Local Governments in Pakistan: Challenges and Way Forward

Local Governments in Pakistan Challenges and Way Forward by Quratulain Babar

Local Governments in Pakistan | Daily Writeup | Opinions

The article is written by Quratulain Babar, a student of Sir Syed Kazim Ali.

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Outline

1- Introduction
2- Responsibilities of Local Governments in Pakistan
3- Local Governments in Pakistan: A Critical Analysis

4- Challenges Faced by the Local Governments in Pakistan

  • ✓Incomplete devolution of power
  • ✓Lack of autonomy
  • ✓Dearth of managerial skills

5- How to Improve Local Government System in Pakistan

  • ✓The constitutional protection of local governments
  • ✓More responsible political elite
  • ✓Greater monitoring and evaluation of local governments

6- Conclusion

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Answer to the Question

Introduction

Being the third tier of the government, local government is the cornerstone of a country’s overall progress. Likewise, in the case of Pakistan, it not only bears the responsibility to ensure the implementation of federal policies but also plays a crucial role in aiding the actualization of international commitments for achieving sustainable development. Nonetheless, there are many obstructions to the smooth functioning of the local governments in the country. For instance, incomplete devolution of power, lack of autonomy, and absence of administrative capacity. However, by taking certain practical measures, local governments can be empowered. These measures include amendments to the Constitution and increased monitoring of the local governments.

Responsibilities of Local Governments Pakistan

Of the functions allocated to local government by the provincial governments, urban councils, in particular, are expected to perform a set of compulsory functions. In addition, an optimal set of functions is also delegated to the lower tier, which, as the name suggests, may or may not be performed by the local governments. These services include making link and intra-urban roads, installing street lights, solid waste management, firefighting, building parks and playgrounds, providing preventive health care, establishing farm-to-market roads, and ensuring water supply, drainage, and sewerage.

Local Governments in Pakistan: A Critical Analysis

The trajectory of local government in Pakistan, in many interesting and critical ways, emerges as an interesting case study which runs against the grain of many of the patterns observed across the globe. To elaborate, there have been three substantive interventions – the Basic Democracies of the 1960s, the Local Government System under the Local Government Ordinance 1979, and the Devolution Plan of 2001 – in Pakistan’s decentralization and devolution process and structure since 1947. While all three differ substantially in substance and structure, they share many similarities, most importantly in intention. Moreover, the fact that all three attempts at local government reform in the form of decentralization and devolution have been undertaken not just by undemocratic, unrepresentative, unelected governments but by the three military governments, which have taken power through force gives the narrative in Pakistan a very different twist compared to other experiences. The irony of the history of local government reform in Pakistan has been that the three military governments, which have ruled Pakistan directly for 33 of its 75 years since independence, have aggressively supported this devolution process. On the other hand, all the elected governments have consciously undermined this tier of government.

Challenges faced by the Local Governments in Pakistan

Numerous hurdles impede the functioning of local governments in the country, and these are discussed below.

Incomplete Devolution of Power

First, local governments have never been a formal part of the Constitution. Although amendment 140A to the Constitution based on the Legal Framework Order of 2002 required provinces to establish and empower the local governments, it did not recognize local government formally as the third tier of the state. To illustrate, Article 140A states, ”Each province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative, and functional responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.”. It refers to the fact that under this law, local governments are not given constitutional protection, which is necessary for their empowerment.

Lack of Autonomy

Second, local governments have never experienced complete autonomy within their respective jurisdiction. In this regard, I. A. Rehman’s article discussed numerous amendments to the LGO 2001 for the 2005 elections. He showed that the provincial chief ministers were given further powers to dismiss the elected Nazims, curtailing their powers through these amendments. Moreover, it is widely believed that the political elite views local bodies as potential challengers to their political dominance and a diluting factor for their political grip in the constituencies. This negative approach towards local governments impedes their growth.

The shortage of Managerial and Administrative Capacity

Third, local governments in Pakistan have never been empowered through finances and capacity building. For instance, local government has never given sufficient finances to run their administration. It is evident from the country’s revenue-sharing practices since its formation. To illustrate, provincial governments used to have access to revenue-deficit grants from federal governments that bailed them out when they fell short of funds. Surprisingly, no such general grant-in-aid from provincial to local governments existed. Further, local governments cannot do what they are expected to do because they do not have the managerial skills. This contributed to their recruitment in a corrupt manner. It is resulting in their malfunctioning, leading to poor service delivery.

How to Improve Local Government System in Pakistan

There is a dire need to counter the challenges to local governments in the country, and certain measures should be considered for this purpose.

The Constitutional Protection of Local Government

First, the devolution of power to local governments should be materialized in true letter and spirit. This will empower the local government by giving them constitutional protection. This can be achieved by including a sub-clause in Article 140A of the Constitution that calls for a stipulated tenure for local bodies and binds provinces to conduct regular local government elections just after the completion of their tenure. This measure would give constitutional authority to the third tier of the government, making it an integral part of the government.

More Responsible Political Elite

Further, for local governments to work more effectively, higher tiers of government must have more confidence in them and relinquish effective control. Moreover, a meaningful desire for devolution and decentralization should incorporate devolving power and resources from the federal to the provincial level so that an effective local government under the provincial government can work productively. After the 18th Amendment, the onus is on the provincial governments to develop their local governments.

Greater Monitoring and Evaluation of Local Governments

In addition, there is a need for greater monitoring of local governments by citizens and research organizations outside the government. This can be done by drawing up some generic measures of ‘best practices’ against which one can assess the performance of other local governments. In this consideration, an institution (or long-term research agenda) can monitor the performance of a selection of district governments against a set of measurable criteria underlining achievement and failure and publicizing the results on media as a sort of local government watchdog. This research could identify specific gaps in local governance that need to be worked on.

Conclusion

To cut a long story short, there are many hindrances in forming a coherent local government system in Pakistan. For example, the local government system has no constitutional recognition. In addition, the political elite is unwilling to delegate the powers to the lower level. And the lack of managerial skills in the local governments makes the matter worse. Undoubtedly, it is time to take concrete measures to introduce a pragmatic local government system. Local governments can be strengthened by giving constitutional recognition to local governments and introducing mechanisms for their monitoring. Unless substantial steps are taken to improve the local government system, it will continue to be ineffective. 

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