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Posted February 1998

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations United Nations Capital Development FundInternational Fund for Agricultural DevelopmentGerman Agency for Technical CooperationSwiss Agency for Development and CooperationWorld Bank

16-18 December 1997
Technical Consultation on Decentralization

Patterns and Processes of Decentralization in Bangladesh: Challenges and Issues - Abstract

by Zarina Rahman Khan
University of Dhaka

1. Structure of the paper

The paper focuses on the problematics of decentralization and its current challenges in Bangladesh with a view to formulate strategies for effective and sustainable local governance for development in Bangladesh. The paper begins with a theoretical framework on decentralization followed by a section on a historical account on decentralization experience in Bangladesh. Then the paper presents a detailed analysis of the present approach to decentralization and comments on its problems and potentials in the changed national environment. Finally, the paper concludes with an optimistic note and outlines agenda for the future strategies for decentralized development.

1.1 Conceptualizing decentralization

As decentralization provokes much theoretical and conceptual debates, it demands a precise understanding for one to undertake an empirical analysis of the issues in a specific context. This section will therefore, briefly discuss various forms and organizational arrangements of decentralization with a view to construct a model for analysis and examination. Here the author will interpret and rationalize her own theoretical position on what form of decentralization is desirable for promoting and sustaining development in rural Bangladesh.

1.2. Evolution of decentralized governance in Bangladesh

Decentralization is nothing new in Bangladesh. It was a part of the state policy long before Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in December, 1997. In the late 1950s, General Ayub Khan devised a decentralization policy for rural development under the banner of the Basic Democracies System, which offered a four-tier local government reflecting a mix of deconcentration and devolution. Ostensibly, this objective of the effort was to supplement the rural development strategy of the state, which was known as the Comilla model of development, but in reality it was meant to serve the political objectives of the regime in power. In post- independence Bangladesh, as many as four decentralization strategies have been devised, i.e. the District Governorship during the Mujib era (1972-75), the Gram Sarkar during General Zia (1975-81), the Upazila system during General Ershad (1982-90) and TDCC during Khalada Zia's five year rule (1991-96). Despite professed objectives of promoting democracy and development at the lower levels all these schemes suffered from a number of weaknesses that caused, a) lack of people's participation in the rural development process; b) weak and ineffective local government system; c) failure of the government programs to promote equitable and sustainable development in rural areas.

With this in view, the paper will examine and analyse the following core issues that were missing in major decentralization programs in Bangladesh:

  1. Proper Sequencing of Decentralization Policies/ Strategies:

  2. Democratic Ingredients in Decentralization Policy Packages:

  3. Development as a Core Agenda in Decentralization Designs:

1.3. Present scenario

The events of the 1990s including the overthrow of the military regime of General Ershad through a mass upsurge culminated in a broad political consensus for democratic and participatory governance both at the central and local levels. This can be looked at as a strong potential for change leading to curtailment of the traditional bureaucratic dominance in the state policy making. However, this change in climate could not be utilized by the party which came to power Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as it failed to keep its pre-election commitments with regard to local government reforms. In addition, the state in Bangladesh during the latter part of the BNP rule has also gone through a process of political intolerance, turmoil, and violence resulting in people's distancing from the political process. The new, Awami League (AL) government's assumption of power in 1996 following a strong civil society movement in favor of democratization, has regenerated people's enthusiasm for participatory development in the process of governance.

The government has kept its commitment for designing a new decentralization policy by forming a commission representative of different quarters and through consulting people and relevant stakeholders. The Local Government Commission (1997) recommended the introduction of a four tier decentralized local government. The main thrusts of the recommendations are: directly elected council chairmen at all levels; directly elected women at all levels; strengthening of councils in terms of authority, resource base, functional boundaries, local level planning, local budgeting and implementation; provision for bureaucratic accountability to local representatives at relevant levels; constitution of a permanent statutory Local Government Commission and a Finance Committee. However, the follow up looks disturbing and confusing. Once again the conventional procedure of scrutinizing the commission report by top ranking civil servants was maintained. Secondly, the government has proved to be indecisive in bringing about democratic changes in the four tiers of local government that was recommended in the commission report. This is evident in the local government bill relating to two lowest levels i.e. Union Parishad(UP) and Gram Parishad (GP) enacted in parliament recently. In this the local government bodies to be formed seem to have lost the spirit of the Commission recommendations pertaining to elected councils at all levels with sufficient powers and resources to promote local development. Also the reform process is becoming suspect due to the unclarity in the composition and functioning of the newly introduced lowest tier of local government, i.e. village council, which may not only provide the scope for bureaucratic maneauvering (' directing authority') but also political abuse of the system.

1.4. Future agenda

After a long drawn history of pessimism and counter productive/ rhetorical decentralization experience, Bangladesh has stepped into a new era of change. The contemporary context has to be evaluated and utilised in such a manner that an effective and sustainable decentralized strategy can be drawn for peoples' empowerment and social development. The NGOs and private sector have been called for and have assumed some supplementary responsibilities of rural development. At the same time, the field bureaucracies have, to some degree, under gone a process of reorientation with regard to their roles and responsibilities in rural development. Although, they have, until recently been the strongest force in the rural setting, apparently the strong political will of the present government to put the participatory development agenda on top itself can act as a vehicle to make the administrators serve rather than rule the people.

The dream of the people of this new nation cannot be ignored anymore to be experimented with conflicting and contrasting decentralized strategies. Rather the present conducive socio-political environment should be exploited to its maximum utilization for bringing about equitable development and social justice.

The key issues to be addressed for strategizing and designing a sustained decentralization policy:

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