- Bangladesh has promoted decentralisation in the decision-making, but there have been debates about the motives and lack of autonomy of local governments.
- The present government made efforts to strengthen local governments, including enacting legislation to allow citizen participation and creating digital centers for public services.
- The funding and lack of autonomy of LG is the reason why they rely on federal government and it is a need to be addressed through reform agendas.
Decentralisation of development planning and management is essential and has been shown to have a significant impact on the success of any initiative. To foster more equitable economic growth and provide for the fundamental requirements of the poorest groups in emerging nations, it has been argued that citizen engagement in decision-making processes is crucial. Hence, decentralisation has been a focal point of attention as a means to guarantee citizen input into policymaking. Rondinelli (1981) suggested that local participation in decision-making through decentralisation of authority in developing nations might speed up development’s advantages and better employ limited resources to encourage development in economically backward or disadvantaged areas. Decentralisation empowers local leaders and agencies to serve residents better and become closer to them.
During the last 50 years, Bangladesh’s government has promoted decentralisation as a way of nation-building, poverty alleviation, and public participation in decision-making. Notwithstanding official rhetoric, several studies have questioned the government’s motives in devolving control to local levels (Ahmed, Boex, Momen, & Panday, 2015; Panday, 2011a; Panday & Assaduzzaman, 2011). Research has shown that almost all governments and political regimes have made modifications to local government organisations in the name of decentralisation, but these changes have mostly helped to reinforce their political and economic power bases. Because of this, no national government has been able to delegate authority to its sub-national agencies, which remain under national control. Because of these issues with autonomy and independence, many local governments have become reliant on the national government.
The Bangladesh Awami League (AL) formed the government in 2009 after a landslide victory in the 2008 elections, and since then, the LG has undergone structural and functional improvements. The AL campaigned on a promise to bolster the LG, which they saw as the focal point of the nation’s development. The government of Bangladesh began working to transform LG bodies into pro-poor local governments based on the lessons learned from various LG strengthening projects implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with the Local Government Division (LGD) of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development, and Cooperatives (LGRD&C). Union Parishad, Upazila Parishad, Zilla Parishad, Paurashava, and City Corporation all have their own sets of legislation that the government enacted as part of a larger strategic plan. The Local Government (Union Parishad) Act, 2009, is the most comprehensive Act that has allowed citizens to participate in the affairs of their local authorities through ward shava and open budget meetings. To guarantee local government officials are accountable and transparent, it has also established the provision of a citizen charter and rights to information. No government had ever considered such a radical change.
The LG-Upazila Parishad, the second-tier of local government, established in 1982 but disbanded in 1991, was reinstated in 2009 with the enactment of the Upazila Parishad (Reintroduction of the Repealed Act and Amendment) Act 2009. The government’s goal in reinstating the Upazila Parishad was to create accountable local administration at the Upazila level, where bureaucrats would work under elected officials. The transfer of 17 government agencies to the Upazila Parishad has not yet been completely implemented. The Zila Parishad (Amendment) Act of 2016 provided the Zila Parishad, the third tier of local government, with a more democratic framework under this government. The principal duty is to coordinate the actions of the lowest levels of local government. The transition to a fully functional state will be gradual due to the novelty of the concept.
The government, too, recognised the need for paurashavas to be reformed into a pro-poor, accountable entity that could provide higher-quality urban services; thus, in 2009, it adopted the Paurashava Act, which included several novel features along these lines. The government of Bangladesh has passed new legislation giving each city corporation the legal authority to carry out its municipal duties autonomously.
There has been a massive shift in the way people live and work and in how services are provided as a result of the widespread use of IT at the local level. The present government has established the Union Digital Center (UDC) in each Union Parishad as part of its goal to establish a digital Bangladesh. The UDC allowed residents easy, affordable access to various government services. Technology has helped the government disperse services like vaccinations during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Several low-income individuals were given government-mandated direct financial transfers during the pandemic to continue supporting themselves.
The widespread use of IT at the local level has dramatically changed people’s day-to-day lives and the delivery of essential services. As part of its plan to transform Bangladesh into a digital country, the present government has established a Union Digital Center (UDC) in every Union Parishad. At the UDC, citizens could get their hands on a wide range of public services at a low cost. During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, technology has assisted the government in distributing services such as vaccinations. Several low-income individuals were given government-mandated direct financial transfers during the pandemic to continue supporting themselves.
While the current administration has taken several steps to help LG bodies thrive, they have yet to mature into robust organisations with the ability to raise the necessary funding. Since they can’t raise money independently, they must rely on the federal government. One of the major causes of such dependency is the government’s deconcentrated decentralisation policy, which allows a certain degree of autonomy to the LG bodies while keeping some control mechanisms at its disposal. Hence, it’s important to consider implementing specific reform agendas to bolster the LG bodies.
Presently, each level of local government is governed by its own set of rules, leading to an inequitable organisational structure, functional overlap, ambiguity in central-local and local-local ties, and tension between these groups. As a result, the central government must immediately prioritise consolidating the roles of several agencies.
A lack of personnel severely hinders the ability of LG bodies to perform their duties. As a result, quick measures are needed to guarantee that the transferred personnel and departments in the UZP and UP follow the Act’s legal provisions. There are already measures under the UZP Act (Amendment) Act, 2011, and the UP Act of 2009 to transfer 17 departments to UZP and 13 offices to UPs. Unfortunately, these measures have not been taken into effect (Rahman and Ahmed, 2015, Panday, 2016). Thus, actions are needed to guarantee that these laws are appropriately implemented, allowing these entities to make up for workforce shortages.
The establishment of a permanent and impartial commission or committee in the country tasked with conducting periodic evaluations of various matters of the LG entities and adopting guidelines appropriately has been a central recommendation of all reform commissions since the 1990s.
Significant efforts have been made since 2009 in the framework of the LG in Bangladesh to increase participation, inclusivity, and accountability in these institutions. While there have been encouraging signs of progress, several obstacles still make it difficult for these organisations to get a firm footing. Thus, further efforts are needed to create these institutions as centres of growth. The goals of the constitution can only be fully realised in this way.
(The author has duly acknowledged all sources of information)