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April 22, 2019

Different accountability


April 22, 2019

This article is not going to discuss the mainstream accountability drive against politicians and others in the country. It is going to focus on how the citizens, particularly the marginalized can hold decision-makers accountable in the context of devolution. However, before we delve deeper into our area of focus, it might be pertinent to state that our entire conceptualization of politics is personality-driven.

It is worthwhile to visit the structure-agency debate in the sociological theory, which duly informs that prevalent structures determine the outcome of processes, and it might not be prudent to focus on individuals (or rulers) too much. To give one example, after the recent terrorist attack in New Zealand, I saw some commentary unnecessarily too focused on the person of the prime minister of New Zealand. Similarly, some others often quote the liberal-minded prime minister of Canada. Such commentators forget that Canada is part of Nato, and New Zealand is an entrenched member of the hegemony of Western countries in the world, including treatment of its indigenous population.

The imperialist policies pursued by the West, pushed by their military-industrial complex, determine the structures of international politics and diplomacy. The personalization of an individual’s overtures, be they the current prime ministers of countries, are not going to make much difference to the underlying structural impediments that override the individuals. Therefore, it is best not to personalize politics too much whether it is the accountability drive in Pakistan, or politics in Western countries.

Coming back to Pakistan, policy research follows certain leads from the decision-making circles. There was a time in the recent past when there was lots of scholarship on devolution. However, as the elected governments took over power post-2008, the debate on decentralization has fizzled. It is worth revisiting it again. We refer to some literature (Cheema 2007, PILDAT 2019, Cheema et al nd; Hasnain 2010, and I-SAPS nd) on devolution and public accountability of governance structures in this article.

The main issue is that both the provincial government tier and the local government tier compete for limited funds for public service delivery. Given that funds are limited; the balance of power between the provincial and local government tiers keeps on oscillating from non-representative regimes to politically elected governments. The former seeks legitimacy through instituting local governments and to some degree bypassing the elected provincial government tier; the latter weaken the local government setup and work towards provincial control of the local tier.

The genesis of formal local governments goes back to the colonial era. The colonial British bureaucracy nominated members of the local government by co-opting the local elite through a well-entrenched and selective patronage system. Hence, the local government system was not initiated in the colonial period as a response to popular political demand; rather it was the colonial administration’s way of entrenching local elite under the imperial bureaucracy. In the post-independence period, colonial thinking has not significantly changed.

The political governments that have come to power since 2008 have largely been lukewarm towards local government systems. Though, all provincial governments enacted their respective local government laws from 2010 to 2013, yet there is tension between the empowerment of provincial governments in comparison with the local governments. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa local government act is said to give more autonomy and power to the local governments; the laws of other provinces are a bit more restrictive.

Local government elections were held in all the provinces from December 2013 to December 2015 in phases. The term of the local government has already expired in Balochistan, and some other terms are also expiring in 2019.

The local governments have mostly been focused on providing physical infrastructure such as roads, sanitation, water, and rural electrification instead of education and health that are still in the purview of the provincial bureaucracy.

Literature shows that there are significant “structural constraints” that are not too amenable to the “long route of accountability” by the marginalized citizens of the governance system in Pakistan, yet it varies across the country. Places where there is high socioeconomic inequality, political competition is low, in addition to the personality-driven politics, and “dependent voting” by the poor; these dynamics weaken the citizens’ (particularly the marginalized) ability to hold the decision-making circles accountable.

However, in places where socio-economic inequality is low, in addition to greater political competition, and primacy of “independent voting”, the chances for the poor to pursue the “long route of accountability” of decision-makers are strengthened. However, low socioeconomic inequality does not hedge protection for “independent voting” if there is a monopoly of “higher-tier factions and personality-based politics”.

Moreover, there is an “institutional gap” in the governance structures as citizens, particularly the marginalized, are either not too aware, or do not participate in local development planning; selection of development schemes such as soling and sanitation; and in the budgeting processes. This means that the process through which citizens communicate their needs for development is “ad hoc” and “informal” and collective citizens’ bodies have an “anti-poor bias”.

Therefore, it is not only necessary to realign the tensions between the provincial and local government tiers; there is also a need to change the structures of local government to make it responsive to the needs of all citizens by overcoming elite bias and personality-driven factionalism. This can be done by promoting the drivers that bring down socioeconomic inequality, induce greater electoral competition, and promote “independent voting”.

The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.

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