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Untitled Document
Local Government and Power Dynamics
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, September 04, 2003

The government’s experiment in the “Devolution of Power” while being elegant in concept is getting shabby treatment in practice. A contention for power is taking place between the provincial bureaucracy and elected district government officials, that threatens to paralyze the effective functioning of local government and defeat the purpose for which it was created. In this article we will examine the crisis of local government in the context of the nature and dynamics of power in Pakistan.

The idea of decentralizing governance is drawn from social science theory stretching back to the age of enlightenment (exemplified by political thinkers such as Hume and Turgot). In recent times economists such as Oates and Teibot have propounded the welfare gains of decentralization. The argument is based on a simple proposition: The allocation of public resources at the local level is more likely to conform to public welfare priorities, and the delivery of basic services is likely to be more efficient, in a situation where these administrative functions are being performed by elected government officials, close to and in full view of the electorate. Thus, proximity to the electorate and accountability to them, impel the local government officials to seek the public good. By contrast un-elected bureaucrats in a centralized administrative system are disciplined through the less effective device of service rules.

The theory of course looks at centralized and decentralized governance respectively as alternative options. It does not take account of the transition process of moving from one to the other. More importantly it ignores the issues of power involved in the transition to effective local government. Pakistan’s case constitutes a vivid illustration of the dynamics of power in the transition process.

In Pakistan power has been historically constituted by building patron-client relationships. This has been done by means of two instruments: (a) The arbitrary transfer of state resources to individuals and factions to create a constituency of dependents who owe loyalty to the Raj (during the colonial period), or personalized loyalty to individual politicians and bureaucrats in the post independence period. (b) Discretionary appointments and transfers of personnel within the state sector.

As the work of Professor Imran Ali shows, in the nineteenth century, the British colonial government attempted to build a basis of political support, by consolidating the agrarian elite in the areas that later came to constitute Pakistan. In Sindh the British sought the support of the traditional agrarian elite by accommodating large landholder families (the waderas). In the Punjab by contrast, the British formalized the proprietorship over land of the zamnidars, who had emerged from the upper peasant strata following wide spread peasant revolts at the end of the Mughal period. In both cases the colonial government in its early years created a political constituency through establishing patron-client relationships with selected members of the rural elites. In the subsequent decades the British created new clients amongst the rural elites through offering lucrative appointments in the British Indian Army almost exclusively to the agrarian hierarchy. The most important and far-reaching form of patronage through enrichment of clients was done through the development of canal irrigation and the arbitrary land grants to loyal supporters, with the opening up of the new agrarian frontier.

In the post independence period, the patron-client model of governance continued, as the bureaucracy in the Ayub government granted licenses and contracts to favoured individuals in the private sector within a highly regulated economic regime. At the same time lucrative appointments continued to be made in the state sector to establish a domain of patronage for the military bureaucratic ruling elite. Later in the Z.A. Bhutto period following nationalization of 43 large industrial units the state sector was considerably expanded and at the same time the administrative structure was enlarged through the establishment of new institutions such as the Federal Security Force. The burgeoning state sector served to widen the basis of patronage, which bureaucrats and politicians alike could use to create a domain of economic dependency. Subsequently in the Zia ul Haq period political support was won in various echelons of the religious theocracy by using state funds to support madrassas. In the decade of the 1990s both the governments of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif engaged in the systematic use of financial resources on an unprecedented scale, by granting loans from the nationalized banking sector as political favours to individuals many of whom defaulted on the loans. At the same time state resources were used to grant contracts and licenses through which not only large personal fortunes were accumulated by the leaders but also built domains of personal power.

According to one estimate the cost of such corruption to the banking sector alone was 10 to 15 percent of the GDP in 1996-97. It has been estimated that the overall cost to the country of corruption at the highest level of government, was 20 percent to 25 percent of the GDP in 1996-97, or approximately US $ 15 billion.

Given the history of the patron-client model of governance, it is not surprising that the “Devolution of Power” programme of the military government threatened the terrain of resource gratification and discretionary appointments and transfers, on the basis of which the bureaucracy and the elected politicians in provincial governments had constituted their domains of pelf and privilege. Therefore a contention for power ensued between the provincial bureaucracy and the local governments.

The provincial bureaucracy was able to appropriate the authority to appoint the key officials (Executive District Officers) through which the elected government officials at various tiers were supposed to administer the allocation of development funds and provision of basic services such as health, education, sanitation and drinking water. Moreover, all officials in various public service departments in the district administration from grade 11 to 18, are also appointed by the provincial bureaucracy. Thus, while the elected local government officials have responsibility, they do not have authority. Their ability to improve the delivery efficiency of public services is severely constrained by the fact that they can neither transfer, nor appoint most of the officials who operate these services. To make matters worse, the resources made available to local government and the professional expertise at their command is so inadequate, that they are unable to take even a minimal initiative to fulfill their election mandate of widening the coverage and quality of basic services. Elected local government officials are reduced to ‘requesting’ the provincial bureaucracy to fill vacant posts in various schools and health care facilities or to transfer employees who fail to perform their duties. The resultant delays, the lack of control over EDOs, the severe shortage of resources and expertise combine to severely constrain the effective functioning of local governments. As a consequence of this contention for power, efficiency in the provision of public services far from increasing may in fact have been reduced.

In the future, local governments can take one of three routes: (1) The district level governments may be rendered so dysfunctional that Nazims may begin to resign and in the subsequent elections genuinely popular local figures may lose interest in local government altogether. Such a process could ultimately result in the failure of the “devolution of power programme”. (2) The local government system as it presently exists may continue to function at such a low level efficiency that the efficiency gains conceived in the programme may become low or even negative. (3) The current situation where LG elected officials have responsibility without appropriate authority and where they are starved of financial resources may be changed. In this case local government officials may be granted authority over appointments, promotions and transfers of all personnel in the district administration and where adequate technical and financial resources could be made available to elected LG officials. In such a case the power of the provincial bureaucracy to establish personalized patron client factions and appropriate economic rent could be transformed into the efficiency gains associated with the effective decentralization.

The devolution of power programme stands at the crossroads. There is a contention for two kinds of power: One that is derived from building a domain of dependency through the arbitrary use of state resources. This has led to continuing under development of Pakistan during the last fifty years. The alternative form of power is based on winning and maintaining public support by elected government officials, through the effective functioning of local governments for the provision of basic services. If the former prevails it will mean that the idea of initiating the devolution of power programme could not face the reality of power in Pakistan. As T.S. Eliot said: “between the idea and reality falls the shadow”. In Pakistan’s case it is the shadow of the past, impinging on the possibility of building a different future.
The author would like to thank Mr. Savail Hussain for providing him with a survey of economic theory on local government.

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