WFD to lead new Commonwealth programme on parliamentary accountability and inclusion

WFD will implement a £4 million programme to build trust in democratic institutions and support the political engagement of minorities and vulnerable groups in 18 developing countries across the Commonwealth.

The programme, funded by the UK Government as Chair of the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting (CHOGM), was announced by Foreign Secretary Rt. Hon Boris Johnson MP during the 2018 CHOGM Parliamentary Reception on 17 April.

The 2012 “Charter of the Commonwealth” sets out the values of the Commonwealth of Nations: “Governments, political parties and civil society are responsible for upholding and promoting democratic culture and practices and are accountable to the public [..]. Parliaments and representative local governments [..] are essential elements in the exercise of democratic governance.”

As of 2018, in many Commonwealth democracies the representation of women, young people, people with disabilities and the LGBT+ community remains limited, while the extent to which parliament oversees the executive is weak.

Over the next two years, this programme will work with Parliaments to help address these issues in 18 Commonwealth Member States across Sub-Saharan Africa and South-Eastern Asia.

The partnership will focus on two main areas: inclusive democracies and accountability.

Building inclusive Commonwealth democracies

In this area, the programme will aim to:

  • Get more women to become politically active.
  • Promote political rights and engagement for minorities, including youth, LGBT+ community, and people with disabilities.
  • Increase respect for Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Building accountable Commonwealth democracies

In this area, the programme will aim to:

  • Help Parliaments adopt and implement the new set of Commonwealth Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures.
  • Strengthen the ability of parliaments to hold government to account, including working with Public Accounts Committees across the Commonwealth.
  • Encourage greater openness and transparency among Commonwealth governments, including facilitating collaboration with the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

The Commonwealth Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures

The Benchmarks provide a minimum standard to be met by all Commonwealth Parliaments and a description of how a Parliament should act, behave and function.

The programme will support partner parliaments who wish to carry out assessments of their own parliamentary culture, functioning and development based on the Benchmarks.

Partnership management and participating organisations

The programme will be managed by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), WFD’s sponsoring Government Department and implemented by Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), in partnership with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s UK Branch and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum.

 

 

(Photo: David Holt, creative commons)

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Helping women run for office in upcoming Sri Lanka local elections

“I had heard about the new women quota but had little knowledge on how local government operates and the opportunities for public involvement”, says Ms. Jeeva Nishanthini, a 26-year-old local Tamil resident from the Nuwara Eliya district, Central Province of Sri Lanka.

Between October 2016 and March 2017, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), in partnership with the Federation of Sri Lanka Local Government Association (FSLGA) organised five workshops targeted at potential cross-party women candidates.

Local government elections are due in 2017; the last elections were in 2011 and held without a compulsory quota for women candidates. The introduction of the quota by the Cabinet in 2016 is widely supported by political parties who welcome the requirement to nominate a minimum of 25% women candidates to compete in provincial council elections.

As a result of the WFD workshops , prospective candidates such as Jeeva have a better understanding of how the 25% quota , along with practical knowledge of local government, could help Sri Lankan women become more active in political life.

“My political interest started when I was a 20-year-old” Jeeva explained, “I had tried once to contest the local election even though I didn’t have sufficient knowledge of local government”. Sri Lanka’s system prior to the introduction of the quota could not guarantee support for women candidates from party structures or from traditional patriarchal communities. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough support of my family or party leaders” Jeeva said, “I was helpless and disappointed very much”.

The workshops supported capacity building amongst marginalised groups, particularly women and different ethnic backgrounds in regional and rural Sri Lanka who were offered the opportunity to develop their political knowledge and skills. As part of the training, participants were encouraged to develop a joint action plan focusing on policies relevant to women in the local area.

Participants were also encouraged to form a cross-party network of women candidates to continue supporting one another until and beyond the provincial elections. WFD provided a venue for Sri Lankan civil society and individuals to engage with political representatives who also attended.

