Dr Mohammad Tarikul Islam is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge, UK. Dr Islam has served the United Nations Development Program for a period of seven years. Dr Islam is a regular contributor to the South Asia Blog of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK, Oxford Political Review and the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London has also appointed Professor Islam as a Visiting Fellow. Besides, Dr Islam is the Editor of Oxford Transitional Justice Research (Journal and Academic Blog), Centre for Criminology, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford, UK. His forthcoming book is ‘Local Government in Bangladesh: Contemporary Issues and Challenges’ from the Routledge India. He has been researching different aspects of local government and sustainable rural development in South Asia since 2014. In a conversation with Higher Education Digest, Dr Islam talks about his passion for local government and sustainable rural development research referring to his forthcoming book from the Routledge.
Where do you see the most exciting research/debates happening in your field of research?
The scope of my current research work is based on the broader domain of local governance, grassroots political movements and sustainable development with a particular focus on social justice, participatory rural politics and equitable development in South Asia. Above all, I adopt holistic approaches to the understanding of decentralized authority and power to the participatory local governance. I am kind of fascinated in methods that go beyond perspectives to explain the social experiences of citizen participation lessening from individual perceptions, rural development context, or social inequalities. I seek to locate the concepts and determinants of socioeconomic inclusion and injustices in a broader social and environmental context to help advance the current understanding of the dynamics of social interactions within and among various social groups, thereby meaningfully contributing to an inclusive and equitable rural development empowering local government institutions in South Asia.
How has the way you understand the paradigm shifts in the local government and rural development over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?
My scholarly work has been greatly influenced by socioeconomic, environmental, and political events that shaped my personality and character. To me, for development to be truly sustainable, it is necessary to assume the political commitment of all the world’s states, as well as to the greater collaboration of state and non-state development actors in the economy, environmental protection, protection of human security and social development. Human security, focusing on the opportunities to make choices, presupposes that people have to influence the process that shapes their lives. In other words, people have to participate in different decision-making processes, implementing these decisions and monitoring them. Security, at any level, is about individuals. The development of mankind cannot be achieved without ensuring human security. Security means that the benefits that people have reached in expanding their opportunities and improving their capabilities are protected by current social, economic, political arrangements.
The approach to equitable development is based on a broad social acceptance of people’s rights and obligations, based on a sustainable system within the shadow of the national government. It is apparent that the link between human security and sustainable development is manifested in conceptual terms from the perspective of the four basic components of human development: equality in terms of fair access to opportunities; sustainability as regards responsibility for future generations as those of the present generation; productivity on human resource investigations and creating the macroeconomic environment that would allow people to reach their full potential; the sense of decision – in the sense that people have to achieve a level of individual development that would allow them to exercise options based on their own desires from a wider framework of the existing opportunity. And of course, sustainable development through people and for people highlights an important dimension of human security, that of citizens’ participation in the creation of a peaceful, stable and justifiable global system.
I was born in a typical remote village of Bangladesh. I remember reading social affairs in high school, and thought it was very interesting–some of the stories pertaining to the role of Union Parishad (local government body in the rural area of Bangladesh) my teacher told still stick with me after all these years. I remember one of my relatives who was the Chairman (elected representative) of the local Union Parishad telling me about his passion to serve the interests of general people. I had to observe, as a young child, major problems the rural community was facing. One afternoon in village, ward member of the Union Parishad had come for dispute resolution in a neighboring house. Without any motive, I was in and around the arbitration and the experience was devastating for me, and suddenly made me aware of the menaces of rural dispute resolution where might takes the place of right. I was the eye-witness of two major floods affecting my village where I hardly found the assistance of Union Parishad. One fine morning, I was moving towards my school (school where I enrolled as a student of class VI was 2.5 KM away from my home) and I met local Chairman uncle on my way. With due respect, I asked him why you did not provide adequate relief support to the flood victims and in reply, grow up first and explore why we are too mistreated to stand beside vulnerable community despite having our strong will? Since then, it strikes my mind to understand the importance of local government for ensuring welfare of the local people.
I believe, creating sense of ownership among the community for the local government will help bridge gap between the government and the rural people in Bangladesh. My research has tremendous impact on society. With my research undertaking, I perceive local government as social organization happens in everyday life. Apparently, because of the underlying characteristics of local government as social organization, people can monitor their everyday work and involvement in other activities that are controlled forms of human interaction. To have a sense of identity with the social organization, being closer to one another helps build a sense of community.
You have written extensively on local governance, grassroots political participation, human security and sustainable rural development in Bangladesh. How has rural politics impacted better governance in Bangladesh?
