Strengthening zila parishads can accelerate rural prosperity
Zila parishad or district council, the highest tier in rural local government, is the oldest local government agency in Bangladesh. Yet, it was not until 2017 that elected representatives took office in the country's zila parishads. The Zila Parishad Act, 2000 has given the mandate to the zila parishads to carry out development activities by formulating annual and five-year plans in consultation with other local government institutions and individuals, considering their own financial capabilities.
Decentralisation is often linked with the concept of active participation in decision-making processes. Indeed, local authorities with actual discretionary powers make the foundation for decentralisation that can lead to efficiency, equity and development at the local levels. Effective local institutions can develop and implement policies that are in line with the citizens' aspirations, thereby improving the quality of public services. Bangladesh is a unitary state with a constitutional provision for local government bodies to provide all necessary amenities. Decentralisation is specifically mentioned in the constitution of the country.
The existing challenges
Under the current LGI framework, zila parishads have only limited revenue discretion. According to the law, LGIs can only collect revenue from the sources specified by the government. They are not authorised to look for alternative tax bases. Even within the limited discretion, zila parishads don't have enough capacity to effectively collect the revenues from the sources assigned to them. In addition, the zila parishads receive limited funds compared to their actual needs under the current intergovernmental fiscal transfer system. Inadequate funding is a major constraint on the ability of zila parishads to perform their mandated functions. Currently, the zila parishads play some roles in the delivery of local services, and local administration offices provide these services as well.
Due to a fragmented legal framework, the assignment of functions and expenditure responsibilities to zila parishads remain unclear, and there is a significant gap between legally assigned functions and their actual capacity to perform those functions. The lack of coordination between zila parishads and district administration offices in delivering services has been identified as a major impediment to effective local service delivery. The main hurdle in effective coordination is the distance between the frontline service delivery unit, where the service is delivered to the citizen, and the officials who ultimately have the decision-making power over local service delivery, often sitting at the district level or within the central government. Therefore, there is a need to deconcentrate the decision-making authority on service delivery to the zila parishad level, thereby reducing coordination failures and improving local services.
A major challenge in the current local government system is limited opportunities for meaningful participation of local citizens, and weak upward and downward accountability. There is a wide consensus that a more devolved and effective local government system is crucial for making development agenda more pro-poor, widening participation in decision-making processes, and ensuring that resources are directed to where they are most needed. For instance, zila parishad standing committees are not operational in about 90 percent of the zila parishads, because the elected chairpersons and other members are not properly aware of or interested about the committees' functions and jurisdictions.
First, zila parishads should identify all relevant stakeholders and involve them in the development process. A zila parishad must hold a special meeting on a regular basis to approve the project list in accordance with the Zila Parishad Act. It must submit the annual plan to the relevant deputy director, local government (DDLG) and the Local Government Division (LGD) by deadline. The zila parishads should incorporate their standing committees' suggestions in the annual plan. Endurance, steadiness and sequential knowledge should be guaranteed by the committee members.
Zila parishads must identify their existing establishments and assets, and work out renovation plans of said establishments as well as further investment of available assets. The LGRD ministry must engage the relevant entities for transferring knowledge and skills to the officials of zila parishads. The ministry must also introduce digitalised accounting systems and how to prepare financial statements, and have them audited by the audit standing committee of the zila parishads within three months of the closing of a financial year. The authorities involved must work out a performance-based budget allocation, i.e. placing governance reform as a condition to receive a budget for infrastructure improvements. The zila parishads must prepare and present citizens' charter at their offices. Creating websites, promoting citizens' charter and disclosing all development and financial related documents, holding regular public hearings and inviting local communities, CBOs, and NGOs to the zila parishad meetings are indispensable.
Making zila parishad effective
Reforming local government institutions requires agreement on fundamental principles. These principles encourage governments to do the right thing by providing services consistent with the citizens' preferences. In addition, the zila parishads should manage their fiscal resources carefully. They should gain citizens' trust by performing better and spending frugally, as well as managing the community's economic and social risks. They should perform to increase both the qualities and quantities of public services as well as access to them.
In Bangladesh, the local government as a political institution is focused on ensuring development, and public participation in development activities is far from being an effective tool of governance. Being mostly poor and unaware, particularly at the grassroots, the people approach their local public representatives, whom they consider as local guardians well aware of their needs and feelings. In reality, elected local bodies in administrative units ensure effective involvement of the people in decisions that affect them, and this participation is a precondition for the development of a democratic polity at all levels.
While NGOs are still likely to be mainly concerned with the basics of improving human development, being involved in human security projects helps to improve NGOs as organisations and to reinforce and expand the contribution they can make to the people with whom they currently work. To make development really meaningful, people must be directly involved in the formulation and implementation of decisions. This requires decentralisation of democracy to the most basic levels. Allow political parties and relevant stakeholders, including community members, to learn from this experience and overcome these challenges in the greater national interest. A paradigm shift in government is required, shifting from imposing development to supporting rural development, and from teaching local people to learning together with them. Human security must be included into the existing mainstream rural development approaches.
Dr Mohammad Tarikul Islam is an associate professor of government and politics at Jahangirnagar University.