EU and UNDP support citizen-participation in Bangladesh
Ten years ago, a pioneering Government of Bangladesh-UNDP-UNCDF initiative in Sirajganj District blew the cobwebs off local governance. The project demonstrated for the first time that empowered local institutions can balance books transparently and engage communities to make the best use of scarce public resources.
An $18 million joint UNDP-UNCDF Learning and Innovation Component (LIC), funded by the European Union, Denmark, UNDP and UNCDF continued to test and innovate governance mechanisms for Union Parishads (UP) in six districts (UPs are the smallest rural administrative and local government units in Bangladesh). This work both changed the way communities engage with their local government institutions and the way these authorities deliver services.
The status of women UP members and that of women has improved due to their visible role in the public sphere, the result of a LIC’s focus on women’s empowerment at the local level. A fundamental project requirement is the dedication of 30 per cent of all community schemes, for women by women, leading to a greater number of women-centered local development projects.
The Sakhipur Union ‘open budget’ session is not a drab, middle-aged men closed-door affair, but a vibrant mix of gender, generations and colour – a budget mela.
Over three hundred men, women and children have braved the torrential rain to listen to where their Union Parishad is spending the $31,000 annual block grant provided by the government through LGSP-LIC.
Every year, the men and women in this village have been actively taking part in the planning session to discuss where best to use the funds. Now they have gathered to hear if the Union Parishad Chairman has effectively spent the money allocated to the community.
Chandra Bishaash holds her microphone as if it were a battle-axe and delivers the first blow. “In 2004, there was one hundred percent latrine coverage in the union, but nowadays we see that many of the latrines that the poor people use are broken. Is there money in the budget to fix this?” she asks, to rapturous applause.
The chairman stumbles temporarily as he searches for an answer. Meanwhile, the microphone is handed to another interrogator in preparation for the next question. Chandra sits back and eagerly awaits the response. Finally, a slightly embarrassed Chairman replies. “Yes, it’s true, there are many latrines which are broken, and yes, we will make the arrangements to fix this in the coming year.”
The open budget session in Sakhipur is confirmation not only that officials at the union level can handle money, but also that people have the confidence to hold their elected representatives accountable, a novel concept in a culture that places a high value on age, education and status.
This is clearly witnessed in the changed dynamics between communities and their UP leaders; a dynamic that is now more participatory and equal than paternalistic or rigidly hierarchical.
Chandra, whose surname means belief, is confident that her Union Parishad will deliver on its promises. “I’m happy with the answer I received and I trust him to do his best. He’s done this in the past [so] he will keep doing good things in the future,” said Chandra.
Chandra’s dream now is for a digital Bangladesh. She’s heard the hype in Dhaka, but would like to see more access in her union, a point she is certain to raise in the next planning session.
Source: UNDP Bangladesh Country Programme Results Report, 2006-2011