Decentralisation and the case of Pakistan

Decentralisation is way beyond delegating power to lower levels of government


Durdana Najam September 08, 2022
The writer is a public policy analyst based in Lahore. She tweets @durdananajam

A responsible state is one that is closer to its citizens and responsive to their local needs. In governance parlance, this structure is called decentralisation, which has proved to be the only growth model that makes a state effective and accountable. So why and when does a state become inefficient? It’s when its capacity and legitimacy to overcome institutional disorders are not addressed. There could be many reasons for that. However, the overarching cause has been the concentration of power in a few hands, popularly called the elite circle that wishes to drive the state’s machinery according to the development paradigm that serves their purpose rather than that of the citizens. World Bank and other multilateral development banks have time and again established through their research that “centrally administered bureaucracies are inefficient at allocating resources”.

Our argument is that decentralisation of power reduces inequities and the transactional cost of resources and speeds up flow of information at the local level, leading to a strong social contract between the state and its citizens. However, in many places, in Pakistan as well, these fruits of decentralisation have not been achieved. It happens because the decentralisation process is taken as the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Decentralisation is way beyond delegating power to lower levels of government. It is much larger than de-constructing power to lower levels of administrative agencies. It is even greater than devolving power to create subnational units of government. The skeleton of the meet is the fiscal, administrative and/or democratic decentralisation or devolution. No local government can function without these agencies, even those brought through free and fair elections. Therefore, control over the financial and administrative strings determines the extent to which the local representatives could implement new tasks and autonomous projects.

Various groups have viewed decentralisation differently. It has its supporters and critiques. For the supporters, including neoliberal thinkers, civil society, social welfare advocates, researchers and democracy advocates, decentralisation frees people from the clutches of the over-bloated, ineffective and corrupt central government. It decreases poverty and enhances social welfare. Last but not least, decentralisation, they argue, deepens the roots of democracy. The critiques, however, reject it on the premise that the power equation and the patron-client relationships in rural societies eventually influence the decentralisation process. To them, the devolutionary process can either lead to greater civic engagement or corruption.

The literature on decentralisation has shown it to be an effective governance tool in three areas. When implemented in conflict-driven and disaster-inflicted areas, decentralisation brought ‘political stability’ that defused tension and the sources of acrimony, such as separatist movements. Similarly, it ‘enhanced participation and democracy’ merit, but it is the third area that has been the topic of extensive debate lately. The argument goes that when the barriers to interaction between the elected representatives and their constituents are minimal, it increases ‘community engagement and enhances the prospects of ‘accountability’ of lawmakers. In short, decentralisation shifts the locus of power from the centre to the people at the local level resulting in a responsive and accountable local government.

The social contract theory emphasises state-citizen relations and, like any relation, expects it to be a two-way street. However, that is not the case, especially in less developed and developing countries, where the state is considered the only party to fit the bill. Interestingly, many literatures on the government’s response to the disaster, the latter’s relief work is considered a favour towards the citizens rather than their right. The scathing that Pakistan government is receiving in the present flooding, which is perceived to be even greater than the 2010 and 2011 floods, is constitutive of the same reasoning that lays the entire burden of lifting people from disaster on the government while bypassing the responsibility of the citizens to prepare themselves for the disaster through some self-care and development mechanisms.

This anomaly of the weak social contract between the state and its citizens in Pakistan can be traced to the absence of local governments or an effective decentralisation system even when local governments are formed. One of the most important benefits of local government, argues MV Nadkarni, N Sivanna and Lavanya Suresh in their book Democracy in India — Gandhi’s vision and Reality, “is that it makes all local people (really speaking, most people are local since they all have a given local address) realise that they are citizens with not only rights but also responsibilities; they would feel they belong somewhere, having a place which they can call their own and work for it. All means all-inclusive, including the poorest.”

Do we know if the flood-affected people in Sindh were given the head-on about the floods? Do we know the representatives at the local level were curious to see if the people were prepared to face the monsoon onslaught, which the Minister for Climate Change, Sherry Rehman, had said in April would be harsh and unmerciful? Why is it that, unlike other countries, disasters in Pakistan fail to bring the state and its citizens closer? These questions and many like them need an answer before institutional disorder takes a toll on the state.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2022.

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