Thursday March 30, 2023

Leave it to the local system

April 03, 2020

Had the PTI stayed committed to put in place an effective local government, Punjab alone would have the following grassroots structures with financial and administrative autonomy: 22,000 village governments (which means over one million grassroots dedicated volunteers connected with the state authorities in Punjab alone); 9 autonomous metropolitan governments (with almost close to provincial-level capacities); 150 tehsil governments; and 222 municipal/town governments with 182 municipal committees and 40 town committees).

Despite the prime minister’s strong desire to have local government elections, the PTI provincial governments have been dragging their feet in announcing local government elections even in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the need was immense (even before Covid-19) due to the Fata merger and where the communities needed the state’s reach and effectiveness most.

Now the prime minister has rightly pointed out that people below the poverty line will suffer even to feed their families during the lockdown. The prime minister seems to be aware of the limitations of government structure to reach every household. In rural areas below the tehsil, the government’s outreach services are extremely weak and will need additional support.

That is where the government is coming with the idea of a youth-led ‘tiger force’ to manage such a delivery. But we already have seen the failed experience of such federal volunteer forces (Khidmat Committees in 1999) and National Volunteer Movement in 2005. The latter is specifically being discussed here as a case because it had a formal structure and a ministry and was run for a few years before being shelved.

The National Volunteer Movement was the first ever autonomous agency meant to deal with formal volunteerism in the country. Before that, the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD), a government body, used volunteerism first as a programme and then as an approach in their own sectorial program delivery. In the beginning, the creation of a specialized volunteer recruitment agency at the national level, in a disaster affected area when it was most needed, seemed like a step towards advancing the cause of volunteerism not only in the immediate emergency but in everyday circumstances as well.

Established under the Ministry of Youth and led by its then young and ambitious minister Mohammed Ali Durrani, the NVM offered a practical scheme for volunteer involvement in the ongoing rehabilitation work. The scheme was timely, and the need was already established from the field data that donors were receiving. With the government’s active backing, donors readily accepted the establishment of the agency. Minister Durrani had some prior experience working with the youth as president of Pasbaan, a youth organization working on social issues, which had helped him quickly develop and implement the idea.

By 2008, three years after the creation of the organization, the experience of the NVM illustrated how an excellent idea, well executed in a time of emergency, could slowly lose its effectiveness once life returns to normal. The NVM worked extremely well in the initial phase of its creation, mobilizing a very large number of volunteers and deputing them to important tasks like working as camp administrators, sewage disposal teams, coordinating and providing essential utilities like water and electricity, first aid teams, trauma alleviation teams etc. but as the guard changed and the NVM transferred from the hands of the Ministry of Youth to the interior ministry, the project is struggling to maintain its performance standards across the entire range of areas which fall within its stated mission.

The NVM’s initial conception placed it primarily as an agency that coordinates between various governmental and non-governmental agencies, and civil society organizations including bar councils, scouts and medical organizations.

The concept of volunteerism in government structures was extremely new and in order to develop the necessary protocols and implementation strategies, as well as provide technical support for volunteerism across state agencies, the NVM needed professionals with experience in the development and voluntary sector, and a strong understanding of the working of the civil society. Instead, the NVM was staffed mostly with regular government officers and leadership with limited links to the necessary sectors and a shallow understanding of their job.

The organization became ineffective and eventually was dissolved by 2008-9 with almost no legacy organization or strategy to promote voluntary structures in government.

Nawaz Sharif’s creation of Khidmat committees, another federal initiative, to put in place nominated volunteers to work as accountability oversight bodies were also a non-starter when the members started showing high-headedness in raiding private businesses and properties. Nawaz had made a passionate speech when he had launched them. However, like NVM the force could not really deliver due to differences in federal vs provincial setups, elected MPs reservations but above all lack of coordination mechanism between the new Khidmat committees and the bureaucracy.

Broadly, the government should refrain from creating a federal volunteerism force and must depend upon local government structures wherever they exist to become both an organizing force as well as an outreach forum which can actually work with local administration. In Sindh, local government exists but in Punjab the local government elections are delayed again whereas the older local government structures were dissolved. They could be revised. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the local governments’ term has finished but in such an emergency situation they could also be revived and extended for a year through an ordinance.

The federal government has no capacity to manage volunteers. They should outsource this function to the Rural Support Programme Network ( a joint body of eight government controlled rural support programmes) to design and deliver such a programme including coordination with local governments. RSPN supported rural support programmes have presence in 150 districts. Other important NGOs like Akhuwat, Ghazali Trust, Edhi and others can be given a role as well.

The writer is the country representative of DemocracyReport International.