The Bangladesh Local Governance Support Project (LGSP) was initiated in 2005 when local leaders voiced their demand for discretionary funds among others to serve their constituencies at a meeting. Union Parishad (UP) is the lowest tier of rural local government has a history over 170 years and held regular elections, however, UPs never received direct funding.
Funds were previously allocated by line ministries at the Upazila (sub-district) level for certain activities; neither the local government (UP) nor local people had a say on their own development priorities. The UP act of 1983 designated 38 mandates on the UP, but made no fund provision for carrying out those mandates. The average population of an UP was about 35,000 and UPs are the closest service delivery institutes to citizens. In 1998, an UP amendment ensured direct election of women in three seats.
While the Minister of Local Government was supportive of the project, most of the national political leaders (ministers, members of parliament) and bureaucrats were against autonomous local governments. Nationwide consultations were organized between local leaders and communities, supported by civil society, for mobilizing a united voice of local needs and incorporating these in the project design. It was a challenging time with episodes of violence.
While guiding the preparation process, which included preparing bank and government documentation, approval requirements, and consultations, I worked long hours with government and Bank task teams. Fortunately, the government designated a team of committed officials; we had excellent rapport and worked as a team.
My family was worried when I had to travel for public consultations. I would be nervous sometimes, as I had a traumatic experience in 2001, when I was close to the New Year celebration bomb blast in Dhaka that killed nearly 20 people. As the work pressure increased, I was getting headaches in the afternoon. I used to have low blood pressure, so I did not recognize the symptoms. During pre-appraisal in February 2006, I collapsed one evening and the doctor diagnosed me with high blood pressure. My family and friends were concerned and felt that I should leave my job.
I took a leave of absence and went to a village in Tangail to rest and think about future steps. I did not take any books, papers or laptop. The flowing river, fresh cool air and green paddy fields were like a balm to my soul and my blood pressure became normal. One morning I was walking by the paddy fields, I saw a woman mending a fence by the road. I started talking to her and found that she is a member of local UP. In spite of myself, I became curious and asked her a few questions. Her name was Majeda Begum, member of the Gala Union Parishad, Tangail.
Majeda was almost a destitute woman, lost one of her eyes in an accident, but local people encouraged her to run for office in 1998 and she was elected twice as member of Gala UP. She showed me around, especially the local needs in community infrastructure. Tangail gets flooded and waterlogged every year; and lose crop production as there is no good drainage system. She had lot of good ideas, but was not able to do anything, as her UP does not have any funds. The UP chair does not want to collect taxes, as he is afraid of losing election. UP chair gets some funds from Upazila, but these schemes are usually implemented by chair and male members. The three women members usually do not get to manage or implement any development projects. As a result, the women members are not able to fulfill their promises to their constituency, and losing their potential as local leaders.
After seeing the commitment of Majeda Begum, who despite her poverty, is working selflessly for the welfare of people, I felt encouraged and a strong resolve to be part of the process that will empower these local leaders to do their job and fulfill their potential. The project gave me an opportunity to support empowering the local leaders, especially women leaders. These UP leaders are close to their communities, trusted by them and be able to provide need based services. In LGSP, it was mandated that at least 30% of sub-projects would be implemented by women UP members. LGSP is an incentive based project -- UPs are audited annually, and the UPs that receive clean audit report, get enhanced funds and continue to do good work.
I have been following the activities of Majeda, and she continues to be recognized for her commitment and good work for the people. She won a few national awards as best UP member- one from the Ministry of Local Government and another from Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. In 2009, she received a Peace Award from Dhaka University for her work in social cohesion and conflict resolution.