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Karachi’s federated structure has led
to more responsive city government

By Mayraj Fahim, Local Government Adviser*

12 July 2005: Karachi, Pakistan, with its 14 million inhabitants, is the largest city by population with a federated city government structure. The federated city system was implemented in Karachi over a three-year period - from 2001 to 2003 - and has been followed by other cities in three different regions of the world, including Birmingham (UK), Los Angeles and Montreal and, more recently, Baghdad.

Except for one country (Iraq), all the new systems introduced or announced were in countries familiar with integrated federated systems in some form or other. The most interesting thing about this city system is that it was implemented in a country that had an inactive period and then delivered systems for provincial/state capital cities in short order, along with implementing a system for rural regions nationwide. Consequently, federated systems are now a nationwide reality in Pakistan, comparable in implementation levels only to the pioneering country of the original system introduced in the late 18th Century - which today has the most diverse variations of this methodology in place.

Ironically, this city system was implemented in a former British colonial region where the British first introduced a rural system for some parts, and not others, in the early 20th Century. The first urban example was London, which was adapted for rural areas in Pakistan. Why they never implemented a city system in the colony is another question.

Karachi is now the largest such city by population, and London the second largest. There the similarity between the two frameworks basically ends. The reason is that London reflects a different application type. The more comparable systems are those implemented (and still being implemented) for Birmingham, England, and Montreal, Canada, which started the implementation process between 2000 and 2003.

Karachi has a three-tier system consisting of a city district council; 18 town councils (counterpart to the London boroughs, and in rural India termed panchayat samithis - the intermediate level); and 178 union (neighbourhood) councils (counterpart to the English parish councils, or gram panchayats/sabha in Indian terminology). What makes it comparable to Birmingham and Montreal, is that it has a three-tier framework as does Birmingham, and a bottom-up representative structure found in Montreal – two-tier system. The three-tier framework is uniquely British.

The parish as a unit of local administration has existed for more than 1,000 years in England and has been found to be of great benefit in encouraging community interest. Typical activities undertaken by a parish council include parks, garbage collection, maintenance of a village hall, and such things as public clocks. They also have a consultative role in planning as well as the power to raise funds through a range of mechanisms. In England, parish councils have existed in ebbs and flows, particularly in urban areas. The current phase is one of rising use, even in smaller urban systems.

Karachi (and other city systems in Pakistan), Birmingham and Montreal also share the feature of having common representation between the tiers. This feature is one that earlier renderings of the methodology did not have, such as London and Paris. In addition to the features discussed above, the Karachi system also provides for integration of civic oriented groups.

Apart from Karachi, large cities such as Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Multan, Hyderabad, Peshawar, Sukkur, Quetta, Rawalpindi and Bahawalpur are planned to be declared City Districts in a phased manner. But initially, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta and Islamabad, the capital city, have seen the introduction of the new integrated federated city-wide frameworks.

Details of the Karachi system
The Local Government Plan 2000 and the Local Government Ordinance 2001 provided for the establishment of a City District Government to respond to the specific needs of Karachi and other mega cities and larger urban units.

The governing framework of Karachi’s new system, orients the administrative system to allow public participation in decision-making. The bottom-up representative framework, where each neighbourhood (union) council is represented at each level, creates its high degree of integration. The core unit of the system is the union council, which has 21 elected members. The union Nazim (Mayor) and the Naib Nazim (Vice Mayor) are elected as joint candidates. The Naib Nazim represents the Union council as a town councilor, and the Union Nazim represents the Union Council as a city councillor. Further, to accommodate the developing country’s need to promote representation of certain segments of the society, reserved seats for them are made available at every level of the system

Council-Manager framework
Karachi’s system operates in a similar way to the US council-manager system. In that form of government, an elected council is responsible for making policy, passing ordinances, voting appropriations, and having overall supervisory authority in the city government. In the Karachi system supervisory functions are conducted by monitoring committees that monitor the functions of local governments at each level to evaluate performance of each office in relation to achievement of its targets, responsiveness to citizens' difficulties, efficiency in delivery of services and its transparent functioning.

An administrator is responsible for supervising government operations and implementing the policies adopted by the council. The Administrator serves the council

Other countries with similar systems include Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Honduras, Chile and Brazil. India also has civil service personnel but their role relative to the elected representatives lacks the features of this approach - though it was announced earlier this month that India will see how Pakistan’s approach can relate to what is the norm there for the moment.

In the US, when the system was introduced in the early 1900s, its primary promoter, Richard S. Childs (secretary of the National Short Ballot Organization and a leading political progressive reformer) had noted that it was similar to the burgomaster system used by cities in Germany, Austria, and The Netherlands.

The Three-Tier System
The Karachi City District is a three-tiered system comprising the City District Government (CDG), the Town Municipal Administration (TMA) and the Union Administration (UA). When setting up the City District Government and TMA, effort was made to enable the following,
where technical factors allowed: the principle of subsidiarity to be followed in determining which planning and municipal services/functions are assigned to the City District Government and which ones to TMA.

Town Municipal Administration
In all 18 towns of the Karachi City District, there is a Town Municipal Administration (TMA) which is a body corporate consisting of a Town Nazim, Town Municipal Officer, Town Officers and other officers of the Local Council Service and officials of the offices entrusted to the TMA. The TMA is responsible for spatial planning (land use planning and zoning), development facilitation/control (site development and building control) and municipal services (water, sanitation, solid waste, roads and streets, street lights, graveyards, fire fighting, traffic engineering, abattoirs, parks and open spaces) in a town of the City District, except those functions which for technical or other reasons are retained within the City District Government. The TMA is responsible for planning, capital investments and the operation and maintenance of municipal services.

Union Council Administration
In each of Karachi’s 178 union councils there is a Union Administration. This is a body corporate and consists of Union Nazim, Naib Union Nazim and Secretaries and the members of ancillary staff .
The Union Nazim is the head of the Union Administration. The Union Secretaries coordinate and facilitate in community development, functioning of the Union Committees and delivery of municipal services under the supervision of Union Nazim.

Participatory Democracy Mechanisms: The Citizen Community Boards
The integration of civic organizations is enabled by Citizen Community Boards (CCBs) in Karachi’s system. Similar mechanisms were implemented in Latin America, and according to an article published on this website, Belgium was the first European nation to implement them.

Citizen Community Boards (CCBs) can be set up in every local area by a group of non-elected citizens for energizing the community for development and improvement in service delivery through voluntary, proactive and self help initiatives and to take up the welfare of the needy.

A Citizen Community Board may raise funds through voluntary contributions, gifts, donations, grants and endowments for its declared purposes. It may also receive project-based cost sharing support from any local government. A Citizen Community Board is regarded as a non-profit organization and its income and assets must only be used for the attainment of its objectives and no portion of the income is to be paid by way of dividend, profit or bonus to any of its members or contributors. The accounts of the Board are subject to audit.

The development budget takes priority in accordance with its bottom--up orientation. Hence, not less than 50 per cent of the development budget can be reserved for the schemes initiated and identified by the Citizen Community Board. Under the new system, Citizen Community Boards may receive from a local government matching grants up to 80 per cent of the budgeted amount of an approved development project by depositing its share of the cost of such project.

Karachi’s new system has led to a more responsive government and one that has worked on improving the many areas of this city. It has an integrated system for a region with a large population, reflecting a framework that is increasingly being sought by even those nations without a history in the application of this methodology. A recent example is The Netherlands “Deltametropolis” plan. This region, which contains the nation’s most populous region, is in effect seeking to develop the kind of framework that is another application of the sort of integrated system characterized by the new Karachi framework. In The Netherlands’s case, it will be a system developed by the linking up of autonomous units, another way such a system has been developed. The most common example of this application are the post-1950s regional council municipalities and their like that started becoming a Canadian hallmark. The new Montreal framework came into being from the consolidation of one such system. The Montreal framework is the one-unit federated example, as opposed to the multi-unit federated systemic framework of its predecessor system. In a sense The Netherlands’s initiative seeks to create the sort of framework that Montreal was once a part, before the 28-unit Montreal Urban community.

Hence, Karachi, Pakistan’s system, even though it reflects the heritage of a framework that is rooted in the region’s pre-Independence past, has dimensions that make it a notable variation of a methodology that is increasingly being adapted because it is driven by the needs of changing ground conditions - more pronounced in Pakistan’s large urban cities than in The Netherlands.

Furthermore, Karachi’s new system implementation has illustrated that an enormous undertaking of this order can be undertaken in an amazingly short time. It is still in the process of ironing out the kinks of implementing such an enormous undertaking - but this is to be expected. It is also heartening that the current government has set a standard that encourages transparency. In fact, the Mayor of Karachi invited Transparency International to see what they could do to help the City implement a transparent and accountable system from the bottom –up.

They started with a pilot program intended to be spread across the city region once it is finessed. This is very important, since a federated system needs to avoid islands of neglect and isolation. For that it needs a Government that is comprehensively on top of what transpires in its various parts.

*Mayraj Fahim, the author of this article, is a local government adviser. Her occupational focus in local government has been in the areas of municipal finance in the United States and in municipal finance monitoring internationally. She also advises on local government reorganization in the United States and internationally. If you require further information on any points made in this article please email,

World Mayor 2023