Originally posted in Dhaka Tribune on 28 March 2021
The government has prioritised 40 targets for Bangladesh out of the 241 SDG targets
It is said that all development is local.
If that be the case, it is also true in the case of implementing the sustainable development goals in Bangladesh, particularly if the centrality of the aspiration of leaving no one behind is kept in the perspective.
It is in this backdrop that the efficacy of delivery of public services at the local level assumes such heightened importance from the vantage point of reaching the marginalised people and the farthest first.
Success in this regard, to a large extent, depends on the ability of the delivery agents to provide public services particularly to the marginalised communities in remote and spatially and environmentally challenged areas of the country in an effective manner.
Field level experience of implementing a recent project by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, Oxfam in Bangladesh and Citizens Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh throws important insights as regards how public services could be delivered most effectively in relatively deprived areas including coastal regions, haor and baor areas and in areas with relatively higher poverty incidence.
It was found that localisation and contextualisation of services are key to raising the effectiveness of SDG-related public service delivery at the local level and for this, a greater understanding of local needs and demands, appropriate selection of beneficiaries and timeliness of delivery are of crucial importance.
This is because reaching the disadvantaged areas that tend to be left behind, and addressing the needs of left-behind people in those disadvantaged areas, poses additional challenges for local-level service providers that need to be overcome and addressed.
It was found in the course of implementing the aforesaid project that where public service delivery institutions at the local level and local elected representatives collaborate closely with local non-state actors, the outcomes in terms of delivering the public services tend to be much more effective.
True, in recent times the government has taken several steps for better localisation of the SDGs.
The government has prioritised 40 targets for Bangladesh out of the 241 SDG targets.
Of these, 39 have been prioritised nationally; the additional one target would vary from locality to locality and was to be determined based on local contexts and priorities, to be decided by local stakeholders.
The government has also developed a model, the Natore Model, for localising the SDGs.
It is encouraging to note that at the district, upazila and union levels a new generation of government officials are at work who are tuned to grassroots issues, ready to explore innovative approaches and identify local solutions.
In a similar vein, non-state actors working at the grassroots are also showing an increasing willingness to engage and collaborate with elected representatives and government officials when it comes to the delivery of public services.
A manifestation of this was evident during the pandemic when public services in the form of various safety net programmes had to be delivered in a well-targeted manner and that also speedily given the urgency of the situation.
Experience shows that in many areas concerned stakeholders worked in tandem towards better delivery of the safety nets.
However, one insight from field level experience during Covid was also that lack of availability and access to up-to-date data and information at disaggregated level concerning key local level socio-economic-poverty indicators severely constrain effective delivery of public services.
The establishment of disaggregated and updated data banks have become a necessity in dealing with problems of inclusion and exclusion and avoid duplication in beneficiary selection.
These databases, to be updated continuously, would help raise the overall effectiveness of delivery of services at the local level.
Localisation of SDGs through effective collaboration of stakeholders will not happen automatically.
The effectiveness of SDG implementation at the local level can be significantly improved with help of SDG localisation frameworks, designed jointly with the participation of representatives of local administrations, local governments and local non-state actors.
Such a framework, as was developed under the aforesaid project, was found to be very effective in singling out gaps in SDG implementation, pinpointing challenges and identifying solutions specific to the localities.
When civil society groups have social audit tools at their disposal, these can be deployed to ensure transparency and promote accountability in public service delivery — and this helps raise the efficacy of the services delivered.
Social audit tools include such elements as a system of information dissemination about the services, selection of beneficiaries, assessment of the quality of services delivered, identification of challenges of implementation, monitoring of delivery and grievance redress system.
Capacity building of local non-state actors to deploy these tools, through training and workshops, strengthen the voice and results in empowerment.
On the other hand, when public service delivery actors agree to put themselves under the scrutiny of empowered citizens, subject themselves to monitoring by citizens’ groups through social audit tools, and demonstrate readiness to be held responsible for the timeliness and effectiveness of services delivered, a systemic transformation takes place in favour of effective delivery of the SDGs at the local level.
This ensures that marginalised communities are not left behind when SDG-related services and social safety net programmes are delivered at the grassroots level.
Is it possible to institutionalise a system of collaboration with the participation of all concerned stakeholders at the local level through a ‘social contract’?
Such a contract would involve public service delivery agents, local-level elected representatives and non-state actors as contracting parties.
This would also signal an important shift from a provider-recipient approach to a rights-based approach in public service delivery.
Indeed, this would also be a logical extension of the annual performance agreement and performance contract introduced by the government of Bangladesh, a transition from government-to-government to a more effective government-citizens partnership.
This will also be aligned with the spirit embedded in the Citizen Charter formulated by the government.
Indeed, such a transition from social audit to the social contract could bring a defining change towards localisation of the SDGs and stakeholder-driven SDG implementation at the local level and advance the cause of inclusive governance in Bangladesh.
The author is the distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue