Towards meaningful devolution

By Jamil Nasir

THE Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC) recently launched its report with the title Devolution and Human Development in Pakistan. The report, inter alia, has analysed the impact of the devolution plan on the poor and marginalised sections of society.

The finding of the report is that the system of local government introduced in 2001 in the country is plagued with the phenomenon of ‘elite capture’ and has not delivered well on enhancing the participation of ‘the voiceless and the marginalised’ sections of society in decision-making. The report further says that the influence of family, caste, tribe and other political affiliations permeates the fabric of local government institutions with the result that the political landscape of Pakistan is still dominated by the elite.

The idea of devolution per se is globally recognised as an effective arrangement for empowering people at the local level. Many countries in the world have either undertaken or are in the process of devolution by transferring political, fiscal and administrative responsibilities to the lower levels of the government. In some countries, devolution is considered a natural corollary to democratisation while in others it is spurred by the failure of the central government to deliver basic public services.

Devolution is premised on the principle that all decisions by the state concerning its citizens and those related to their social environment should be taken at the grassroots level with the citizens enjoying a high range of freedom and autonomy in decision making at the local level. It is primarily a social process and matures with time.

In order to translate the concept of devolution into real empowerment of people, certain building blocks are of paramount importance in the context of Pakistan. The first and primary ingredient is the supremacy of the rule of law, which guarantees the equality of all citizens before law and thus forms the basic foundation of the social contract between the state and its citizenry.

Historically, the poor people are caught up in a ‘dependency culture’ as the colonial authorities preempted the empowerment of the common man by incorporating tribal and local elites into the power game as junior partners. Over time this power paradigm transformed itself into impregnable fiefdoms in which ‘dividends’ were amassed by the minority at the cost of the majority. This created a ‘dependency culture’, an outcome of extreme helplessness and a sense of insecurity among the marginalised sections of the society.

So in order to seek access to the service delivery at the local level and escape the coercive apparatus of local administration, the poor and marginalised sections of society were compelled to look up to the local elite. This situation is still persisting today. There is a need for moving beyond this inherently disempowering relationship which has led to the domination of the elite and is a major hindrance to successful devolution. It calls for a redefinition of the relationship between the elite and the common man strictly within the ambit of the rule of law. The state institutions need to be sensitised to the rights, dignity and self-respect of a common man. The dominant perception that the local government institutions are handmaidens of the local elite should be dispelled by taking concrete steps by creating public awareness about social, political and economic rights.

The second building block for meaningful devolution of power is the economic empowerment of the people especially the marginalised sections of society by facilitating their access to resources and economic opportunities. Traditionally, lack of ‘initial conditions’ like literacy, human capital and equitable access to resources has hindered the development and empowerment of people. The economic policies adopted since independence have resulted in an ‘elitist economy’ where key resources were concentrated in the hands of a small minority.

The marginalised sections of society have limited choices available to them resulting in a daily struggle to simply survive. The limited employment opportunities, lack of basic economic and financial services, and limited recourse to state-sponsored system of justice make it almost impossible for them to participate in the local decision-making process that affects their life in ways more than one. The people suffer from acute inequality in terms of power to change their lives and escape poverty.

It is thus imperative that effective measures are taken to empower them economically to make devolution a real success. Addressing the basic issues like illiteracy, poor health facilities and human resource development can go a long way in causing the empowerment of the people. The third important ingredient to counter the challenge of elite capture is the presence of a vibrant civil society. A vigorous civil society is considered a symbol of democratic and pluralistic values. Rural participation for political and social construction of civil society is equally crucial to achieve the aims of devolution. So there is a need to thicken the civil society by increasing its outreach to the grass roots level.

Another important requisite for empowerment is the broad based participation of people in the decision-making processes. The system of elections is a globally recognised practice to broaden the level of people’s participation in governance matters. The poor people are not well organised and remain unable to articulate their choices and interests due to several handicaps. Social mobilisation can be a proactive policy instrument to bring about the articulation of collective interest. Effective participation in local governance and giving a voice to ‘the traditionally voiceless’ can thus be achieved through wide scale social mobilisation.

Steps like fixing quotas for women, peasants and labourers in local bodies, though well intentioned, have not delivered on the promise in empowering them. It is merely a number game and cannot be a substitute for massive social mobilisation. It is, thus, required that social awakening is created among the disenfranchised components of the local community to avert elite capture of the state institutions.

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