How the Lack of Accountable Local Government Holds Back Democracy and Development in Pakistan

Pakistan_tehsils

Some of Pakistan’s districts — where administrative power is concentrated — contain more than a million people.

Fayyaz Bhidal is a CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellow at the Atlantic Council

If one were to number the challenges Pakistan faces today, one may end up with an exhaustive list of issues ranging from poor security to faltering economic growth, rising crimes to social unrest, corruption to political instability, among others. A closer look at these problems, however, will reveal that a great deal of these issues stem from poor governance and the centralization of political and administrative powers on the part of both provinces and federal government.

Take Punjab for example. A province that is spread over 79,284 square miles and houses of over 100 million individuals, it is divided into 36 administrative units called districts. Despite having a democratically elected political establishment in the provincial center, Lahore, the districts are governed and administered by senior bureaucrats known as Deputy Commissioners (DCs). This position is a legacy of the colonial era and emulates a system with highly concentrated power, allowing no say to the local communities in decision making process.

For a district governance system that is “administrative” in nature, there is little room for “development” to take place. Due to the concentration of power, the community and social development decisions are made by the provincial government, rather than the local communities. With no direct accountability to grassroots communities, the provincial governments spend development funds to strengthen their voter base in favoring constituencies, while depriving the regions that belong to opposing electorates.

According to a study – The unchanging profile of development: a historical study of the Punjab 1961-2008 – there is a clear north-south developmental divide in Punjab. The divide is so deep that ‘the socioeconomic conditions prevailing in 1961 (in South Punjab) seem to persist even today’. The unequal division of resources and an unjust agenda of development in Punjab has fueled high rates of unemployment in the province and has provided a breeding ground for insurgents to draw their human resources from the region.

Sadly, other provinces of the country do not necessarily exhibit a different picture. After about nine years since the last local government elections were held, all the provinces, except for Baluchistan, have failed to enact a local government system. A direct effect of this failure is that people’s access to public service delivery has decreased, living standards have declined, and poverty has risen.

An allegation leveled by opponents of local government systems in Pakistan is that such systems are overtly corrupt. On the contrary, they say, while centralized governance and administrative systems are less efficient, they are far less corrupt. While these allegations are not completely wrong, part of the problem lies with the entrenched central administrative systems where, due to lack of clear legislation on distribution of power, fights between local political representatives and DCs continue.

However, with direct accountability at the hands of communities, if local governments are allowed to work, the prevalence of corruption will gradually decrease while effectiveness of these governments in efficient public service delivery will improve. But if power mechanisms continue to be overly centralized, people will be unable to distinguish between a democratic or dictatorial regime, and this will eventually reduce their faith in democracy. Thus, the prevalence and sustainability of local government systems is not only necessary for the development of the grassroots communities, but also crucial for the sustainability of fledgling democracy in the country.

CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellowship brings talented young professionals with strong research backgrounds to shadow researchers and experts at leading U.S. think tanks for six months. Fayyaz Bhidal is part of the Fellowship, serving at the Atlantic Council

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