Rules of the game: negotiating obstacles in the 'closing space' of parliamentary strengthening

Development Alternatives Incorporated, like all organisations engaged in parliamentary strengthening work, is selective about where it chooses to operate. How does it assess – and surmount – potential obstacles?

Sarah Leigh-Hunt
2 September 2016


Credit: Wikimedia/Rachel Clayton/DfiD. Some rights reserved.
"Implementers should always value inclusivity and collaboration." Pakistani women voting in 2013 for the first time ever, after help from UK aid. Credit: Wikimedia/Rachel Clayton/DfiD. Some rights reserved.It’s an obvious statement that development assistance takes place in some of the most challenging environments in the world. Yet what is less obvious, frequently overlooked and at times even undervalued, is that doing this work successfully requires a high degree of cultural agility, political sensitivity, awareness and relationship-building skills on the part of the implementer. These are not talents that can be easily measured or quantified through existing ways of measuring achievement, but are just as important as the results they produce. 

Indeed, these qualities are especially vital in a world in which many countries and areas of work are increasingly becoming a ‘closing space’: witness a foreign agents’ law in Russia and NGO expulsions from Egypt in the last four years, for example. Even if greater confidence on the part of beneficiary governments in participating and negotiating within the aid discussion is a welcome trend more broadly, these sorts of developments are highly concerning. This is not least because they impact the ability of national partners to operate, foster debate and encourage commitment to reform on the part of host governments, but also because they close the door on any meaningful discussion about the merits of the democratic process. 

In this environment, an approach centred around a collaborative, inclusive and context-sensitive attitude is even more crucial. While not a solution, approaching parliamentary projects specifically in this way can go a long way in mitigating suspicion, overcoming any potential obstacles and most crucially, safeguarding the sustainability of outcomes. Parliaments are a key part of the governance framework, the mechanism of checks and balances, so tailored and appropriate assistance is essential in ensuring durable democratic processes and institutions in a variety of contexts around the world.
But where to start? As a consultancy that has over 40 years of experience implementing projects for the likes of the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office, the EU, World Bank and USAID, DAI constantly reflects on its approach to its work — what it chooses to do, how and where it operates.

Thinking and working politically

Indeed, this (along with the work of other similar companies) came under scrutiny at a recent International Development Committee enquiry into DfID’s use of contractors. This was prompted by a Mail on Sunday investigation which, reading between the lines, appears to harbour the suspicion that for-profit consultancies by their very nature are not sufficiently motivated or structured to do development work that equates to good value for money. Yet, a fly on the wall in one of our meeting rooms would have to sit tight while lengthy discussions unfolded below about the suitability of each and every single project we decide to bid on. This brings us to the crux of the argument.
A fly on the wall in one of our meeting rooms would have to sit tight while lengthy discussions unfolded below about the suitability of each and every single project we decide to bid on
Yes, commercial considerations will always be at play — a more detailed argument can be made another time on the merits of this arrangement — but what matters most is that DAI like many others has built in some of the qualities listed above right from the start of its engagement with any project, including those supporting parliaments. 

Other considerations during these lengthy discussions are around both technical and operational aspects: the feasibility of the project at hand (which necessarily goes hand-in-hand with value for money); whether internal resources can be allocated to ensure efficient delivery; whether any logistical challenges can be countered; and how best risk exposure can be mitigated and contained to ensure the safety of all our personnel and beneficiaries as much as possible, without compromising on the project’s objective.
There is no doubt that what helps in this assessment is a deep understanding of the context in which we intend to operate. Much has been written in recent years about the need to ‘think and work politically’[I] — a piece of common sense that underscores the vital nature of one of the most intangible qualities of a project. Working in Bangladesh from 2007 to 2012, for example, DAI project staff really valued the importance of an exceptional network of local partners to engage both political and government stakeholders around the issue of strengthening accountability and transparency within parliament. The ability of these organisations to advise on and navigate the context was essential to securing a buy-in from a challenging set of actors in a tense and politicised institutional system. Understanding and capturing this knowledge and even identifying these partners could be done only through thorough political economy analysis.

Parliament of Bangladesh, Dhaka. Credit: Wikimedia/Micah Parker. Some rights reserved.

