In your own way

Development Issues: Experience from an Administrative Unit of Bangladesh

Mustafa Murshed*

You are hearing from Bangladesh, a ‘development surprise’ in recent times for the rest of the world due to its cumulative success on socio-economic advancement. The Economist published an editorial on November 3, 2012, about Bangladesh titled ‘out of the basket’. The Guardian addressed it as a ‘new wave economics’. According to the Guardian on December 18, 2012, the economy of Bangladesh is expected to overtake western countries by 2050. The Goldman Sachs highlighted Bangladesh as one of the ‘Next 11’ emerging economies. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Bangladesh will become the 23rd largest economy in the world by 2050 (Bangladesh ranks 34th now).

About economic optimism, Bangladesh secured the 2nd position after Nigeria and well ahead of all its sub-continent neighbours, according to a study conducted by WIN/Gallup International Association which was released on January 1, 2016. Moreover, the economy of Bangladesh is expected to join permanently in the ‘7% plus club’ in the next fiscal year with a hope to be graduated to a middle-income country by 2021.

In a quick response, you may look at some delightful success stories in the last couple of decades. The pleasant things are the robust real GDP growth rate hovering above 6% for more than two decades, controlled inflation (6-6.5%), quite fascinating foreign exchange reserve, stable public debt-to-GDP ratio, satisfactory level of foreign remittance, comprehensive food security, well-built disaster management system, massive development in ICT sector, ongoing social safety-net programmes, healthy power generation capacity, etc. The economy has also some amazing accomplishments in achieving MDGs along with increasing HDI value over time. I feel proud to be a part of the government in the changing architecture of the economy and in connection with my job responsibility I have also experienced with rare opportunities to evaluate the meaning of development.

The government of Bangladesh is shouldering the core responsibility to uplift the Standard of Livings (SoLs) of people in accordance with the spirit of bloody liberation war. Under the dynamic leadership of the Prime Minister the government employees are working hard for transforming the economy at its desired level.

In a broader sense, the government of Bangladesh has a two-tier administrative system. The ‘upper tier’ is the central secretariat at the national level consisting of 61 ministries and divisions to provide policies and to perform clearing house functions. The other tier consists of 351 line departments/directorates attached to the ministries and divisions that are mainly responsible for general administration, service delivery to citizens and implementation of development programs at district and Upazila level.

Functionally, there are four administrative units in field level administration. These are Division, District, Upazila and Union. The Upazila, a sub-unit of the district is possibly the most important unit in terms of service delivery and implementing government policy decisions. At present, there are 490 Upazila in Bangladesh having a sound administrative structure where the average size of the Upazila is 300 sq. km. Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) is a member of Bangladesh Civil Service and a non-elected person who basically works as the Chief Executive of the region. Each Upazila Parishad (or council) has an elected chairman, a vice chairman and a female vice chairman.

Being a part of the executive organ of the State let me here share my experiences. As a UNO I have unique experiences in working in an Upazila Administration, named Monoharganj which belongs to the District Administration Comilla.
Development is a complex multidimensional issue and there is no widely accepted definition of it. In short, you can call it a positive change to increase the SoLs of people taking their economic, political and socio-cultural life along with geography and environment into consideration. There is always a dilemma in describing the spirit of development by academics and practitioners. They always love to welcome debate in the case of development discourse.

Prior to providing my analysis, it is justified to clarify my position. I would like to describe myself an academician having brilliant academic records in the field of Economics and I’m very keen to be a ‘development economist’ in the days to come. Apart from this, I have been working in the public sector for more than a decade in different capacities.

Working in an Upazila level administration is perhaps the most challenging job for a civil servant like me because the implementation of the government decision(s) is a cumbersome task in a developing country. Because there is a typical reflection of the ‘Top-down approach’ of the decision-making process. May I share my experiences very smartly?

Firstly, we know that there is a difference in the concept of ‘Administration’ and ‘Management’. In the name of New Public Management, the concept of administration is not well-practiced. The counterparts, other government, and social institutions like to see UNO practising ‘management’ but the stakeholders may love to find UNO as an ‘administrator’. I think there is no functional difference between ‘Administration’ and ‘Management’ if service delivery is the objective of a public servant. The benefit of the mass people should be the ultimate focus in people-centric government.

