Today’s world is totally different from that of the 20th century. There is increased democracy, a growing trend towards urbanisation, an increasingly interconnected world (through globalisation), and a revolution of information and communication technologies. All these major transformations demand new patterns of government organisation: a more decentralised governance system. We cannot run modern-day businesses through old practices.
Many developing countries have already adapted to these transformations and have been successful in designing and implementing different aspects of decentralised governance systems in their own socio-economic and political contexts. Some developing countries are about to join the race of the developed world. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula for decentralisation. Different countries can have different trajectories of decentralisation according to their country’s socio-political scenario. However, a bonafide decentralisation has three major components which include deconstruction, delegation and devolution. The question that may arise in one’s mind is: why does a country need decentralisation?
The answer is that the people at the local level want to take decisions on their own and true decentralisation allows people to decide their fate. Decentralisation produces creative and good leadership. When you empower local leaders, they come up with innovative local innovations and solutions. It increases the capacity for development and reduces corruption. Political devolution can have a positive impact on the accountability of a government and the sustainability of the democratic process. Moreover, it promotes public service delivery, increases political participation and spurs economic growth.
Pakistan has a very interesting history of local governance. The country has witnessed three local government systems since 1959. Each time, attempts for decentralisation were made in the era of military governments, whether it was the time of General Ayub Khan or General Ziaul Haq or General Pervez Musharraf. Military dictators’ love for local governments might be explained by their wish to get larger public support to prolong their reign. However, all these attempts to decentralise governance ended in failure because there has been no clear devolution of powers.
The irony is that the local government system never flourished under political governments. This is, perhaps, due to fragile political conditions throughout the 68 years of independence and a dearth of political leadership. After colonial rule, we inherited strong bureaucratic institutions and weak representative institutions, where public officials have only had a limited role to play. After independence, a strong patron-client relationship between the bureaucracy and the military establishment also weakened political institutions. Pakistan had almost 35 years of military dictatorship and while the bureaucracy ruled, political parties continued to dither.
That is not to say that only bad things happened. Pakistan has good stories to tell, too. The 1973 Constitution, the 2009 National Finance Commission Award and the 18th constitutional amendment are some major landmark events which strengthened democracy and the federation. And all this happened during the rule of democratic governments.
Furthermore, for the first time in the political history of Pakistan, we had a smooth political dispensation and transfer of power in the May 2013 general elections. Political stability has strengthened the democratic culture. Now, Pakistan is heading towards achieving another milestone by holding local government elections, as a third-tier of administration, throughout the country by the end of this year, hopefully. This devolution of power at the local level would definitely steer the country to the next level of prosperity, growth and development. For that, mobilising political support and ownership at the national level for strengthening local governments is the need of the hour.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2015.