Pakistan’s local governments disconnected from citizens: UNDP

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says that local governments around the world are at the forefront of the current COVID-19 crisis, but in Pakistan these institutions are to an extent disconnected from its citizens and “saddled with a governance style which is top down, reactive and authoritative”

Jun 22, 2020

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says that local governments around the world are at the forefront of the current COVID-19 crisis, but in Pakistan these institutions are to an extent disconnected from its citizens and “saddled with a governance style which is top down, reactive and authoritative”.

This has led to the weakening of the essential state-society social contract leading to marginalisation, group grievances and conflict and social resilience in the country, UNDP says in its first ‘COVID-19 — Pakistan Socio-economic Impact Assessment and Response Plan’.

Despite efforts to provide an adequate response to the pandemic in Pakistan, results remain poor. Traders and businessmen are dissatisfied by the federal government’s unilateral decisions affecting their businesses. Similarly, medical health professionals are highlighting the unavailability of PPE (personal protective equipment) and the lack of an efficient system of testing and tracking.

The poorer segments of the population are worried as they have lost their livelihoods, with many people relying on daily wages. As the pandemic has hit almost every segment of society and in the absence of a consensus on the strategy to adopt, frustration, insecurity and uncertainty are widespread, the report says.

The UNDP report, released on weekend, says that the COVID-19 crisis is threatening social cohesion within countries, as its impact reaches deep into our society, on the behaviour of individuals, and affects well-being and mental health. Conversely, Pakistan offers a very productive avenue for further integration and assimilation of the relation between social cohesion and community resilience.

“Political engagement and social dialogue, community empowerment and participation, and governance and rule of law — these three together determine the state-citizen relationship, which eventually determines the implementation of the government’s response to such a crisis,” according to the report.

One among many challenges is the lack of coordination, direction, and availability of accessible information on the pandemic at the local level. In absence of a coordination mechanism and platforms, the relief and emergency response efforts remain ineffective and lead to duplication and the waste of resources, the UNDP report says.

Elected local governments would have been effective not only in implementing federal and provincial decisions but in their localisation, due to the trust they enjoy within the population. In the past, the state-society disconnect in Pakistan’s case has often been filled by violent extremist organised actors who have exploited these grievances and the neglect and lack of state support in times of crises to win support among vulnerable groups.

It is believed that the presence of elected local governments would have created an effective bridge between the government and the population, defusing the current situation in which the citizens have been losing trust in governmental decisions.

In line with global practices, the local governments in Pakistan do have a constitutional mandate to become active stakeholders in emergency and epidemic or pandemic situation like COVID-19. One of their common functions is to “assist in provision of relief in the event of any fire, flood, hailstorm, earthquake, epidemic or other natural calamity and assist relevant authorities in relief activities;” and in “emergency planning and relief”.

In short, currently elected local governments are not present in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Balochistan, while functional local governments are present only in Sindh and Islamabad Capital Territory to abide by their constitutional role. In the three provinces the local governments were rolled back by the provincial governments in 2019.

In the absence of local governments in three provinces, the district administrations, provincial institutions like relief departments and provincial disaster management authorities or PDMAs are implementing the decisions, policies and orders of both the federal and provincial governments related to health, security and relief measures in respective jurisdictions.

The current crisis requires clarity on who is doing what and who is making decisions and controlling resources. This will enable the local governments to develop their responses in line with national priorities.

Although there is a national disaster management plan, the pandemic highlights that local governments also need strong emergency management systems like District Disaster Management Authorities that can identify vulnerable segments and respond to challenges quickly. Local governments need their own adequate revenue, or smooth central transfers to mobilise funds quickly, report emphasised.

There is a need for a deeper dive and analysis of at-risk areas and populations to determine their material as well as psycho-social needs.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2020

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