The ‘Strengthening Local Governance’ (SLG) Project is a joint initiative undertaken by BRAC and the Hunger Project Bangladesh (THP), with the aim of strengthening the system of local governance at the Union Parishad (UP) level. As the lowest administrative unit of Bangladesh’s highly centralised public administrative system, UPs face a lot of challenges in terms of insufficient administrative and financial autonomy and resources, deep rooted corruption, and the lack of people’s participation in the governance process. All these factors together have created a local government system that is not transparent and effective in local service delivery, and in many ways, is, inaccessible to the very people it is meant to serve. More importantly it has critically hindered the full potential of UPs, as change-makers for local governance and development.
To address these challenges, the SLG project pursued an inclusive model of local governance that is led ‘by the community for the community’. This project was evaluated through both a baseline and end line study, over the course of a year. The study set out to explore the systems of governance in the SLG project unions as well as similar non-project comparison unions. The issue was explored through official UP records, as well as interviews and discussions with UP representatives, community members and project staff. The findings and observations from the field appear to indicate that the project has had a positive effect on knowledge, attitudes and practice in both the community and the UP, in the project areas. In these areas, it was observed that the UP representatives are now successfully carrying out their officially mandated functions. They regularly organise UP-community forums like ward shavas, and ensure that official bodies like Standing Committees are functioning as mandated. This has all been made possible, due to the positive response from the communities themselves. The SLG project volunteers, including animators, youth and women leaders are playing proactive roles in their communities engaging with people and encouraging them in turn to work with the UP and take control of their own development. This appears to be a substantial shift from what was observed during the baseline study. In contrast, the situation in the adjacent comparison (non-project) unions appears to be largely unchanged. The relationship between the UP and the community in these unions is still not very strong.
Events like ward shavas are not regularly held, and there is very limited engagement with the community from the UP. The community for its part also appears to be uninterested in working with the UP. This stands as a contrast to what is seen in the SLG project unions.
The main point of difference appears to be the involvement of community volunteers in the SLG unions. The animators, youth and women leaders trained by the project are acting as a bridge between the UP and the community. They are ensuring the participation of the community in local governance process. The SLG project has trained 2,240 animators, 1,098 women leaders and 1,670 youth leaders. It has also helped train and create 598 inform ediaries who help citizens exercise their right to informationregarding public services and institutions. This is in addition to the numerous trainings on ward shavas, open budgeting, standing committees and ward citizen committees. The project is not only providing training on participatory local governance, it is also helping ensure that the UP and the community can collectively carry out the activities needed to uphold and strengthen this system. Budget booklets provided by the SLG project have introduced a new dimension of transparency and citizen engagement in the annual open budget meetings, project volunteers work with Standing Committees to resolve issues like teacher absenteeism at the local school, and the women leaders trained by the project regularly work with the UP in preventing and raising awareness on early marriages in their locality. These are just a few examples of how the SLG project has taken a holistic approach to the local government, tackling and strengthening all aspects of the system in order to create a level playing field where the UP and the citizens achieve development through collective action. It should be noted that, the SLG project has also faced its fair share of challenges. Time and resource constraints presented a challenge in terms of carrying out extensive advocacy work. Therefore, while the project appears to have been successful in initiating change at the grassroots level, it has faced a lot of challenges in terms of advocating change at the higher levels of government and national policy making.
Moving forward, this is an important lesson to be considered by the project. Additionally, the potential change in UP representatives following the upcoming UP elections, the political capture of the local government system, and limited project buy in from the government present further challenges, and additional areas to consider for the project, and for other projects looking to work at the local government level. As the SLG project wraps up its activities, it is important to sustain the community driven governance systems, it has helped create at the UP level. The project appears to have initiated positive transformation at the grassroots level, however in order to sustain this transformation, there needs to be a continuation in its work, particularly in terms of continued advocacy. Long term sustainable change and development requires a continuity of efforts for initiatives like the SLG project.