for this purpose. Nevertheless, hunger and poverty are widely prevalent in our country and have become an inescapable part of life for a large number of our people. Thus, the prevailing aid-dependent, donor-driven, trickled-down, project-oriented, bureaucracy-managed and "beneficiary"-creating development strategy has not worked in Bangladesh, pointing to the need for a new approach. In 1992, the SAARC Independent Commission on Poverty Alleviation came to a similar conclusion.

The strategy we propose will establish the primacy of the people and place them in the driver's seat for the creation of a new future for our country a future where all of our people, not just a fortunate few, will have a chance to live long, healthy and productive lives. People are Bangladesh's biggest and most precious resource, and our development strategy must make the best and most effective use of their creativity and productive prowess.

We specifically propose a people-centred development approach where the people's power and their own resources will be the key factors. Empowerment of the people, social mobilisation, creating local institutions and leadership, local level planning and action, and harnessing indigenous resources are the cornerstones of this approach. The participation of women and the creation of opportunities for them are its other important elements. Contrary to the traditional methods of service delivery or giving handouts, this strategy will require fomenting a social movement or a phenomenon, involving all segments of the society. The focus of such a movement will be to, like in 1971, empower and mobilise citizens to take responsibility for their own future and initiate individual and collective action at the community level primarily capitalising on whatever they have in order to meet the challenges of hunger and poverty. In a similar vein, it may be noted that the Rural Development Policy, recently adopted by the government, also puts emphasis on popular participation and local resource mobilisation.

It should be noted that the traditional development approach puts excessive emphasis on civil construction with bricks and mortar and big-ticket infrastructural projects. However, infrastructure building, which often represents showcase projects, is merely the means to an end the end being human development or the transformation of human conditions. The principal focus of our proposed new strategy will be human development and improving the quality of human lives, and not merely indulging in the so-called "wheat-based" development.

Strong local government is the key player

In our prevailing development strategy, the government, with large amounts of human and non-human resources at its disposal, is the dominant player, shaping all development activities. Development, in all practical purposes, has now become a bureaucratic responsibility. The proposed new strategy will relieve the government of this traditional responsibility of planning and "delivering" development for people. Rather its main objective will be to make people the principal authors of their own future with the government creating a conducive environment for them to succeed. In this approach, the local government must play a key role by facilitating popular participation and action.

More explicitly, we see three principal forces the people, their elected local representatives and the government playing the critical role in the proposed new strategy. In this arrangement, people are the principal players, taking the primary responsibility for ending their own hunger and poverty. The role of the elected representatives, which represent the tested grassroots leadership, will be to awake, animate and mobilise people and local resources to generate local level planning and appropriate citizen action that reflect the aspirations and priorities of the people. Article 59 of our Constitution earmarks these planning and implementation functions for local bodies.

Another important role for the local government structure will be to create effective linkages between people and public authorities to ensure that governmental resources and services reach those who need and are entitled to them. Much of the resources now allocated for the rural poor do not actually reach them. As the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi found out in India, only 15 per cent of all anti-poverty programmes actually reached the poor, which induced him to push through the 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution, making the panchayati raj mandatory in all states. The situation is not much better in our country. If our system of local government at the grassroots could be strengthened and truly made the conduit for the delivery of all public services, as already mandated by article 59 of our Constitution, it is likely to have a significant impact on the prevailing level of poverty in our country. Fortunately, perhaps a step in the right direction in this regard was the declaration of Union Parishads and Paurashavas as "administrative units".

A strong local government structure is also likely to redress another serious problem we face in this country. The distribution of income in Bangladesh has been becoming increasingly skewed over the years. The income disparity between the rich and the poor most of whom live in rural areas is now acute. Direct and increased allocation of resources to local bodies at the grassroots and better utilization of those resources by a transparent and accountable local government system will be the best way to reduce the income gap.

In our proposed strategy, the government's main responsibility will be to make the skills and resources it has at its disposal available to the people in a transparent and accountable manner so that the latter can succeed in creating lives of self-reliance and dignity. The government must also provide an appropriate legal and policy framework in order to create a level playing field for those who are hungry and disadvantaged and to offer appropriate opportunities for them. In addition, it must devise an appropriate incentive structure to encourage investments and creation of wealth. In other words, in the proposed strategy the government's role will be to create an enabling environment for the people to succeed.

