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Politics and parliamentary strengthening: where to now?

Parliamentary strengthening programmes have had limited success to date, in part because the lessons learned from previous projects rarely become public knowledge. A new project seeks to change that. 

Susan Dodsworth
23 February 2016
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The UK's development arm (DFID) helps fund cement production in Ethiopia. Simon Davis for DFID/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

In the late 2000s a two-part consensus emerged between academics, policy makers and practitioners in the realm of democracy promotion. First, parliaments needed to be strengthened if the international community was serious about promoting democracy. Second, that we had done a pretty poor job of it so far. In perhaps one of the most egregious examples, one organisation conducted training for MPs in Timor-Leste in English and Portuguese. Many of the MPs, native Tetum speakers, spoke neither of these fluently. As a result most of the content was lost in translation.

Fortunately, many of the key actors in the realm of democracy promotion listened to their critics. Several of them – including the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) – commissioned reports that examined why existing parliamentary strengthening programmes weren’t working and identified which changes were needed to make parliamentary strengthening more effective. Those seeking to strengthen parliaments were typically instructed to:

• Pay attention to context, including the nature of the political regime and the electoral system.

• Be more patient; take a long term approach.

• Be comprehensive; make parliamentary strengthening part of larger democracy promotion programmes.

• Respond to local demand and facilitate local ownership of programmes.

• Focus on specific issues such as HIV or financial management, instead of launching general parliamentary strengthening programmes.

Above all, these reports emphasised the need to be more political: to pay attention to the political economy of parliaments, and to go about parliamentary strengthening in more politically-minded ways.

It is hard to argue with many of these proposals. Few would seriously contend that we should ignore the political context of developing countries, or disregard the issues that local actors identify as most important. To some extent, parliamentary strengthening has changed. In the past international actors tended to arrive in the field with pre-designed plans and programmes. Now local voices, including those of MPs and parliamentary staff, play a much bigger role. In 2013, consultants engaged to formulate an EU-funded economic governance programme in Zambia reported that senior parliamentary staff had “essentially driven” the design of the parliamentary component of that programme. Among other things, the programme aims to support the establishment of a parliamentary budget office, an objective that even a short conversation with a Zambian MP exposes as a top priority.

Opening the evidence base

Yet for the most part, the changes listed above have proved difficult to put into practice, in part because the evidence base that supports parliamentary strengthening remains very limited. Our new project, a collaboration between the University of Oxford and WFD, aims to change this. Titled ‘the political economy of democracy promotion’, this collaboration brings together academics, policy makers, and practitioners working on democracy promotion in a way that previous projects have not. We will use WFD’s own evidence base, previously inaccessible to researchers, to work out which programmes have been most effective, where, and why.

The existence of this project stems from WFD’s willingness to adopt a self-reflective approach to its work. It has taken a leap of faith by making its records available to outsiders, like myself, who cannot work without access to empirical evidence. Doing so is undoubtedly daunting given that donors, and the ways they work, are often blamed for the poor returns that parliamentary strengthening programmes have so-far delivered. We hope that this collaboration inspires other organisations working on parliamentary strengthening to make the most of the material that they have accumulated by opening it up to external scrutiny. Part of the problem is not that things are entirely unknown, but that they are known only by a select few individuals whose expert knowledge and experience remains inaccessible to the broader community.

In embarking on this project, we need to have a clear vision of what we need to know. One thing is clear: policy makers and practitioners seeking to increase the impact of parliamentary strengthening programmes don’t need more exhortations to pay attention to context or facilitate local ownership. They need research that helps them understand how to do those things, and how to overcome the barriers that have stopped them from doing things differently so far. With that in mind, we’re targeting some of the gaps identified by other researchers. These include a lack of research into innovative practice in parliamentary strengthening, a scarcity of information about how particular programmes or approaches have been successfully adapted to different contexts, and an inadequate understanding of the different actors that engage in parliamentary strengthening and their distinct approaches to that task.

Which needle in the haystack?

In tackling these gaps, a crucial first step is knowing what successful parliamentary strengthening looks like. It would be easy to assume that we’ll know it when we see it, but it might not be so simple in practice. In evaluating parliamentary strengthening programmes and making suggestions about how they might improve, both conclusions and prescriptions are contingent on how the ultimate goals of such programmes are defined. Is the objective democracy or development? Can it be both, or must the pursuit of one necessarily come at the expense of the other? Should we settle for development first and democracy later?

Existing research is pretty clear on the fact that even though democracy and development are not always at odds, neither do all good things necessarily go together. Sometimes we may be able to make use of synergies between democracy and development. In others we might have to settle for doing no harm, avoiding unintended negative impacts on development when pursuing democracy, and vice versa. That said, ‘doing no harm’ is often not as easy as it sounds. This is in part because prior research has tended to ignore how different types of aid, including aid with different objectives, interact.

We also need to remember that different actors define the primary objective of parliamentary strengthening programmes in different ways. There is significant variation in the formal institutional mandates of the various organisations that engage in parliamentary strengthening. An organisation like the World Bank is likely to accord development top priority, while WFD necessarily puts democracy first (although in recent years it has also tried to align its work with DFID’s poverty reduction priorities). What amounts to success in the eyes of the World Bank may not look the same when seen through the eyes of WFD.  This means that the best way to go about parliamentary strengthening may vary depending on who is responsible for the programme.

Ideally, we would like to identify strategies for increasing the chances that steps towards democracy and development reinforce each other. In practice, this might not always be possible. A case in point is the common recommendation to use more issue-based approaches in parliamentary strengthening. Such approaches include programmes that help parliaments to grapple with the intricacies of public financial management, or the challenge of regulating and overseeing the government’s management of the natural resource sector. These kinds of interventions might prove effective in achieving their immediate goals – goals more closely linked to development – but it isn’t clear whether they can foster the kinds of transformations that will improve the quality of democracy. A more effective system of public financial management could reduce corruption without necessarily triggering any democratic gain.

A final gap that our project aims to address is the limited exchange of knowledge between different actors working on parliamentary strengthening. This was highlighted last year by the International Development Committee’s enquiry into parliamentary strengthening. So, if parliamentary strengthening is your thing, we want you to be a part of the conversation through the Parliamentary Strengthening UK Community of Practice. Tell us what you’ve seen work best, what you’d do differently (and what’s stopped you), and what you wish you knew.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

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