Ideally, the answer to this question is long and I seek the endurance of my valued readers. Bangladesh has been an advocate for empowered local governance, actively promoting it by utilizing the multi-stakeholder approach. Bangladesh has long-shared the importance of achieving equitable rural development. Rural community development in Bangladesh led to not only socioeconomic improvement but had implications for social, economic and environmental systems. The population of rural Bangladesh faces critical issues of social, economic and environmental sustainability such as a significant decrease in water supply caused by a significant loss of water resources (springs), recurrent natural disasters and the probable impact of climate change. These issues lead to significant threats to agricultural and community livelihood. However, rural development in Bangladesh is found to be less progressive as most community-based organizations are reported to be inactive. Furthermore, increasing community dependency on outsiders’ help and the absence of community perceived development has contributed to the underdevelopment of rural Bangladesh, resulting in human insecurity, discrimination and poverty in rural Bangladesh.
Political security of the rural community is truly reflected only when they have access to the decision-making process of local government with freedom of choice for the selection of their representatives to the Union Parishad (the lowest tier of local government bodies in Bangladesh). The local government of Bangladesh gives rural people opportunities to taste freedom and participation. In 2015, there was a paradigm shift in the local government system when the Cabinet decided to hold local polls on a partisan basis. By changing the century-old practice of non-party poll at the local body level to the first-ever partisan poll, there are new challenges for political parties of Bangladesh. I think that a genuine quest for sustainable development depends on prioritizing effective and inclusive participation in the development planning and enforcement. It also entails political elites’ willingness for allowing a platform where people irrespective of party affiliation, race, gender and profession will work for the betterment of society.
Why should they (citizen) participate in the local government?
Citizen’s participation is widely used in the discourse of development for the last few decades. Meaningful participation has come to be recognized as an absolute imperative for development. Since rural development is a people’s program, it is essential that people should take an active part in rural development activities. As an essential pillar of a democratic and public service transformation, Local government is where solving the problems of democratic development has to start. One important way of strengthening democratic institutions without weakening the executive is to ensure the active participation of the citizen in the rural development process by the way of making the standing committee of the local government effective. Standing committees allow the members to perform numerous functions that otherwise might not be conducted at all. They help organizations to reduce their workload and perform different functions more efficiently with the formulation of rational decisions and providing an important means of oversight on the function of governing bodies. For instance, Union Parishad is the lowest tier local government institution working for a long time for providing service to citizens at their doorstep. It is the only institution to ensure good governance, development planning, implementation, transparency, and accountability for rural areas in Bangladesh.
What could be the best solutions to the social inequalities and vulnerabilities as perceived by the people of rural South Asia amid the pandemic?
In the wake of the COVID pandemic, people-centered development is the core of discourse as this approach appeared in the cutting edge of international development discourse focusing on self-belief, self-reliance, and community living with the spirit of togetherness, social justice, and participatory decision-making. The government of South Asian countries is working hard to align its new course of action with the cutting edge of contemporary development discourse for regaining confidence in the implementation of SDGs amid the COVID pandemic. A clear institutional framework with reinforced management and planning capacities, participatory mechanisms and regular financial negotiations between all levels of government and local communities in the developing countries is crucial to define priorities within SDGs and plan of action accordingly.
The government of the developing countries including Bangladesh must strive to foster dialogue with all stakeholders mobilizing a multi-level stakeholder, which can accelerate the collective efforts while setting enabling national frameworks that empower local actors to develop and lead their strategies aligned with the SDGs. The government of the South Asian countries must strive to foster dialogue with all stakeholders mobilizing a multi-level stakeholder, which can accelerate the collective efforts while setting enabling national frameworks that empower local actors to develop and lead their strategies aligned with the SDGs. The expansion of human security depends on sustainable development. The gap between poverty and the rich must be diminished. Creating equalities and social justice can contribute to reducing the conflicts between urban and rural areas in South Asia, I believe. Last but not least, a strong local government with adequate resources, a delegation of authorities and a positive mindset of the political leaders in the South Asian countries severely affected by the COVID pandemic is a must for localization of SDGs and improved governance at the grassroots level.
What is your advice to the new generation researchers?
I am of the view that the local sphere of government is in the best position to facilitate the mobilization of local development stakeholders, notably the NGO and private sectors, local communities, and national and international organizations for attaining inclusive sustainable development within their respective localities. Participatory grassroots local government is indispensable for delivering SDGs, particularly in poor and marginalized areas. We are in dire need of approaches and methodologies that will better examine sustainable rural development and local governance issues, as well as identify the interplay between civic engagement, grassroots political movements, social justice and the construction of social interactions among the social groups and communities within countries of origins and elsewhere. These include the examination of human rights, discrimination, poverty, and marginalization via lenses of social justice.
The perspective is chosen deliberately as the researcher’s interest is in the implication of public policies towards strengthening local government bodies. Research with this perspective has not yet been done, whereas there is extensive local governance, social justice and equitable development literature available that explains and benefits the viewpoints of the policy makers that is leaving a scope for improved policy formulation in South Asia. However, to create a more precise overall view of the whole public policy framework in this regard, the research should be continued and take the interplay of both policy makers and implementers. It is widely acknowledged that well-placed, high-level political commitment with relevant expertise and knowledge can play a major role in building commitment to the democratic governance at the grassroots level and it’s mainstreaming into broader development.