“I am thankful to the coordinators who have helped me and my other colleagues” Jeeva says . Efforts by Jeeva and other pioneering women candidates in the upcoming local elections will help make women’s voices heard in Sri Lankan’s politics and invite more and younger women engage in the public domain. For effective democracy to root, women must gain representation and become actively involved in the decisions affecting their own communities.

WFD and the FSLGA are hopeful that this initiative can contribute toward greater gender equality by empowering more Sri Lankan women to get involved in politics. Once a bigger pool of female candidates is established at local level, opportunities increase for women, and more women become inspired to compete in the 2020 general election.

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Crafting effective legislation needs a solid understanding of society

(Above: Muhammad Mushtaq (Joint Secretary – Legislation, National Assembly) and Javid Iqbal (Drafter – Legislation Council, Senate) with Dr Alasdair Allan, Scottish Government Minister for International Development and Europe)

Kashif Mahmood Tariq, a former legislative drafter from Pakistan participated in a WFD organised placement in October 2016. Following his placement he argued that effective legislation needs a solid understanding of society.

Parliaments find it very easy to pass laws. Yet those who work for them often find themselves scratching their heads about how to get them actually implemented. The answer is straightforward enough, argues Kashif Mahmood Tariq of the Pakistani Institute of Parliamentary Services (PIPS). It lies in the laws themselves.

At the theoretical level, he told WFD at the end of a six-week secondment with the UK’s Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, legislation is often biased against the individual because it is used as a mechanism for the state to get its way. The bulk of South Asia’s substantive criminal and civil law was drafted by 19th Century utilitarians: the state has priority over the public, which has priority over the individual. This empowers functionaries and institutions. Yet it is not a very useful approach when legislating for social change in the 21st century.

At the practical level, the problem is that people just say ‘no’. Hence the controversy which surrounded the passage of the Provincial Assembly of Punjab’s Domestic Violence Act into law this February (an achievement which WFD played a role in making possible). This, Mr Tariq says, is why he took a different approach when a National Assembly parliamentarian asked him to draft a similar bill. He and his team drew on principles from sharia law, the Pakistani constitution and the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Mr Tariq’s draft focused on combination of consultative mechanisms and remedial measures. “Instead of the preventive approach – the electronic bracelet – I focused on rehabilitation centres,” he says.

Mr Tariq, PIPS’ Deputy Director Legislation, is able to do this because PIPS has a broader remit than the UK’s OPC, which drafts laws narrowly in accordance with instructions from government departments. The PIPS acts on the request of parliamentarians, who may “share their ideas or their issues of their queries”, but don’t usually come up with “the policy action that can be done to address such issues”. This makes Mr Tariq’s role critical to the success of the legislation produced in Pakistan’s National Assembly, Senate and provincial assemblies. It also means he has a licence to innovate, as has been the case with the legislation he has prepared tackling plagiarism in academic work. “In the entire world there is no country which has substantive law to prevent plagiarism,” he points out. “I drafted it. It was entirely my brainchild.”

Mr Tariq’s work covers the full breadth of social issues. This can be a challenge in a cultural context as diverse as Pakistan’s. The most extreme example of the challenge faced by governance in Pakistan is the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). “You cannot diminish traditions,” Mr Tariq says. “So you have to try to find ways to incorporate those traditions into modern law… If you would try to convince the FATA people that they should respect the CEDAW, they would not listen to you. But if you reach out to them to engage them, you would be able to draft something [effective].”

This approach should be replicated by parliamentarians more broadly, Mr Tariq believes. He suggests organisations like WFD should do more to help bring MPs together with civil society.

Workshops which act as a bridge “between parliamentarians and institutions” other than parliament would help. Another approach could embrace Gandhi’s philosophy that changing one’s home village is the key to changing society. Focusing on basic units – the districts in Pakistan – could be assisted with funding for conflict resolution centres or rehabilitation centres, for example. Thomas Jefferson, one of the United States’ founding fathers, used to say that the individual is the key of civil society. It is a principle Mr Tariq hopes can be embraced by all those engaged in strengthening democracy.

