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November 16, 2003 

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Strong local government

Traditional mindset of UP chairman must be changed

Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar

The election of the Union Parishad (UP), the only on-going local government body of our country, was completed with much fanfare in early this year. In this election nearly 55,000 local representatives, including about 13,000 women, were elected by the people at the grassroots. These leaders have already taken office and the question that is now in the minds of many what is next?

The Union Parishad is a very important institution in our country in that it can play a critical role in institutionalising democracy, achieving good governance and fostering socio-economic development. Democratic norms and practices at the grassroots can provide a solid foundation for democracy at the national level. As a strong base is needed for a building to stand on, similarly a vibrant democratic system is required to make the democracy function effectively at the higher echelon.

Good governance requires, among other things, effective people's participation as well as transparency and accountability in the process of governance. Only at the grassroots democratic governance can transition from the "representative" type to a "participatory" variety, reflecting greater participation of the people. Similarly, transparency and accountability can best be practiced
at the lower echelon.

Democratic governance is vital for development. As Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has written, "Democracy is not only the goal of development, it is also the primary means of development." Strong and effective democratic government, especially participatory government at the local level is critically important for the soci-economic resurgence of a country like Bangladesh. People in our country face many challenges on a daily basis and these challenges cannot be solved by the government alone or anyone else for that matter. It will require that the people facing the problems take the primary responsibility for their solution. Most problems are locally created and can and must also be solved locally, at their roots, by awakening and mobilising people, utilising local resources and local leadership, and planning from the bottom. Elected representatives of local democratic institutions can be the change agents in this process and can foment a social movement for this purpose. The "people's planning" carried out by Panchayati raj institutions in Kerala, India is an excellent example of such a bottom-up planning process.

In 1992, the SAARC Independent Commission on Poverty Alleviation pointed out that the traditional, top-down, service delivery paradigm of development could never be effective in reducing poverty in South Asia. The depth and complexity of poverty in South Asia and the enormous numbers of people affected are too vast. The only pathway to poverty eradication, the Commission asserted, is to catalyse a process of self-reliant development, built primarily on the talent, ingenuity and resources of the people themselves. This can only be materialised by vibrant democratic local government institutions.

Our Hon'able Prime Minister in her inaugural speech to the nation after getting re-elected in October 2001, alluded to a similar development strategy. She asserted that government's main responsibility is to create an enabling environment, while the people have to take the responsibility to achieve progress and prosperity themselves. This obviously calls for a new, people-centered development approach.

The recent UP election, in which nearly 55,000 new representatives were elected, offers a great opportunity to put into practice such a people-centered development paradigm. This will require changing their long entrenched mindset - mindset of depending on the national government for resources and directions. This will also require a new realisation that the so-called "poor" people are not "problems," but they are the "solutions" of poverty and "keys" to their own development. In other words, the realisation must be that if the poor are mobilised, their creativity unleashed and opportunities created for them, they can become the principal authors of their own future.

In spite of the vast potentials to contribute to institutionalising democracy, achieving good governance and promoting socio-economic development, the roles of UP representatives are at present largely confined to a few traditional, mundane activities. These activities include building infrastructure, dispensing justice and distributing relief materials. They have in essence been working as "agents" of the national government and depending on its favour and largesse. However, these traditional roles can easily be performed by low level functionaries, for they do not require "leading" people awakening, unleashing and mobilising them.

If we are to take advantage of the enormous potentials created by the recent election to solve many of our problems, we must without delay initiate a radical decentralisation programme to give the newly elected representatives the necessary responsibilities, powers and resources. History teaches that more closer the power and resources to the people, greater transparency and accountability are achieved in their utilisation and more benefits do they accrue to the people. Along with the decentralisation initiative, there must also be an effort to prepare the elected local leaders for the tasks ahead. This will require getting them, on a priority basis, out of their traditional mindset regarding their roles and responsibilities. This obviously calls for transforming their present roles and enhancing their skills and leadership, requiring appropriate training and empowerment.

In order to fully utilise the leadership of the newly elected UP leaders to move the country ahead, they need two types of training. They first need the so-called statutory training the training that will inform them of their powers, responsibilities and the rules governing their activities, as laid out in statues, government circulars and guidelines. Fortunately, the government has already implemented such a training programme.

The newly elected leaders must also be given transformational training training which will change their mindset and transform their roles in addition to the informational or statutory training. Such training will help them come out of their present state of "thinking within the box" about their roles, confined primarily to infrastructure building and providing a few traditional and rudimentary services. In other words, a successful transformational training, with an appropriate follow-up mechanism in place, will enable the elected representatives to become catalysts in awakening their constituents to the vision for a better future and mobilising them for action for bringing about measurable improvements in their quality of life rather than merely performing a service delivery role.

With the transformation of their mindset and their roles, the UP representatives would be able to contribute to solving the challenges that people face with respect to quality of education, health awareness, safe water, hooliganism, drug abuse, environmental degradation, women's repression, dowry, child marriage, unplanned birth, and even creating self-employment. For, most of these challenges are created locally and must also be solved locally. When people are mobilised, they work in unison and there are changes in their habits and attitudes, many of these challenges get solved without external financial support. For example, when people come together and work shoulder to shoulder, a form of "social capital" is created, which can be utilised for setting up educational institutions, health centers and even for organising joint income earning projects. Likewise when people are mobilised, they can take united stand and foment a social movement against serious social ills such as hooliganism, toll-collection, corruption and repression of women.

If we are to take advantage of the tremendous possibilities created as a result of the recent UP election, immediate steps should be taken to arrange training for changing the mindset of the elected leaders, which will transform their traditional roles. I hope the government will forthwith make the necessary arrangements for such training and involve those in the non-government sectors with the requisite skills, expertise and experience.

Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar, Global Vice President and Country Director, The Hunger Project-Bangladesh.


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