Cricket and the English language are not the only legacies of colonial rule that we love. The legacy of centralised and weak participatory governance is even more embedded in our society. Daron Acemoglu, the author of Why Nations Fail, famously made an argument that colonial regimes established authoritative and extractive institutions in the regions where they had not settled (South Asia and Africa) while institutions were citizen-centric in the regions where they had planned to settle (Australia and Canada). And many of the countries continue to operate with the same colonial institutions — albeit with modifications. Pakistan’s strong reliance on bureaucratic governance and central political leadership is, probably, a manifestation of the colonial legacy.
Despite an international appreciation for local governments (LG) given the possibilities of bottom-up economic and social development they offer, Pakistan is known for a history of intermittently established, weak and ineffective LGs, akin to taking one step forward and two steps back on the road to more participative governance. Military regimes formed LGs to legitimise their authority but those were rolled back whenever politicians regained government. There were great expectations after the passage of the 18th Amendment and the 7th National Finance Commission Award in 2009 that LGs will be strengthened more than they were during the Musharraf era but this remains a distant dream as their financial and administrative autonomy has been curtailed in the latest episode of establishing LGs. Till today, LGs have either not been operationalised in many regions/cities or are struggling for finances and defining their jurisdictions. Generally, reporting of district administration to the provincial bureaucracy and particularly, the establishment of district education and health authorities in Punjab have made LGs virtually redundant. Shahid Kardar, in a research paper, voiced the same concern in 2001: “Since provincial governments view their authority being weakened, the structure and scope of devolution is likely to change with the exit of Pervez Musharraf from the political scene, whenever it takes place.” And that is what has happened with provincial governments having concentrated resources and powers instead of sharing them with local governments. A question worth exploring is, why has this happened?
The public choice tradition in economics explains that politicians, bureaucrats and influential voters promote their interests instead of pursuing collective welfare. To some extent, this can be a plausible reason behind the formation of weak and ineffective LGs. Political parties, the bureaucracy, and influential voters are presumably more comfortable in a centralised system instead of devolving authority and power to LGs as they all are beneficiaries in the former. Recently, through a detailed and rigorous analysis, Dr Sabrin Beg, an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Delaware, has explained that politicians in Pakistan use public and private exchanges with their voters during elections.
Moreover, bureaucrats prefer to rule at district, city and town levels instead of giving a chance to local politicians, and accordingly develop inappropriate local government designs through a nexus with politicians. There are also arguments related to incapacity and corruption of local politicians. To some extent, voters find alliances with politicians ruling at the centre a comfortable arrangement, in case their rivals are elected in powerful LGs and create difficulties for them. Another plausible reason of weak LGs may be a conflict of interest. Since local governance legislation is developed and passed by provincial assemblies, what incentive do they have to transfer their power to LGs? “Local governments are ineffective not so much due to their own fault but due to the way they have been treated by the higher echelons of government,” wrote S Akbar Zaidi in his article in Economic and Political Weekly in 1996.
Nevertheless, it is commonly remarked that lower levels of education and fragile democratic practices are not conducive to effective LGs. There is a belief that elite capture is more concentrated in LGs than at higher tiers. Arif Hassan wrote a piece in this newspaper in 2011 in which he reported the results of a union council level survey, which stated that the people of Pakistan “prefer Musharraf’s (LG) system as compared to the old bureaucratic one”. But he also pointed out nepotism, corruption and biased infrastructure development during that time. Another perspective focuses on the strong and coordinated role of central governments in a developing country like Pakistan. Devolved and uncoordinated systems of multi-level governance create problems even in developed countries. In a recent survey that I administered, in which over 80 per cent of respondents voted, it was found that politicians and bureaucrats deliberately establish weak and ineffective LGs as they don’t want to share resources and authority.
Countries around the world from the US to Europe and India have been reforming institutional architectures and mandates of LGs in order to make them more effective and accountable. It’s true that local governance evolves through iteration, which has not been allowed in the case of Pakistan, particularly by democratic governments. There is considerable evidence suggesting that citizens’ engagement through local governance encourages inclusive ownership and responsibility in a society — promising better service delivery, trust and economic gains.
Let me share an analogy from sports, discussed in a recent podcast conversation (Soch Bichar), between Dr Nadeemul Haque and Dr Ali Cheema about the importance of LGs. “Isn’t it better to have one captain of the team instead of many?” Dr Nadeem probes to which the latter replies that we need to understand that there is not one team in the country; each city and town has its own team but we want to have one captain for all teams, which is not feasible and effective.
Finally, an oft-neglected fact is that LGs are nurseries that can nurture political maturity and democratisation — scarce at the moment. Due to an absence of effective LGs, most of our leadership has made its way into politics through insidious connections or has secured late-age entry after garnering fame in other walks of life.