He and his team at PIPS are responsible for providing legislative drafting support for a total of 1,280 parliamentarians across Pakistan. As with many things in life, Mr Tariq says parliamentary strengthening works best when the recipients are willing to engage. “One person can satisfy the hunger of 100 camels if they are thirsty, but 100 persons cannot force a camel to drink water if it is not thirsty.”

Still, all those who work in parliaments around the world wish to see the laws they pass implemented. By building a greater understanding of the needs of both society and citizens into legislation, Mr Tariq believes their capacity to change lives for the better will be dramatically expanded. His is an argument any legislator would be tempted to agree with.

Further to Tariq’s placement, WFD has been able to support the placements of Muhammad Mushtaq (Joint Secretary – Legislation, National Assembly) and Javid Iqbal (Drafter – Legislation Council, Senate) who undertook two week placements in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

As the federal parliament of Pakistan develops its legislative drafting capacity to meet demand amongst parliamentarians for Private Member’s Bills and to scrutinise and amend legislation, WFD has been able to support the three institutions at the disposal of parliamentarians to fulfil their legislative roles.

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Supporting effective subnational government in Burma

Westminster Foundation for Democracy is committed to supporting the consolidation of democracy in Burma at both the national and regional level. Whilst our programme (in partnership with the UK House of Commons) with the Hluttaw in Naypidaw goes from strength to strength, our team in Burma looks to develop a complementary programme at the State and Regional level.

To ensure the programme delivers local government in line with citizens’ expectations and as outlined in the 2008 constitution, the team conducted a scoping visit to two States and two Regions earlier this year to determine how WFD can support the respective Hluttaws as they too develop their institutional capacity.

Although logistics and time did not enable the team to visit all 14 States and Regions the team were exposed to a range of different contexts and challenges. WFD was warmly welcomed in Sagaing and Magwe Regions, and the States of Kayah and Shan, all of which present a unique context for delivering parliamentary support.

Applying context to programme development

Sagaing is the largest of seven regions, located in the north-west part of the country which is predominantly ethnic Burman, but other minorities such as Zomi and Naga (forming the Naga Self-Administered Zone) reside within the region. It is also the second largest sub-national parliament in Burma after Shan.

Magway is the second largest of the seven regions and though part of central Burma, it is considered remote due to the lack of good transportation. The population is majority Burman with very small numbers of ethnic minorities such as Chin, Rakhine, Karen, Shan and Anglo-Burmese. Shan State, which covers roughly a quarter of the country’s territory, with the largest Hluttaw in Burma is also the most politically complex.

The Shan people are Burma’s biggest ethnic minority, but the growth of other minorities has led to the creation of 4 Self- Administered Zones which provide a certain amount of autonomy for the Danu, Pa-O, Kokang, Pa Laung, and the Wa people. Although small and mountainous Kayah State is no less complex with a number of different ethnic groups although the Karenni are the largest.

The programme will ensure an inclusive approach so that the interests of each ethnic group are represented within the Regional or State Hluttaw and also how in turn these Hluttaws interact with the national legislature in Naypidaw to deliver real change for citizens across Burma.

Next steps for developing the sub-national programme

WFD’s planned involvement with the States and Regional Hluttaws meets the needs of the changing circumstances in Burma as they adapt to the new political dispensation. The process of providing for Regional and State Hluttaws goes back to the 2008 Constitution that allocates a considerable amount of responsibility in the provision of services as well as in economic development, tourism and the environment to the state and regional level.

As new institutions, with newly elected Members, WFD wants to support the Hluttaws to fulfil their responsibilities. WFD will work closely with the Union Parliament, with which WFD signed an MoU in November 2016. Using the full breadth of the UK democratic experience, including the process of devolution, we work closely with the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to support countries transitioning to democracy. This experience has been utilised in our work with sub-national assemblies in Iraq, Kenya and Pakistan and we hope to bring the same experience to the programme in Burma.

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From Westminster to Tynwald: Lao delegation visit UK

(Above: Hon. Steve Rodan MLC, President of Tynwald with members of the delegation from Laos)

In March 2017, Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s programme Supporting the Capacity and Accountability of the Lao Parliament, offered a delegation from the National Assembly the opportunity to exchange ideas on how different jurisdictions approach the rights of citizens and legislation through a study visit to the UK.

WFD uses the full breadth of the UK democratic experience to support best-practice exchange platforms between parliamentsThe delegation, led by Mr. Khenthong Nuanthasing, Vice-Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and consisting of senior MPs and staff from the National Assembly, visited the UK’s largest parliament in Westminster and the world’s oldest parliament in Tynwald.

(Above: The delegation from Laos: Mr Khenthong Nuanthasing (Head of Delegation), Vice-chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee (NA); Mr Kongci Yangchue, Vice-chairman of the Justice Committee (NA); Mme Pingkham Lasasimma, Vice-chairman of the Economic, Technology and Environment Committee (NA);Dr Bouthan Bounvilay, Head of Research Centre of the Institute of Legislative Studies (NA); Mr Somlet Choulamany, Chairman of People’s Provincial Assembly of Salavan Province; Dr Souvanny Saysana, Chairman of People’s Provincial Assembly of Bolikhamxay Province.)

Sessions in the Houses of Parliament, including meetings with Bob Neil, Chair of the Justice Committee, Mathew Hamlym, Head of the Overseas Office of the UK House of Commons, and Simon Burton, Reading Clerk and Head of the Overseas Office of the UK House of Lords offered the delegation insight into how the UK approaches legislation related to issues of justice.

In Tynwald – the oldest continuous parliament in the world that can trace its history over 1,000 years – the delegates were given insight into the island’s life, the unique relationship between the Isle of Man and the UK and they also received information on how Tynwald operates on a day to day basis.

(Above: In Westminster’s Portcullis House, the delegation meet with Bob Neill MP, Chair of Justice Committee)

The delegation visited the High Court of Tynwald, which is the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world, and met His Excellency Sir Richard Gozney, Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man at the Isle of Man Government House.

Of particular interest to the delegation was how Tynwald supported a diversified economy – although the island is well known as a financial base or tourism destination, the Lao MPs were surprised to know that it exports 1,500 tonnes of cheese to the USA and also provides technical equipment to the aerospace industry! These impressions provided food for thought in the role of parliament in providing the framework for a successful economy to flourish.

(Above: The delagation with Roger Philips, Clerk of Tynwald)

WFD is excited to build on the experience of the study visit through continued work with members of the Lao National Assembly in the areas of justice and rights over the coming months.

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The Speaker’s role in Sri Lanka

“May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

Thus, spoke William Lenthall, House of Commons Speaker, in a seventeenth century tussle with the Monarch. Incidents like this contributed to shaping the role and establishing the independence of the Speaker.

Fast forward a few hundred years to February 2017. One of Asia’s oldest parliamentary democracies, Sri Lanka, hosted a round-table with presiding officers and parliamentary officials to explore the rules, conventions and practices related to the Speaker’s role and office.

As the Sri Lanka Parliament continues to operate and reform its Westminster style parliamentary system, there is scope for greater awareness by elected representatives, political parties and officials about the Speaker’s role, function and how best practices can be adapted to the Sri Lankan context.

The Speaker’s office plays a critical role in managing the chamber in Westminster style Parliaments. Cross-party support and participation in deputising are important to maximise understanding of the presiding role and its responsibilities. In the current Sri Lanka Parliament of 225 Members, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker or Chairman of Committees are from different parties of the ruling national unity government and the Deputy Chairman of Committees is from the Opposition. In addition, there are ten Members of Parliament on the Panel of Chairs, selected from the different political parties and factions. They can and do deputise for the Speaker.

Through exchange with peers, practical examples and discussions, the inaugural February 2017 round-table aimed to build the capacity of presiding officers and senior parliamentary officials to effectively fulfil their responsibilities and respective roles. Round-table discussions explored how presiding officers should handle points of order, questions of privilege, time allocation for Members who wish to speak, unparliamentary conduct and so on. Delegates from the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka participated in the day and a half long round-table.

(Above From Left to Right: Ms Dina Melhem, WFD Regional Director, MENA and Asia; Baroness Frances D’Souza, Mr Karu Jayasuriya, Speaker of the Sri Lanka Parliament; Sir Nicholas Winterton; Mr Priyanga Hettiarachi, WFD Sri Lanka Country Representative; Mr Chamal Rajapakse, Former Speaker of the Sri Lanka Parliament)

Crispin Poyser, House of Commons Clerk, traced the history of the House of Commons Speaker. Robin Ramsay, Adviser to the Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker, outlined Westminster practices adapted to a devolved context. Baroness D’Souza, Former Lords Speaker, revealed the rarefied elements of presiding in the House of Lords. Sir Nicholas Winterton, Senior Member of the House of Commons Panel of Chairs, emphasised the virtues of impartiality and fairness in rising above the hurly burly of everyday business. Together, their insights and experiences were expertly deployed to navigate the challenges and opportunities for those presiding and supporting Speakers in the United Kingdom.

Dhammika Dasanayake, Secretary-General of the Sri Lanka Parliament, and senior parliamentary officials, expertly shared insights into the relevant rules, conventions and practices applicable to the Sri Lanka Parliament. The Speaker, Former Speaker and Members of the cross-party Panel of Chairs, who deputise for the Speaker, made valuable contributions, sought clarifications, raised issues and provided their input.

Capacity building and awareness raising involving the Speaker’s role and office remains a niche, important and innovative area for WFD programming. Learning from the round-table and follow up activities may be relevant to Parliaments elsewhere looking for ways to address similar challenges and opportunities. More broadly, the Sri Lanka Speaker “noted the importance of such exchanges for expertise sharing, knowledge gaining and relationship building, amongst MPs, officials and Parliaments.”

Work in this area has everyday relevance and impact. In March 2017, while presiding in Parliament, the Sri Lanka Speaker was confronted with circumstances where Government Members criticised him for being lenient with Opposition Members; and Opposition Members criticised him for favouring Government Members. After giving Members an opportunity to speak, issuing due cautions and warnings, and adjourning the sitting, the Speaker suspended a Member from the Parliament for one week. About this incident, the Speaker is quoted as saying:“We have regulations and traditions inherited from the British Parliament.”

 

(Top: Participants at the round-table in February 2017)
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The real value of regional programmes

Devin O’Shaughnessy, Director of Programmes

In some international development circles, the term “regional programme” carries with it a certain stigma.

“Expensive…too many international flights…no national impact…unsustainable” are just some of the criticisms lodged against regional programmes. Moreover, the tendency among most major donor agencies to devolve decision-making powers to embassy level leads to minimal demand for regional programmes, as what embassy wants to dilute their resources for the sake of other countries?

As a recipient of a global grant from FCO and DFID, WFD is in the privileged position to be able to design and deliver regional programmes that otherwise would be difficult to find funding for from the donor community. This has allowed us to deliver a series of unique programmes in the Western Balkans, Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and Africa that are driving significant political reforms in financial oversight, women’s rights, and parliamentary and political party effectiveness.

For over two decades, WFD has been facilitating exchanges between the UK and partner countries in order the share the best of the British experience in political party and parliamentary practice. In recent years, we came to realise that we could enhance our approach by supporting exchanges among our partners through regional programmes and not just between the UK and the rest of the world.

At first, our decision was based on the recognition that the UK’s systems and practices might not be as relevant to our beneficiaries as good practices from their own region, where history, language, political systems, and resources were often more similar than to the UK. However, over the years we have increasingly recognised that as relationships deepen among our partner parties and parliaments, a form of “positive peer pressure” begins to develop, whereby our partners compete to see who can make the most progress on its reform goals.

(Above: From top: Tha’era: Arab Women’s Network for Parity and Solidarity, Regional meeting on SDGs hosted with GOPAC in Asia, Network of Parliamentary Committees from the Western Balkans)

The UK’s Liberal Democrat Party, through its support to the Africa Liberal Network, was able to secure human rights commitments – including prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – among more than 40 political parties across the continent, a result that would have been impossible working only at the national level. The Labour Party’s Women’s Academy for Africa (WAFA), a network of eleven Labour, Socialist, and Social Democratic parties from nine countries, is promoting gender equality, empowerment and political advancement of women in Africa, with more established members supporting newer parties through trust-based relationships and ideological connection. The Conservative Party, Green Party, and Scottish National Party are increasingly investing in this model as well.

Meanwhile, regional parliamentary programmes in the Western Balkans and MENA are bringing together members of parliament (MPs) with mutual interests in financial oversight and combatting violence against women, respectively. In 2015 WFD collaborated with the Serbian Parliament – with technical expertise from the Scottish Parliament – to establish the country’s first parliamentary budget office (PBO), which WFD hoped would inspire other parliaments in the region to consider establishing similar bodies. Soon after, WFD began working with the Montenegrin Parliament to establish a PBO, and WFD is now in similar discussions with the Kosovo Parliament.

WFD has supported the Arab Women MP Coalition Against Violence since its founding in 2014, helping establish chapters across MENA to advocate at both regional and national levels to combat violence against women and girls. With the support of FCO’s Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, over 250 MPs from 11 Arab Parliaments have provided each other moral and technical support in developing national legislation, with notable improvements made in domestic legislation in Lebanon, and new draft laws on domestic violence in development in Tunisia, Iraq, and Morocco. The Coalition is also working closely with Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (AIPU) to develop a regional convention on violence against women and girls; with WFD’s support, the Coalition was recently granted official observer status by the AIPU.

In short, we believe regional programmes can deliver results in ways that other programmes cannot, and that WFD and the UK parties will continue to explore the potential of regional programmes to catalyse widespread political and governance reform.

 

(Top: The Labour Party supports Tha’era: Arab Women’s Network for Parity and Solidarity through it’s WFD funded programme)
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New WFD partnership to support historic change in Burma

Burma’s democratic transition was one of the most watched in the world in 2016. After over 50 years of military rule, the national parliament faces the challenge of delivering change in line with citizens’ expectations.

Starting in 2017, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) will partner with Burma’s legislative body, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Parliament), to assist with the development of an efficient and open parliament.

Burma has suffered long periods without a sitting legislature and parliament lacks the facilities and systems necessary to support effective law-making, oversight and representation. Building the capacity of parliament to help a large number of new MPs and parliamentary staff fulfil their functions is also needed.

The WFD programme will offer expertise from the British parliamentary experience in partnership with the House of Commons, provide English language training through the British Council and help develop the systems and infrastructure a modern Parliament needs.

Under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding signed by WFD and the Hluttaw, the House of Commons will second experienced parliamentary specialists to offer day-to-day support and coaching to committee and research staff.

(Above photo: Hon. U Win Myint, Speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw, participates in best practice exchange with UK counterpart, John Bercow)

Using a combination of MPs, parliamentary staff and experts from the UK and the region, the programme will share experiences that will support the capacity of the Hluttaw in a number of areas.

To help MPs carry out legislative research and wider learning and to foster international relations, we have partnered with the British Council to provide an English Language Enrichment Programme.

We will also work with the Irrawaddy Policy Exchange to propose ways in which existing facilities can be better used, to make best use of the space.

On 23 January, the Hon. U Win Myint, Speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw marked the beginning of this important collaboration with an official visit to the UK Parliament. The visit focused on the Westminster committee system, how Prime Minister Question Time works, and the role of the Whips office and will inform the next stages of the partnership.

Speaking at the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding, WFD’s CEO Anthony Smith CMG said:

“We are honoured to be working with the House of Commons and the British Council to support the Hluttaw as it increases its skills and begins to play a full part in this country’s political, social and economic development.

“The Hluttaw will play a critical role in ensuring that all citizens are properly represented, that the many policy challenges are fully debated, and that there is clear accountability by government.”

Check out www.wfd.org for regular updates about the programme and follow WFD on Twitter to keep up to date with all of our programmes.

(Top photo: Signing of Memorandum of Understanding between WFD and the Hluttaw)
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Interview: Franklin De Vrieze

(Above: Franklin De Vrieze, Devin O’Shaughnessy (WFD’s Director of Programmes) and Anthony Smith (WFD CEO) meet the Secretary General of the Hluttaw and his staff in Naypyidaw)

Over the next three years Westminster Foundation for Democracy will deliver its biggest programme yet, helping Burma’s Hluttaw meet the expectations of its citizens as it strives to strengthen its position in national life.

WFD spoke with consultant Franklin De Vrieze, whose extensive parliamentary strengthening experience includes work for UNDP, OSCE and the EU, on his work with WFD and the programme in Naypyidaw.

WFD: What are the latest developments, Franklin?

FDV: After the elections from last year, and with the new Parliament taking office in March, we see a new kind of acceleration in activity. There’s a lot of new members – 80% of the intake – which means they have to learn a lot. On the other hand, the staff are now quite experienced – having been new themselves in the first mandate. The staff, to their credit, are now advising the new members. And the new members are very eager to learn.

WFD: They’re determined to learn more about their role?

FDV: Yes, MPs in Burma do read a lot. Unlike in other parliaments where MPs rely on their staff, demanding one-pagers on everything, in Naypyidaw they study a lot. The library’s reading rooms are always full of MPs reading. They have a strong eagerness to learn.

WFD: What would you say is one of the biggest challenges facing MPs?

FDV: With a new Government having taken office in Myanmar, there is a big expectation that much existing legislation will either be repealed or revised. The Myanmar Parliament is currently reviewing over 400 laws, adopted either during the previous Parliament or beforehand. This constitutes a big workload, but there is also a clear need for some guidance on the best methodological ways how to approach this review of existing legislation. In order to have an informed decision on this, it’s important to know what is the impact: what has worked, what doesn’t work.

WFD: And this is where you come in?

FDV: I’ve done a comparative analysis of post-legislative scrutiny in different countries, looking at the practices on the parliaments’ role in oversight on the implementation of legislation and parliament’s role in evaluating the impact of legislation. We aim to present this comparative analysis to the Myanmar Parliament, and then conduct a workshop to reflect on the options available.

WFD: What are those options?

FDV: In broad terms, we can say there are two approaches. We have the UK approach, where all committees have the power and the mandate to do post-legislative scrutiny as part of their regular oversight job. And then you have the Indonesian model, where you have one committee which has both the mandate to do post-legislative scrutiny and also the resources, through a dedicated research unit. By presenting these approaches, the Hluttaw will be able to consider its long-term options.

The idea would be that the comparative analysis would be shared with other parliaments. We can also develop a manual or a handbook on post-legislative scrutiny which can be used by various parliaments throughout the region and the world.

WFD: Hasn’t anyone does this before?

FDV: Traditionally post-legislative work didn’t get a lot of attention, so far in parliamentary strengthening, most of the attention has been going to the adoption of legislation and the legislative process. So far, not so much attention has been given to post-legislative scrutiny. Many programmes have looked to the oversight role of parliament, but not specifically assessing the impact of legislation.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has the potential to substantially contribute in this area. A number of WFD’s other programmes can take this on board – for instance the programme in Indonesia is particularly interested.

WFD: What are the other elements of the programme in Burma?

FDV: First of all, the programme is building upon the House of Commons’ assistance over the last two years – there are now three full-time seconded staff from the House of Commons based in Naypyidaw. This WFD programme builds on that, but goes further in the sense that a number of additional programme components have been added in terms of thematic support to committees.

Another area we will be providing support is the relationship between Parliament and Government. Under the previous administration, the relationship was difficult. Communication channels were very centralised. Now a direct line between each ministry and the relevant select committee has been established. We want to formalise this.

We also want to look into issues of parliamentary oversight, and how committees can organise consultations, public hearings and even field visits. This latter would be a new practice; Myanmar is a huge country and some areas take two to three days to reach. Still, exploring this would lead to a discussion about how much constituency work is possible.

WFD: What themes from Burma are relevant across the region?

FDV: Firstly, there’s questions of youth unemployment. Throughout Asia you have a young population. It’s mostly online, and seeing what’s possible in terms of quality of life. That’s a key issue, creating economic and social opportunities – the challenge is huge.

Another, I think, is the environment question; this is very sensitive in Myanmar and the tensions there are reflected elsewhere in the Asian context.

Then there is the question of ethnicities, another important and sensitive topic. There is an appetite to learn from the peace processes in other countries, and particularly the role of parliament in this.

WFD: Franklin, thanks for your time.

FDV: My pleasure.

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What do parliaments & parties bring to the SDGs?

(Above: Effective gender budgeting would support women councillors in Gulu Uganda to deliver vital services for women in their communities)

WFD’s Director of Programmes Devin O’Shaughnessy reflects on how democratic institutions can influence implementation of the global goals. 

Parliaments and political parties have important roles to play in helping countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular Goal 16: promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, providing access to justice, and building accountable and inclusive institutions.

Legislation, oversight and representation: The role of parliaments

From drafting legislation to conducting oversight, parliaments play a critical role when it comes to the successful implementation of the SDGs.

Around the world, legislation will need to be passed or amended to create new government programmes that address structural barriers to achieving equitable growth, protecting the environment, and improving health and education. Parliamentarians’ legislative skills and expertise in various sectoral areas must be bolstered, through investment in parliamentary libraries and research units and technical support to select committees.

Budgets will need to be scrutinised and passed that commit sufficient resources to meeting the development goals; this could mean less investment in the military and more on infrastructure and water management systems, for example. Effective use of gender and youth budgeting to make sure government investment is benefitting women and other vulnerable groups will also be key.

By enhancing the role of parliament in the oversight of a country’s efforts to achieve the SDGs, it can act as a check on the executive in its commitment to achieving the SDGs, whilst ensuring that each ministry is playing its role effectively by implementing programmes and making investments that tackle the whole range of issues covered by the goals.

Parliamentary Budget Offices (PBOs), like the ones WFD has helped establish in the Serbian, Ukrainian, and Montenegrin parliaments over last few years are a vital tool in producing the analysis and information needed to ensure implementation of the agenda stays on track. Improved research capacity will be essential to test whether governments are providing accurate data on social and economic indicators; key to measuring progress.

Parliament’s role as a representative body means it can facilitate input from a broad group of citizens. By holding hearings and engaging CSOs, the media, and citizens on the importance of the SDGs and the progress being made (or not made), parliaments can make sure people’s views are being represented in the policy process.

Public interest, delivery and an international approach: The role of parties

Political parties have a critical role to play in generating debate and public interest in the SDGs. The SDGs can serve as a useful pillar in party platforms and manifestos, focusing the attention of their supporters and voters on the importance of making progress on these goals, as well as providing direction to their senior officials when they are in power.

When in opposition, parties can look to the SDGs to hold to account the party or parties in power, pointing out any failures to make progress and offering alternative policy ideas and leadership to help achieve these goals.

On a global level, party internationals can mobilise their member parties to discuss the SDGs and take common stands on the importance of achieving the goals, and how they as a family of parties would go about achieving them through the application of their ideology and policies.

(Above: Workshop to update CPA Benchmarks on Democratic Legislatures in line with the SDGs)

With both parties and parliaments, we can help encourage the establishment of global and regional standards and mechanisms to help facilitate the achievement of the SDGs. For this, we will need to work with others to tackle implementation at different levels. Our efforts to update the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Benchmarks on Democratic Legislatures to take account of the SDGs – in close collaboration with the World Bank, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), UNDP, and others – will ensure progress against goal 16 is not ignored. Encouraging participants from three of our partner parliaments to take part in the International Parliamentary Project on Sustainability, Energy and Development, led by CPA (UK Branch), raises awareness of the range of issues addressed within the goals. Establishing or bolstering regional parliamentary networks that share information and best practices on how to encourage countries to meet their SDG targets will be crucial as well.

WFD firmly believes that the SDGs provide a real opportunity for parliaments and political parties to be actively involved in the new development agenda shaping citizens’ lives for the next decade and a half.

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