  Parliament of Bangladesh, Dhaka. Credit: Wikimedia/Micah Parker. Some rights reserved. If we as the implementer gain this solid understanding of the key actors, institutions and ‘rules of the game’ in any given country, and can effectively assess where their influence might lie, then we can also start to see the project not as a standalone entity but part of a bigger picture — one where others can impact it, and vice versa, where we might alter dynamics to good or bad effect. So, in that sense, being selective at the outset is important for us, our clients and our beneficiaries. Being selective is about being honest over what is feasible and appropriate. And maintaining that politically-attuned focus continues. In Azerbaijan from 2007 to 2011, DAI’s team correctly identified that while there was openness to initiating training for National Assembly staff, this would need to be delivered well in order to create space for the discussion of broader institutional reform. With tailored and highly effective training delivered, buy-in was successfully established, enabling the project to focus on and support more substantive change such as the establishment of constituency offices; more positive links with civil society organisations, including their participation in committee meetings; the launch of a parliamentary website; and a successful MP orientation programme after the 2010 elections.  

Integration, not interference

Both the examples highlighted so far also point to a skill that comes with a politically sensitive mindset: securing local commitment, engagement and ownership through a facilitative approach. Identifying incentives for buy-in from the beneficiary perspective is invaluable, and often uncovers new ways of thinking or addressing problems that can reduce charges of ‘western’ influence. This in turn can help overcome wariness of being perceived as interfering politically, something donors have long grappled with when it comes to parliaments and other political bodies. 
Moreover, projects should not “inoculate…from the reality of politics,” but seek to provide space in which the constituent parts of the democratic process can grow and develop skills in participation, analysis, advocacy and leadership. This can happen at all levels and in many ways, whether supporting learning and knowledge sharing, providing capacity building, advising on process development, or chairing dialogue. Whatever the scenario, the emphasis for the implementer should always be on enabling those it works with. 

A variety of approaches can be seen in some of DAI’s work: in Tajikistan, we have integrated committee support staff into our project in order to build research and training capacities, at the same time as working together to develop long-term sustainability plans for the secretariat in which they sit. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, DAI has facilitated the establishment of parliamentary institutes and fellowship programmes,[II] which continue to provide opportunities for beneficiaries to build skills and share knowledge — developing a future chain of parliamentary expertise. And again in Pakistan, our AAWAZ programme has also worked specifically with women to build understanding and capacity to influence government accountability from the community level up through its innovative Democracy: From Home to Parliament project.

By working together at this level, both donors and implementers have the opportunity to shape the best ways of delivering assistance in the future

 It goes without saying that implementers should always value inclusivity and collaboration, seeking to work with everyone in an ethical and neutral manner. There are plenty of best practice standards around which provide guidance on this, not least the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Common Principles of Support to Parliaments launched in 2014. 

And yet perhaps this is where implementers — and donors — do start to falter. While working in a coordinated manner is largely distilled at the implementer-beneficiary level, there is still work to be done at the implementer-donor nexus. Much emphasis is placed on situating projects within their context, but sometimes this approach seems to forget that part of that context is other projects. Where this may be identified, the tools are lacking to integrate the work of others effectively. 

Governance systems are a complete package and should be recognised as such, with complementarities and joint opportunities maximised as much as possible. Such cooperation can also be invaluable for exchanging knowledge, learning lessons and formulating best practice that all can benefit from. By working together at this level, both donors and implementers have the opportunity to shape the best ways of delivering assistance in the future.  

Indeed, there are some immediate challenges that really do need to be addressed together. This article has discussed elements that are not easily captured, identified or reported on. There is no doubt in my mind that through improved understanding and interaction, the benefit of engaging and learning from others becomes self-fulfilling. But how do we respond to this challenge within the development context? How do we instil the value of such ‘soft’ skills? How do we measure them? And what weight do we give them in seeking to achieve and measure success?


I. See for example David Booth & Sue Unsworth (2014), Alina Rocha Menocal (2014), Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett & Michael Woolcock (2015)

II. These are the Afghanistan Parliamentary Institute (API) and Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Studies (PIPS) respectively. The API Fellowship Programme has provided 135 scholarships to date and 1,000 trainings.

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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