The glaring local government gap

National-level policy agendas require local implementation in order to successfully meet their aims

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has famously argued that famines cannot occur in functioning democracies. He explains that democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have a strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes”.

While pandemics are obviously quite different from famines, it would not be too far-fetched to use the essence of Sen’s assertion in order to argue that Pakistan’s Covid-19 response would have benefited from the presence of empowered local governments.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has placed great emphasis on the impact of lockdowns on the poor every time he has addressed the nation. Have the federal government’s strategies reflected this concern?

In order to provide financial relief to the deprived sections of the society, BISP’s existing data is being used to provide funds to approximately 5 million families. PTI-led government’s Ehsaas programme does not seem to have fresh data yet and is, instead, relying on self-registrations for emergency cash transfers.

Along with this, a national relief fund has been set up. The inadequacy of data is clearly an issue here that will influence the effectiveness of welfare policies.

The strategies currently in place have not been successful in reaching out to daily wage workers, resulting in the eruption of community-led efforts to provide rations to those in dire need.

However, while some citizens have responded with empathy, others have advised their friends in the DHAs to start carrying weapons in case the poor decide to come rob them (evidenced by messages and voice notes circulating on WhatsApp).

The fact that the conditions of the most financially vulnerable sections of the society are deteriorating is not news to anyone. Could these conditions be avoided by providing better governance?

Elected governments in Pakistan have consistently failed to facilitate local governments. This tier of governance has suffered due to bureaucratic and provincial reluctance to cede power, combined with instability of tenures. In present times, one cannot help but wonder how different our relief efforts could have been in the presence of elected local councils.

Though every government in power has tried to pass new legislation related to local governments, these attempts have seldom been successful in installing functioning local governments. The most recent of these attempts is the Local Government Act of 2019 which strives to empower elected officials and provide wider room for administrative and financial autonomy when it comes to decision-making.

However, its implementation still raises questions with regard to how power and authority will be shared between the city council and the bureaucracy.

Perhaps reforms in local government laws should be accompanied by reforms in the bureaucratic culture, in order to promote an attitude of professionalism where individuals are made aware of where their jurisdiction lies, and encouraged to build cooperative partnerships.

It is not enough to have local government institutions for the sake of having them; what we require is sustained efforts to ensure their effective functioning, autonomy and empowerment. Nothing makes this clear better than the example of Sindh.

It is not enough to have local governments for the sake of having them; what we require is sustained efforts to ensure their effective functioning, autonomy and empowerment. Nothing reinforces this better than the example of Sindh.

It is quite early to claim any absolute correlation, but Sindh does seem to be benefiting from the presence of a local government system, albeit not an exemplary one. Provincial government still seems to be responsible for running the municipal operations of Karachi which makes little sense from a governance standpoint.

While union councils along with bureaucratic entities are being used for distribution of rations, the decision making power continues to be concentrated at provincial level.

In the Punjab, the logistical dependence seems to be on district administration. Recently, a notification was issued to declare that the union councils will cease to exist after May 1, till new local governments are elected. The prospect of elections seems unlikely any time in the near future. The mayor of Lahore, Mubashar Javaid, and other UC representatives have expressed their concern and dismay regarding this decision.

This brings us back to Sen: can a bureaucracy be as effective in relief efforts as the elected representatives? It should be noted that in the process of gathering votes and campaigning, a representative becomes far better acquainted with the dynamics of the locality than a civil servant or even a provincial representative could ever be. This familiarity would inevitably be useful when it comes to determining necessity and eligibility of disbursements.

Consumption of American popular culture has made us more familiar with the figure of a mayor than the institutions around us. Does it not seem intuitively worrisome that megacities, such as Lahore and Karachi are primarily controlled by provincial governments instead of local representatives?

Coronavirus has brought many vulnerabilities of Pakistan to the surface and ineffective governance is one of them. For a country as densely populated as ours, local governments have to be integral to mitigating the adverse impact of a lockdown on food security.

National-level policy agendas require local implementation in order to successfully meet their aims. The consequences of this vacuum are being felt more acutely than ever before during this pandemic.

The writer is an urban policy enthusiast and a student of politics and economics at LUMS. She tweets @Shehreeen

The glaring local government gap