Local Bodies: A Safeguard

Between 2010 and 2023, all provinces and the federal capital, Islamabad, experie-nced significant gaps in the continuity of local governance.

From bustling metropolises to remote rural communities, the estab­lishment and empowerment of local bodies have proven to be a com­pelling recipe for maintaining both economic prosperity and na­tional security. Across the globe, numerous countries have embraced this approach, witnessing first-hand the transformative impact it can have on their socio-economic fabric and security architecture. From the decentralised governance models of Brazil and Germany to the community policing initiatives in Japan and Colombia, local bod­ies have emerged as linchpins in the intricate machinery of gov­ernance, driving progress and resilience at the grassroots level.

Pippa Norris, a renowned political scientist and a professor at Harvard, has comprehensively discussed the role of local body sys­tems in good governance, democratic values, and ensuring human se­curity within societies in her book “Making Democratic Governance Work”. Norris cites the example of Brazil’s Porto Allegre local government which empowered the community to actively engage in decision-making processes, leading to more inclusive and transparent governance. By devolving power to the grassroots level, local body systems contribute to the consolidation of democratic norms and values, as citizens become directly involved in shap­ing policies that affect their daily lives. Moreover, Norris argues that effective local governance enhances human security by addressing socio-economic disparities, promoting social cohesion, and facilitating the delivery of essen­tial services such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure development.

Additionally, local bodies play a crucial role in addressing community-specific issues due to their proximity and understanding of local needs. This understanding and perspective of the local needs cannot truly be realised by the provincial or federal governments. By being close to the ground, they can swiftly respond to challenges that affect residents directly. For instance, during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the local government in Lagos played an instrumental role in mobilising residents to implement preventive mea­sures and raise awareness about the disease, contributing to the contain­ment of the outbreak before it could spread any further.

However, despite extensive available research on the benefits of local bod­ies, numerous attempts at decentralisation by different dictatorial regimes in Pakistan, and the constitutional obligation imposed after the 18th amend­ment to establish and empower local governments in Pakistan, the country has failed to implement a well-functioning system of local governments. Be­tween 2010 and 2023, all provinces and the federal capital, Islamabad, expe­rienced significant gaps in the continuity of local governance. For instance, Punjab had local governments for only two years (2017–18), Sindh for six years (2016–20 and 2023), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for six years (2017–20 and 2022–23), Balochistan for six years (2016–20 and 2023), and Islamabad for five years (2016–21). Even during periods when local governments were es­tablished, their functionality often remained nominal, failing to fully empow­er local authorities. This intentional haphazard implementation of decen­tralisation is emblematic of how colonial patronage-based political designs significantly impact the ruling elite of our country to this day, preventing it from benefiting truly from the decentralisation.

Initially, the British introduced local governments in India as a means of co-opting the native elite, establishing representative bodies with limited pow­ers. However, these structures were designed in a top-down manner, with members nominated by the British bureaucracy rather than elected locally. Consequently, the Deputy Commissioner (DC) emerged as the central figure, wielding significant authority at the local level. This system fostered a culture of patronage, where local elites were co-opted and entrenched through selec­tive but extensive patronage networks. Post-independence, this patron-client relationship continued, as political elites tried to maintain control over local municipalities to serve their interests. As a result, the implementation of ef­fective and autonomous local government systems has faced substantial chal­lenges in Pakistan, with bureaucratic influence often prevailing over genuine local representation and empowerment. Tackling the patron-client system that inhibits local government in Pakistan is a daunting task, primarily due to the lack of political will among the political elite and the deeply entrenched bureaucracy, both of which are the beneficiaries of the status quo. Nonethe­less, addressing these vested interests is crucial for the prosperity of Pakistan.

The smooth functioning of local government is paramount for weaken­ing the grip of the extractive status quo. To achieve this, several key sugges­tions should be considered. Initially, it is imperative to safeguard local gov­ernments from provincial interference through constitutional protection, ensuring their autonomy and continuity. Concurrently, mandating sched­uled local elections and empowering local governments to establish their own rules of business is essential to uphold democratic legitimacy.

Furthermore, there is a need to delink provincial government responsi­bilities in municipal affairs from legislative functions, ultimately abolish­ing such overlap. The exclusive allocation of development funds to local governments is pivotal to curbing corruption and fostering genuine repre­sentation. This must be coupled with financial devolution to empower lo­cal authorities further. Finally, municipal bureaucracy should be made di­rectly accountable to the mayor to bolster accountability.

Zaheen Qureshi
The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at info@casslhr.com

Zaheen Qureshi
The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at info@casslhr.com

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