We can illustrate our proposed strategy with the analogy of a soccer game. In our "game" the object of which is to create a hunger-free, self-reliant Bangladesh the people, including the hungry, are the main players who will have to succeed in creating lives of self-reliance. The elected local representatives will not be in the field playing the game, but will perform the all-important tasks of coaches and managers, preparing the players and facilitating the game. The government's role in this game is that of a referee and sponsor; it must define appropriate and equitable rules, enforce them and create opportunities for those who are disadvantaged. A soccer game cannot be successfully played without the genuine partnership and effective cooperation of all three forces: players, coaches and managers, and referees and sponsors. Similarly, creating a new hunger-free, self, self-reliant Bangladesh will require an effective partnership and coordination between the people, their elected local representatives, and the government.

For this partnership to work and to be able to deliver the goods, the elected local representatives must play a central role. Many of the challenges of life the reflect as well as keep hunger in place must be faced and solved locally. Local initiatives, both individual and collective, are essential pre-requisites for creating income-earning opportunities to providing safe drinking water to eradicating repression of women. Elected local government representatives can effectively empower and mobilize people and local resources to devise appropriate solutions to most hunger-related problems.

Not only do many of the challenges that the poor and the hungry face have local solutions, those solutions are also in may cases nearly cost-free. If the people come together and work shoulder to shoulder, a form of "social capital" is generated, often eliminating the needs for large amounts of material resources. There are other problems, whose solutions depend on creating awareness and generating commitment on the part of the people in order to change their habits and behaviour. Solutions for still other problems are already present in the community (for example, opportunities for quality education) and if the people are organised they can more effectively get access to them without having to shell out more money from their own pockets. Elected local representatives can again play the most effective catalytic role for mobilizing local people and resources for local level planning and action.

For all of these to happen the present system of local government in Bangladesh needs to be strengthened and its roles and functions transformed. It must be given appropriate legal authorities and adequate financial resources so that elected local representatives can be the change agents for creating a hunger-free, self-reliant Bangladesh.

A weakened local government structure

Although a strong local government structure is an essential pre-condition for creating a new self-reliant future for Bangladesh, the system currently in place falls far short of the promise of the authors of the Constitution. The present system, as a result, is far from strong. In fact, it was not only weak to begin with, it has become weaker over time.

A major reason for the weakened status of local government bodies in Bangladesh is their neglect by the authorities concerned over the years. No serious efforts have been made by successive governments to take effective steps toward crating a powerful and viable local government system. The reform efforts have been mostly feeble and cosmetic in nature, often limited to only changing the nomenclature. In addition, there have been no serious initiatives for building the internal capacities of local government institutions, thus preventing then from becoming effective and autonomous institutions.

Local government entities have also been denied the necessary powers and resources. Some financial authority such as the leasing of local jal mahals, for example, were even taken away. from Union Parishads. Consequently, these grassroots level institutions do not and cannot afford to have any staff of their own or offer even the most basic services to the rural people services which cold significantly impact their lives.

Another reason for the present poor state of the local government system in Bangladesh is its manipulation for political purposes by successive governments Beginning from the Ayub regime, political expediency and patronage rather than the consideration of creating a potent instrument of governance has made politicians to tinker with the structure of local governance. This tinkering has turned it into a hodge-podge system with no clear purpose or focus.

More seriously, the local government structure has come to be a mere extension of central authorities and exists only in name. Government rules, circulars and bureaucratic edicts which are often vague and contradictory have become the instruments of central control. Such control, for example, included the approval of the Union Parishad budget at three levels of central authority, totally undermining the Parishad's autonomy. Consequently, elected UP representatives primarily perform according to the wishes and priorities of their bureaucratic superiors, which range from tree plantation drives to literacy campaigns. The demands of the central authorities are also often most absurd.

For example, giving almost no resources, the central government has mandated 48 functions ten compulsory and 38 optional for UPs.

