Dhaka::Eminent economist Rehman Sobhan, chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD, has emphasised the need for free and fair local government polls to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as these public representatives are crucial for ensuring the quality of government services in rural regions.
People at the grassroots level must have access to services such as primary education, basic healthcare and rural road infrastructure, he said while addressing a seminar titled “Democratic Good Governance and Development: Experience of grassroots organisations” on Thursday.
“If an elected public representative fails to ensure the availability of such facilities, the people will elect someone else in the next election. For this to happen, it is vital to ensure a democratic polling atmosphere at the rural level,” he added.
The CPD and Oxfam in Bangladesh – with support from the European Union – jointly organised the event at the Bangabandhu International Conference Center, presided over by Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, a Distinguished Fellow at the CPD.
Speakers at the seminar urged authorities concerned to increase the capacity of local government, and ensure transparency and accountability of the elected representatives.
Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives Minister Md Tajul Islam, speaking as the chief guest, said, “If we can increase the capacity of Union Parishads, it will change the face of Bangladesh.
“There have been talks of increasing the capacity of Union Parishads for some time, but there is not much discussion about ensuring the elected representatives’ transparency and accountability.”
He continued, “The city corporations depend on the government for funds to carry out development work and pay their employees. The local government must be more transparent about spending money so that they can achieve financial freedom.”
The minister mentioned that following Bangladesh’s independence, the country’s per capita income was $66, and foreign currency reserve was $0.99 billion.
“During that period, the donors burdened Bangladesh with harmful projects. The country is now in a stronger position, and has achieved self-sufficiency in food in 50 years of its independence,” Md Tajul Islam said.
Adding that the government cannot implement the SDG by itself, he called upon people from every corner of the society to participate in the country’s development activities.
CPD’s Executive Director Dr Fahmida Khatun said, “Bangladesh has made progress on a number of socio-economic indicators in the last 50 years. But the question still remains whether the benefits of the development are inclusive.
“Even if the average income goes up, the development will not be sustainable if income of the marginalised people goes down. Inequalities based on gender, age and region are increasing. This must be curbed. Growth will not be very useful if people cannot find employment.”
She added that there is inequality in disseminating government services. “The poor are not getting adequate services, while the rich are getting more than they deserve.”
CPD’s Distinguished Fellow Prof Mustafizur Rahman said, “Development comes from the grassroots level, and the SDGs must be implemented at the same level too. To achieve this goal, local populace must boost interaction with those disseminating the government services.
“The people must be strengthened. There is no alternative to transparency and accountability for achieving the SDGs.”
The noted economist further added that while an average of 20% people in the country are currently living below the poverty line, in many areas it is more than 50%. These geographically isolated areas at risk of natural disasters need to be given special importance in order to achieve SDGs.
Mentioning that Bangladesh is among the top 17 performers in the world and second in South Asia in providing coronavirus vaccine, Rensje Teerink, ambassador and head of delegation of European Union, told the event, “Bangladesh is on the right track. This has been made possible, thanks to an active participation of grassroots people such as local NGOs, local administration and local leaders.”
In order to achieve SDGs, Bangladesh needs to ensure sustainable development by eliminating poverty and preventing inequality through the participation of all, the EU envoy observed.
“To this end, the local government will have to become a voice of the citizens instead of being only a service provider. It needs to work for the implementation of inclusive policies through transparency and accountability.”
The EU will stand by Bangladesh in alleviating poverty, building the capacity of its citizens, building infrastructure, mitigating disasters, and maintaining the balance of the environment.
Rehman Sobhan, who joined the programme through videoconferencing, said, “We need to establish equal rights for all citizens in the use of public health, education, sanitation and infrastructure.”
The SDG targets should be included in the working procedures of Union Parishad, Upazila Parishad and other local government bodies, he suggested, adding, “We need to raise awareness among the people so that they can get the services they deserve from the local government institutions. We also have to create a clear understanding among citizens about the SDGs.”
The CPD chairman further added, “We have to keep an eye on the local government so that it does not become a dysfunctional institution.”
He also asked for taking necessary steps by authorities concerned to create proper awareness among citizens at the grassroots level about the policy framework that the government is formulating on SDGs.
At the concluding ceremony, Saber Hossain Chowdhury, chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, said the responsibilities of members of parliament are not limited only in enacting laws, but it is also their responsibility to see whether the laws they enact are being implemented properly.
“For instance, For instance, taking part in budget discussion we talk about budgetary allocations. But it is also our responsibility to see whether the allocations are made properly.”
Dhananjay Sriskandaraja, chief executive officer of Oxfam Great Britain, said, “Amid the Covid-19 outbreak, we’ve realised anew how important the issues of local government, civic power, etc are.
“We are talking about transformational change in the future. We have to come out with more vigour in the post-pandemic days.”
Ghulam Mohammad Quader, deputy leader of the opposition in the national parliament, said in the light of the SDGs, the struggle to build an economically prosperous and socially inclusive environment-friendly Bangladesh would require joint efforts from various stakeholders.
Mentioning that Bangladesh has a lot of work that the government does through the local government, he, however, said there are different challenges in delivering different services of local government to remote areas of the country.
“We have to think about how to overcome this obstacle,” he concluded.(TBS)