Dhaka’s ‘coordination’ problem: A thorn in the side of city governments

    To offer better city services to the inhabitants of Dhaka, past governments have stressed on the “coordination” of activities of all the city service providers—as many as 50—through forming committees. In the last 30 years, this approach has frustrated all elected mayors, including Annisul Huq, the late mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation. This coordination approach began during the tenure of Mohammad Hanif, who served as mayor of the erstwhile undivided Dhaka City Corporation from 1994 to 2002.

    As the residents of Dhaka (North and South) brace themselves for the upcoming mayoral elections set to be held on January 30, a familiar scene is playing out: they are being regaled with the fairy-tale stories of the candidates. Pledges guaranteeing all basic city services are being thrown around, without much detail on the magical solution of working out the city’s intricate problems through the existing “coordination committee”. Undeniably, there is a risk of repeating the blame game and attributing lacklustre performances to the coordination problem once the elections are over, since there is little or no consensus—let alone any dialogue—on the existing urban local government management structure and how to effectively reform the service delivery mechanism.

    Hanif wanted all relevant service delivery and regulatory agencies of the government to be brought under the authority of the city mayor. That time, the then government allowed a coordination committee to be chaired by the minister for local government and co-chaired by the mayor, but this arrangement soon fell through. A similar situation arose during the tenure of his successor, Sadeque Hossain Khoka, when a high-powered coordination committee was established under the chairmanship of the mayor (with the status of a cabinet minister). It was formed with over 30 heads of agencies and five civil society representatives. Again, the committee could not work effectively, and at the request of the mayor, the committee’s responsibility was shifted to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the principal secretary to the prime minister acting as chief coordinator on behalf of the elected mayor. The system was discontinued with the change of government, and coordination, even in present times, remains a very critical issue in city governance, not just for Dhaka, but also for other cities.

    The result has been that, after 30 years since the formation of Dhaka City Corporation, Dhaka is globally indexed as one of the least liveable cities. Dhaka is becoming an unequal city with hardly any noticeable evidence of planned efforts. Considering Dhaka’s economic growth in the national and global context, many experts are of the opinion that sustainable development could not be achieved without a decentralised urban governance structure with provisions for further redistribution of decision-making powers and resources to the city authorities. Experts have cited lack of good urban governance for Dhaka’s persistent problems. This includes key indicators such as participation, transparency, accountability, responsiveness, authority, rule of law, decentralisation, coordination, efficiency, and leadership.

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    Do the city residents believe the mayors and their aides in Dhaka (North and South) enjoy the right amount of authority? What are the alternatives when there are more than 50 organisations involved in providing city services? Do the residents know who runs this city? Prior to 1994, the city corporations were managed by mayors appointed by the government. In case of Dhaka, often the minister in charge of local government was given the additional responsibility of carrying out mayoral duties. Even now, after the formulation of an umbrella act (The Local Government Act 2009) for all city corporations, the Ministry of Local Government Division (LGD) takes care of the allocations and other duties and deliverables.

    In terms of urban local government, the Dhaka North and South City Corporations do not enjoy adequate administrative powers, authority or autonomy through which the corporations could take their mandate directly from people’s votes. City service functions are heavily dependent on the central government for funds and personnel. Their functional jurisdiction is also very limited. Even basic service functions such as water and electricity supply, town planning, and urban development are being taken care of by separate, autonomous but unelected authorities.

    Although the mayors do enjoy considerable power within their own city administration, in the capital city, this does not sufficiently provide the influence required to ensure that all city services are functioning effectively under a single platform. Geographical or area-based decentralisation is also very limited. All the city corporations are comprised of wards, but the wards do not enjoy any worthwhile financial power and lack human resource capacity. The ward councillors have to address the demands of a large constituency (compared to other local government tiers) almost singlehandedly. Furthermore, the reserved seats for female councillors do not have any portfolio of significance.

    Globally, the function of the city corporation involves a complex combination of many crucial services that are provided by a wide range of organisations: government, autonomous and semi-government bodies as well as the private sector, civil society, community, and also increasingly the development partners and international agencies. All these different types of organisations and institutions have their roles to play in establishing a functional, efficient, and progressive urban governance system. However, the primary responsibility should lie with the city authority, i.e. the mayor and his/her leadership. Good urban governance demands effective leadership of the elected representatives of the city corporation, along with the participation of municipal officials, the central government agencies at the local level, the private sector, NGOs, civil society and, finally, the people.

    Governance arrangements for some of the world’s largest and fastest-growing cities vary from region to region. In some parts of the urban world, especially in Western Europe and South America, a broader coalition of city governments, private sector, and civil society actors are increasingly having their say in determining municipal futures. In others, most notably the US, India, and China, the central and federal government or state authorities seem to have kept their grip on the governance of cities. Bangladesh is also an example of this latter category.

    Only a handful of city governments in the developed and developing countries have control over their metropolitan areas, reflecting different institutional arrangements with political boundaries. International experience indicates that the key to realising the goal of sustainable urban development is good governance, especially when it is happening purely through the local urban governments. Therefore, adopting supporting steps is crucial to devolve authority and power from the centre to the city corporation authorities and strengthen their institutional ability to interact effectively with the residents and meet their needs as well as redress their grievances. Without having a single authoritative platform, which we lack in Bangladesh, providing quality city services is simply impossible.

    With the present trend of urbanisation, many of the changes taking place in the two parts of Dhaka—including social, economic, technological, environmental, or political—will be hugely disruptive in the coming days. Future trends point to increasing complexities surrounding cities and an uncertainty about the future. Successful urban governance will require bold and capable leadership and the capacity for adaptability and resilience to address the challenges that we face and to seize current and possible future opportunities as well. Are the imminent city leaders and policymakers ready to take the bold and decisive steps necessary to secure a more prosperous future for our city?

    Ashekur Rahman is Head of Poverty and Urbanization in UNDP Bangladesh. Views expressed in this article are the authors own and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of UNDP.