As a result of continuing neglect, politicisation and direct central control, the local government structure in Bangladesh has not grown into a representative, decentralised, autonomous and transparent system accountable to the people. Though there has been some decentralisation of functions in some cases, those changes unfortunately were not accompanied by devolution of appropriate authority or resources. Thus, the system of local government in our country has failed to become an effective instrument of the democratic process and of participatory development. Local government bodies are also now saddled with many internal weaknesses, including serious operational and management shortcomings.

Among the dark clouds, there is however a silver lining. The 1997 amendments to the Local Government Ordinance provided for the direct election of women to three "reserved seats," creating opportunities for women to become elected to local bodies on their own rights and merits. Although there are serious questions as to whether the election of women to reserved seats actually "includes" them in, or "excludes" them from, the local power structure, this legislation nevertheless opens a new horizon for unleashing women's leadership at the grassroots.

Elements of an empowered system of local governance

In order to be able to play its due role of creating a hunger-free, self-reliant Bangladesh, the local government system, trapped in its present outmoded shell, must undergo major restructuring and reforms. Such reforms must be bold and based on "out-of-the-box" thinking. They must also be consistent with the principles of devolved authority and decentralised governance. This may require amending our Constitution.

The very first step in strengthening the system of local governance must be to overhaul the existing statute, which was inherited from the colonial period and has been tinkered with many times over the years. The purpose of the overhaul, as the Local Government Commissions in 1997 recommended, must be to make a system of local self-government responsive to the needs, aspirations and priorities of the people and accountable to them. The new statute must redefine the role of the local government representatives, especially the UPs and Paurashavas, so that they can harness the creativity and resources of the grassroots people and become the focal point of all poverty eradication and human development activities. It must also recognize the critical importance of increased participation of women and empowerment of their leadership for creating a hunger-free, self-reliant Bangladesh, and provide for their rightful inclusion and genuine representation in local bodies.

A fundamental step toward building a strong local government structure must be to channel adequate resources to it A revenue sharing formula must be developed, specifying a regular transfer of a fixed proportion of central government resources to the local government. Such transfer of resources must be as a matter of right and not based on the discretion of central authorities. It must not also be an instrument to control or influence local government activities. In order to operationalise this revenue sharing formula, the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives needs to be restructured and perhaps even renamed as the Ministry of Local Government Advocacy and Financing. In addition, the local government bodies must be given authority to raise revenue from their local constituencies and also from outside sources.

In order to make the local government bodies potent and effective entities, needed policy and administrative reforms must also accompany legal reforms. The purpose of the reforms must be to strengthen local bodies and to create an enabling environment for people to succeed. This will require the central government to shed some of its traditional command and control functions and assume the role of a facilitator and coordinator. This will, most importantly, require decentralizations of functions and devolution of authority, making the local bodies accountable for many of the functions that have traditionally been the preserve of the central government.

Another important step toward strengthening the local government structure must be to increase its institutional capacity. This will require a comprehensive and continuous training programme to empower the elected local representatives and enhance their skills. the training programme must to beyond the traditional statutory function of informing the trainees of the official responsibilities, but must transform their roles to be catalysts of a hunger-free, self-reliant Bangladesh. There must also be a special training programme to empower the leadership of the elected women local representatives, particularly the female UP representatives, so that they can become the change agents for improving the lives of rural women.

To conclude, a strong local government structure is a fundamental pillar of an independent country and a vibrant democratic society. The idea of such a structure in our sub-continent owes its historical origin to the pre-colonial village panchayat system, which was designed to institute self-rule rather than rule by landlords, their agents or other outsiders. In our situation, we first rid ourselves of the British and then the Pakistani rulers in order to earn this right of self-rule and decision-making based on local needs and priorities. Now a politically empowered, economically viable and technically skilled local government system, which is transparent and accountable to the people, can ensure freedom and make the independence meaningful. Such a system will also establish true grassroots democracy. With a decentralised, autonomous and democratic local government system, people will not only participate in the rituals of voting, they will also have an opportunity to shape and influence the decisions that directly affect their lives and livelihoods. Thus, democracy will turn into, in the language of Amartya Sen, not only the goal, but also the primary means of development.

Professor Badiul Alam Majumdar, Ph.D. is Country Director, The Hunger Project Bangladesh.

Source: The Daily Star, Dated July 30, 2001, Bangladesh

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