In Bangladesh, local government institutions especially the Union Parishads (UP) have limited functional jurisdiction and capacity in delivering services in the areas such as, health, agriculture and education to the local communities. Even if, UPs in some of these areas have functional responsibilities cannot undertake them because of lack of financial and human resources including capacity.
As a result, services at the UP level are overwhelmingly delivered by the line agencies of the central government. This has also been a historical legacy of the colonial days. But over the years, the service delivery situation at the local level deteriorated resulting in widespread dissatisfaction of the service recipients. Of various reasons, it is widely argued that lack of local level accountability is the most important reason for such state of affairs. There also exists a popular belief among the UP representatives and functionaries as well local people that the UPs, in particular, have no role in service delivery.
An examination as to the powers and functions of the UPs with regard to delivery of services at the local level reveals that the UP can monitor the service delivery functions of the concerned agencies of the government functioning within their Unions and report on those. The UPs are also empowered to constitute a stipulated number of Standing Committees on different subjects including service delivery functions. In addition, UPs may also constitute, if necessary, more committees with prior permission. Here it may be mentioned that a Standing Committee is constituted with 5 to 7 members and is headed by an elected member. The Committee can co-opt citizens but such members do not have voting rights.
Standing Committees meet every two months. The functions of the Standing Committees include monitoring the activities of service providers and reporting them to the UP.
Keeping these potentials of the UPs role and functions of improving service delivery in mind, it is perceived that functional Standing Committees can serve at least two purposes. Firstly, supervision and monitoring by the UP Standing Committees will ensure delivery of better or improved services as these will ensure local level accountability of the central government’s service delivery departments and secondly, it will also establish and institutionalize UPs’ role beyond the currently perceived traditional roles and functions and establish its local level supervisory role of the functions and activities of the government’s service delivery departments and their functionaries. The activating and strengthening of the Standing Committees will lead to a number of positive impacts in the area of services delivery. Some of the impacts as could be envisaged will include improvement especially with respect to education in the form of rise in attendance of the students and teacher in the schools; the schools would maintain schedule time in opening and closing of the school; they will increasingly complying with prescribed criterion in distributing stipends (Upabritti) to the students; the Health Assistants attendance to local health centers will register improvement; local health centers would be open more regularly than before; the Sub Assistant Agriculture Officers (SAAOs) of the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) will be more visible in the villages helping the farmers. There could be two perceived reasons for the above mentioned improvements in service delivery situation.
The system would develop awareness and caution among the extension workers of the service delivery department that their activities are now being monitored by the UPs and these could be reported to the higher authorities at least at the Upazila level. The other reason may be that in many cases the UP chairmen would discuss the findings of the monitoring with extension officials working at the Union level and controlling officials at the Upazila level. Positive responses from them will contribute in improving the delivery of different services. Activities concerning the Standing Committees, such as, meetings to select community representatives for co-option to Standing Committees, orientation meetings on monitoring and overseeing and above all visits to different local level offices and institutions of service delivery departments to monitor their functions and activities will develop an awareness among the community members in general that the services of government agencies are subject to overseeing and monitoring by their elected representatives. The other awareness that would be developed among the community members that the local community has a role in monitoring service delivery functions of the various government agencies. The process of activating the Standing Committees will also help in developing capacity of them. The UPs will get accustomed in constituting Standing Committees by ensuring community participation; overseeing and monitoring the functions and activities of the service delivery departments working within their Unions.
This will also help in developing a fruitful and mutually beneficial relationship between the UPs and the local communities. They would have meaningful and mutually beneficial experiences in working together in the Standing Committees to pursue and safeguard their common interests of better delivery of services. Above discussion suggests that the Union Parishads in Bangladesh should take pro active initiatives to constitute and make functional the Standing Committees for their own benefits as well as for the benefits of the communities that they represent. In the long run, it will help them to earn more credibility and respect as a local government institution.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude.)
The writer is the Professor and Chairman, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh