By Devin O’Shaughnessy, Director of Programmes
Do others in the democracy-strengthening sector think it is inappropriate for one country to focus primarily on sharing its model with beneficiaries, rather than offering a more international, comparative approach? This is certainly a legitimate discussion to have, but I hope others will agree that having a mix of parliamentary strengthening actors is helpful.
By embracing Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s unique position in the parliamentary strengthening field, rather than resisting it, I am convinced we are helping bolster the sector’s overall effectiveness. I believe we are offering our partners what they need: an in-depth understanding of a particular form of democratic practice and culture – parliamentary, party, electoral – from which they can decide what is of interest, and what is not right for them. We often mobilise acting and former parliamentarians, senior party members, government officials, and civil servants to share their experiences and offer practical guidance on how to manage the day to day challenges of democratic politics and governance.
One aspect of our unique value add is in decoding and explaining why certain practices have evolved in the UK, what the particular strengths and weaknesses are of these methods, and how they may or may not be relevant for a specific context. We strive to build close, long-term relationships in the countries where we are working, which helps us develop a strong understanding of the local context. This is crucial to our ability to identify relevant practices from the UK – and from other countries – about which our partners may like to learn more.
In Westminster coalition governments are a rarity, so the majority and opposition have developed a system where they treat each other with respect – clearly defining the rights they have to speak and the ‘usual channels’ through which they decide on parliamentary business and the parliamentary/ calendar. It is a positive example of a developed political culture where the opposition is respected, but not able to filibuster or create endless squabbling.
The Westminster approach explains why WFD places so much emphasis on the importance of helping political parties function effectively within parliaments. This isn’t about exporting the Westminster model; it is about ensuring parliament has a strong voice in divided societies and is able to keep a government’s business moving forwards. The Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont is a strong example of this, too. Stormont, as well as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, represents a successful attempt to allow for a diverse set of dispensations at the sub-national level. These strengthen the political ties that bind the UK together – important lessons for other countries going through devolution.
(Above: Researchers from the Parliamentary Budget Office in Serbia shadow their counterparts in the Scottish Parliament)
None of the above means we view our role as being to convert the world to British parliamentary practices, however. Instead we offer a response to demand from countries which want to hear practical, detailed examples of how parliaments function in other countries. Those in states transitioning to democracy often want to explore what they hear from a variety of countries and contexts and pick out what works for them. One example among many of this is Tunisia and Morocco’s interest in the UK’s public accounts committee model, which both North African countries are now in the process of adapting for their context, despite using systems historically more similar to France’s.
We believe focusing on the British experience helps ensure our programmes are context-specific, too, as each country we operate in has a different response to the UK approach. Of course we avoid the temptation to offer generic trainings in any case, but what helps with this is the need to understand their interests. In a lot of cases, we find their interests are party interests. This is why helping parties and helping MPs understand how they go about their business within a partisan context is critical. It is an under-focused area of assistance which WFD is seeking to address via our new integrated programming concept. This, too, draws on Britain’s unique democratic experience, as much of the UK’s insight is about precisely this.
There are practical reasons for supporting a country-specific approach as well. One big advantage is diplomatic. Peer-to-peer encouragement and positive pressure for change often proves very effective. Using MPs, who carry real diplomatic weight in this sense, gives WFD’s programmes real clout. This is especially the case where there are strong historical connections and/or growing links between countries.
(Above: Ghanaian delegation meet Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow)
To be clear, we do not just focus on sharing the British model. We have seen that our partners also want to learn about other practices, perhaps from their neighbours or even much further afield. We seek to understand what is happening in parliaments and political parties around the world, so that we can facilitate experience and relationship building globally. We have parliamentary programmes in around 25 countries and deliver party and regional programmes in more than double that amount. These relationships give us the ability to identify innovative, effective practices from all corners, find the right tools for each context, and reaching out to our networks to share them. The historical ties of the Commonwealth and our links to their institutions also reinforce this approach.
We draw confidence from the fact that donors are increasingly recognising the importance of the country-focused approach. In the past, there has been perhaps too much focus on sharing general principles, rules, and institutional structures, and too little on how these components work in real life, where politics, history, culture, and individual incentives intersect and influence actual practice.
There should be space for all kinds of approaches to operate effectively. Non-specific comparative approaches – which can be useful for understanding the general principles of democracy and good governance – should be reinforced by the activities of organisations like WFD which offer their own unique perspectives, rooted in a country’s historical experience and the evolution of its democracy. WFD is also ideally placed to facilitate similar relationship building and experience sharing between countries that have much to offer each other, that without our intervention would be unlikely to happen. The tone of how these lessons are explored will always be important – it must come from a place of respect and friendship – but their value should not be dismissed. We believe a diversity of approaches will lead to stronger overall results.
(Main photo: Alex Schlotzer)