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.