Powerful elites: how to strengthen legislatures when your opponents are in charge

Who would object to the goal of 'reducing child and maternal mortality' or 'ending extreme poverty'? Political programmes are not so lucky – they often have opponents. Powerful ones. 

Tom Bridle
14 April 2016

Woman and child, Burkina Faso. Shutterstock/Hector Conesa. All rights reserved.

Woman and child, Burkina Faso. Shutterstock/Hector Conesa. All rights reserved.This new project – a collaboration between the University of Oxford and WFD that brings together academics, policy-makers and practitioners working on promoting democracy – is a very welcome addition to the growing body of research and discussion around legislative strengthening. To a striking degree, there is an emerging consensus around what is needed, though – as Alina Rocha Menocal and Tam O'Neil noted in their 2013 report – there is still a 'gap' between knowing what should be done and actually putting it into practice.

READ MORE: Breaking new ground in parliamentary strengthening

There is still a 'gap' between knowing what should be done and actually putting it into practice.

I have been working (for what seems like much too long now) on a guide to designing and implementing legislative strengthening programs (LSPs) for USAID officers. What's emerging from that effort are five guiding principles for those programmes. The shorthand for those five principles is: politics, policy, process, people and partnership.

I'll comment here just on some aspects of how that guidebook proposes to conceptualise politics as an aspect of programmes. We all seek to think and work politically. For legislative strengthening programmes, that has to start by acknowledging a growing body of academic literature on the importance of legislatures to democratisation, economic growth and development. Steven Fish in "Stronger Legislatures. Stronger Democracy" and the late Joel Barkan were probably the best-known researchers on the impact of strong legislatures.

Followers of legislative issues should – nay must – also become acquainted with the work of Ken Opalo, whose forthcoming book on how African legislatures really work, how they are kept weak, and the consequences promises to be a major contribution to the field.

Surprisingly unknown in the legislative field is the work of Gary Cox and Barry Weingast – both heavyweight co–founders with Douglass North of the entire field of institutional development. Cox in particular has done a remarkable study on how executive branch rulers, democrats and non-democrats, through modern history have used various formal and informal powers to 'defang' the legislative branch, especially its ability to oversee budget-making. "Exploiting panel data from 1850–2005, we show that the executive’s horizontal accountability to the legislature significantly moderates the economic downturns associated with leadership turnover, while its vertical accountability to the electorate does not," Cox and Weingast note. "These results suggest that, in terms of moderating succession–related downturns and thereby promoting steadier economic growth, the health of legislatures is more important than the health of elections."

Weakness is in the interests of the national elites who benefit from having a monopoly over the power.

The fundamental question for legislative strengthening programmes, then, is why are developing country legislatures so uniformally weak and dysfunctional? The fundamental political answer is because that weakness is in the interests of the national elites who benefit from having a monopoly over the power to make policy decisions and allocate assets in ways that further enrich and empower themselves and their allies.

Who suffers from this distribution of power? Non-elites are denied equal access to political and economic opportunities, equitable distribution of public assets, and suffer a host of other ills as a result. There's a second order effect as well, in that states with weak legislatures tend to be less politically stable, and non-elites are disproportionately affected by political violence.

This has another important implication for how we 'think politically', because it means that any effort to strengthen the legislature – whether it has purely domestic roots or is supported internationally – has a political consequence and a political objective. It redistributes power away from the executive branch and the elites to the legislature and non-elites. Some donors and implementers are comfortable calling that process 'democratisation', some are more squeamish, but whatever it is called, it should generate a reaction.

Some development programmes are lucky in that there may be debate about the best means of implementation, but no question about the value and nobility of the objectives, and no one who would oppose their success. What kind of monster would object to the goal of 'reducing child and maternal mortality'? Or 'eliminating extreme poverty'? Bill Gates will never have to worry that mosquitoes will organise public protests over how they are being hurt by his anti–malaria programs. Legislative strengthening programmes are not so lucky. Because they are political programmes, there are opponents. And the real dilemma for them – and most governance programmes – is that those opponents are very often in charge of the very institutions that we want to strengthen.

Like many of the authors here and elsewhere, I see issue–based programming (and other 'non-political means to political ends') as an important way of overcoming that dilemma. Finally, I am struck that the papers here make relatively little reference to the three functions of 'lawmaking, oversight and representation' that have been the cornerstones around which the vast majority of programmes and writing about legislatures has been organised. This three-function structure is not particularly helpful. It's not how good MPs work. I see programmes moving towards what I've called a 'policy-based approach', which engages MPs (and others) not just on individual issues but through a cycle of activities that incorporate all three of those functions.

It's encouraging to see that others are also thinking along the same lines, and I'm looking forward to more.

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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