Secondly, like the relationship between a ‘manager’ and an ‘administrator,’ it is necessary to make a balance between a ‘regulatory officer’ and a ‘supervisor/facilitator’. A regulatory officer may be very rigid in exercising laws and regulations but a balanced between the two must be ensured for the betterment of the stakeholders.

Thirdly, the most striking factor regarding the execution of government decisions is the conflict between ‘process’ and ‘output’. The clients do not bother the process because they want to see the output is in their favour. But the higher authority is dedicated to seeing whether the process is exhausted or not. But guarantying a win-win situation is a must for a successful UNO in such dichotomy.
Fourthly, the volume of work in Upazila administration is huge and it is increasing over time due to the gradual expansion of the economy and the uninterrupted increase in public demand. But the optimum job responsibility of a UNO is not specified. As long as you do not know the optimum duties and responsibilities you cannot produce any quality service to the people for whom you are working. For information, you can share your duties but you cannot share your responsibilities, for sure.

This unknown job description is the consequence of weak research work. One of the cruxes of the developing countries is the contribution of the government’s research wing. The research wing is the weakest part of the most third world governments despite their success stories and remarkable achievements.

Fifthly, service delivery in the rural area (an unplanned area) is always a hectic job. There is social unrest in such areas for many reasons, the incidence of poverty, for example. Therefore, a UNO may not feel good on nearly all occasions. For instance, s/he will not hear that a person caught a huge fish rather s/he will be informed that someone had hijacked the fish and it is his/her turn to resolve it.

Sixthly, some people are in confusion that whether the UNO is working solely under the leadership of Upazila Chairman. But the job responsibility of a UNO covers a wide range of duties having a strong connection with the central government.
Seventhly, we know ‘information is public’. But this is not applicable in such administrative unit of a developing country because it is the trickiest job to get accurate and true information. Everyone will let you know the information which is in favour of him/her to make the judgment biassed or distorted.

Eighthly, being a low-middle income country the resource transferred from centre to the Upazila level in Bangladesh is quite satisfactory. Thus, a UNO must be careful in ensuring an efficient allocation of resources bearing the development priorities in mind.

Ninthly, it is very difficult to evaluate the performance of the UNOs’ within a general framework because the socio-economic, political and even cultural aspects of Upazila differ from each other. It is the key argument in favour of strengthening local government. One of the research findings is that the higher the local government employees the greater the development status of the country. It is not surprising that the performance of a UNO of a forward Upazila will definitely be different from the same of a backwards Upazila.

Tenthly, mainstreaming all income-level people is a prerequisite for development. Even an insane should have the privilege to be mainstreamed for making the development holistic and inclusive.

Eleventh, there are many challenges to be resolved by the Chief Executive. But the most complicated assignment is ensuring social justice. Whatever the governmental structure (e.g. democrat or autocrat) is, social justice is the principal concern in enhancing the development of an economic entity.

Twelfth, it is advantageous to possess a very good personal image to influence people. In the absence of institutional development and in the presence of corruption a positive personal image would have helped a public servant to do his duties properly.

Thirteenth, sometimes the performance evaluation is absent even in the presence of cross-sectional establishments because at the end of the day a UNO is only accountable to his/her superior authority. In some cases, the UNO may find himself helpless even cen percent people are in favour of him.

Fourteenth, theoretically, there are many ways to figure out the strategies of development. Being a decision-maker of any administrative unit a UNO must be well aware of what is meant by the concept development and act accordingly. Practically, development is a continuous positive change in the SoLs by reducing the gap between ‘social benefit’ & ‘social cost’. The higher the social benefit the more the potential for development.

Finally, it is very pleasant to see a UNO as a true ‘development administrator’ despite all critics. Otherwise being the authoritative leader of the Upazila it is very difficult to materialise the dream of the government.

Surprisingly, I did not find any major complexities in addressing the development issues in such administrative unit of Bangladesh. In my point of view, there is hardly any gap between theory and practice, though you may not like to make the debate over.

N.B. if you are thinking of ‘innovation’ then please be informed that the best innovative approach is rendering service with a smiling face. As long as you are working in the government you must keep smiling in dealing with the citizens because you are paid for this and moreover, a smile costs nothing.

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*Mustafa Murshed is a Senior Assistant Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh currently working in the Ministry of Information.

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Feature Photograph: Google Images

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