Serious action is needed to revisit, restructure and redefine the governance structure in the country
Effective and autonomous local governments are the building blocks of a functional, transparent, accountable and functional democracy. Without local governments we cannot have meaningful democracy. Article 140-A of the Constitution states, “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.” Article 32 states, “The State shall encourage local government institutions composed of elected representatives of the areas concerned and in such institutions special representation will be given to peasants, workers and women.”
Today the people of Pakistan are facing problems like poverty, corruption, access to education and health facilities, unemployment, justice, lack of safe drinking water, poor sanitation, encroachments on public spaces and an urbanisation crisis. These issues cannot be tackled without effective local government responses and action.
Experience shows that local participation makes the solutions to even big problems more sustainable in the long term. The relationship between local public representatives and communities is based on accountability at the grassroots level. It focuses on public preferences for electoral politics, engaging the decision making process and ensuring public participation in local development and decision making processes. The absence of local governments is a major factor in the politics of deprivation in the context of fundamental rights.
Local democracy means giving people a say, at the local level, in the policies and decisions that affect their daily lives. Representative democracy is the most practical form of democracy where citizens elect candidates and political parties to make decisions for the community. Participatory democracy combines direct and representative democracy, by encouraging involvement of the marginalised, isolated or previously ignored groups including under-represented communities, minorities, women, peasants, labour and the youth.
A strong and effective local government is the best way to ensure local democracy and good governance. Local governments provide good governance and leadership to enable the communities to plan their development and provide services for local stakeholders - residents, community groups and businesses. Local governments are more effective if they are democratic.
The greater the local governments’ capacity to involve the stakeholders in decision making, the better and more sustainable those decisions are. Greater autonomy for local governments ensures greater involvement of the citizens in identifying their issues, prioritizing those and finding solutions by using the available resources effectively and efficiently. A lack of devolution of political, administrative and financial powers to local governments constrains their decision making processes and limits their ability to deal with chronic issues and providing effective services. No wonder most developed countries have chosen decentralisation of powers as their strategy for improving governance.
Local democracy requires that local government be accountable to the community and have participatory mechanisms allowing communities to take part in the decisions that most affect their quality of life. Legal and constitutional recognition are vital to protecting the fundamental principle of local democracy. Respect for this protection ensures institutional security for continuation of local democracy. Effective devolution enables the views of the local community to be expressed and taken into account. In the absence of full constitutional cover, provincial governments and the political parties heading them will continue to find ways to keep local government institutions powerless and weak, and roll back local democracy whenever it does not suit their interests.
Pakistan’s commitment to sustainable development goals (SDGs) 2015-30, especially in areas of education and health and focusing on women and girls, cannot be met without strong and independent local governments. We failed in the past to achieve the millennium development goals 2000-15 partly due to the absence of elected local governments. One of the main reasons for the current state of Covid-19 crisis is the absence of local governments. Strong local governments could have facilitated credible data collection, provision of health facilities, distribution of food, implementation of SOPs and awareness programmes.
Sadly most of the major political parties have never felt comfortable with grassroots democracy because they do not want to share power with locally elected representatives of the people. We should understand that provincial autonomy always relates with local autonomy and devolution of fiscal, political and administrative powers to the local governments. Good governance promotes accountability, transparency, efficiency and rule of law at all levels and allows efficient management of human, natural, economic and financial resources for equitable and sustainable development and ensuring civil society participation in decision making processes.
A major challenge of governance crisis in the country today is to establish effective and people-oriented local governments part of the national priorities. The process should be recognised as a joint responsibility of all the political parties. Pakistan needs to revisit, restructure and redefine its governance structure. We should learn from the other countries that have resolved similar governance issue through local government institutions.
The writer is an independent political commentator and the Executive Director at the Institute for Democratic Education & Advocacy (IDEA). He can be reached at [email protected]