Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in human and infrastructure development, yet access to quality education, healthcare, safe drinking water and sanitation is still a far cry, a top World Bank official said yesterday.
“There are several factors that hinder progress in the delivery of basic services. One factor is the absence of a well-functioning local government institution in Bangladesh,” said WB Country Director for Bangladesh and Bhutan Mercy Miyang Tembon.
She spoke at the opening of the fourth South Asia Economic Network Conference at Brac Centre Inn in Dhaka.
The South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (Sanem) and The World Bank organised the two-day event on “Subnational finance and local service delivery”.
Planning Minister MA Mannan inaugurated the event where researchers from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were also present.
Bangladesh now has an administratively decentralised system with various levels of elected local government institutions (LGIs) thanks to the series of legal reforms brought in recent years, Tembon said.
“Collectively these LGIs are responsible for delivering just 1 percent of total government expenditure. And, even these resources are not all well spent,” she said.
Tembon stressed the need for decentralisation.
“International experience suggests that basic services such as education, healthcare, water, sanitation and local level law and order are often delivered better when their provision is decentralised,” she said.
In a session, former Bangladesh Bank governor Atiur Rahman said researchers, civil society think-tanks, NGOs and international development partners have long been emphasising on the need for empowering the LGls through fiscal and administrative decentralisation.
“Statistics also show that Bangladesh indeed is among the least decentralised countries among the world,” he said, adding that share of LGI expenses is 7 percent of the total national budget.
It is much below the developing country average of 19 percent and 28 percent for developed countries, he added.
Rahman said Bangladesh has done well in terms of social and economic indicators.
But, as the country chases bigger dreams such as double-digit growth, eradication of poverty and issues related to decentralisation have become more important than ever before, he said, adding empowered LGIs can better serve people. Presenting a study on “whether democratic local governance facilitates local economic development”, Monzur Hossain, senior research fellow of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said only administrative governance is not enough for local economic development.
Training of elected union parishad officials for capacity building is crucial to ensure better services to citizens in rural areas, he said.
Local service delivery is very important, the planning minister said at the opening session.
He said public services were limited to urban areas in colonial days and things like clean water, basic education, better sanitation and better road infrastructure in rural areas did not exist at that time. He said the government has given attention to ensure better delivery of local services by developing rural roads, ensuring primary healthcare, education and rural electrification.
“We take pride that we have been able to take power to every rural home,” he said, adding that 95 percent plus people now have access to electricity. “That is a miracle.”
Mannan said literacy rate is about 75 percent and the government now provides “fairly minimum level of healthcare” through community clinics. “About 30 types of medicines we are providing free and there are two to four paramedics in every village.”
He said this has been possible because of the strong leadership and a decade of continuous and stable government, parliament and bureaucracy.
“We are doing better than others,” said Mannan. He said the government is carrying out reforms nationally to ensure inclusive economic development.
“As a result, we will be able to take all services to rural areas to ensure a better living.”
“For this, cooperation from all and a stable (political) environment is necessary,” he said.
“One may find that I say this so that we can hold the position of ministers for the whole life. It is not possible. We will knock your doors in every five years and you will judge our performances.”
In another session on fiscal decentralisation and corruption, Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of World Bank in Bangladesh, said it is not as simple as that corruption would reduce with fiscal decentralisation only.
“Administrative and political decentralisation is needed along with the fiscal decentralisation. It may yield good result in terms of reduction of corruption,” he added.