Representing reality? Cost of politics and diversity in Ghana

Is there a correlation between the high costs involved with running for political office in Ghana and the lack of youth and women represented in politics?

Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s new research report, launched in Accra in early March, in partnership with the Centre for Democratic Development (Ghana), explores the impact the 59% increase in average spend by candidates from 2012 to 2016 to secure their political parties’ nomination at the primaries stage and contest the parliamentary election has on women and young people.

Ghana’s current parliament has its highest ever percentage of female legislators, but with just 13% sitting in the 7th parliament, it is still a long way off representing the make-up of the population.

This imbalance is also reflected in the average age of MPs in parliament which, although dropping, is 48 years old. And it is not just in parliament where youth remain underrepresented; of the 253 successful and unsuccessful candidates interviewed for the WFD and CDD “Cost of Politics in Ghana” survey, only 12% were under the age of 35.

Financial barriers for young people

“The high cost of politics discourages the youth from actively taking part in the decision-making process, as well as vying for electoral positions” was the view of one survey respondent. In fact, 65% of respondents agreed that young people are excluded from the outset because they cannot mobilise resources for the high costs involved. Candidates under 30 on average spent GH₵203,000 (US$46,000) across the primary and parliamentary contests in 2016; 48% lower than the average.

That is not to say there aren’t exceptions; some youth do contest and win. In 2016, a 23 year old law student, Francisca Oteng Mensah made history by becoming Ghana’s youngest elected member of parliament. However, with her father an international businessman, she was less likely to be constrained by finances than others. Research in Nigeria supports this: it found that the handful of younger politicians who are in elected office tend to come from wealthy backgrounds.

Again, there are special cases. In Kenya’s 2017 election John Paul Mwirigi, a 23 year old student, campaigned on a shoestring budget, using classic door to door campaigning to win a parliamentary seat. These instances, where young candidates are able to win seats despite a lack of finance, merit further study if we are to better understand how they appeal to prospective voters without vast resources at their disposal.

Choosing not to run

Women candidates also spend less in their pursuit of elected office. On average their expenditures for the primaries were, 65% of the average, and during the election contest themselves, 73% of the average, according to the survey data. But this comparable underspend does not impact significantly on their chances of winning; 36 out of the 69 New Patriotic Party (NPP) and National Democratic Congress (NDC) women candidates who contested to become an MP won their seats in 2016. The issue, it seems, is not that women who choose to run are disproportionately impacted by the associated costs, but more that they chose not to run at all.

The challenge of fundraising, particular for the often highly contentious party primaries, appears to be more acute for women who often do not have the same access to social networks or personal finance to self-fund campaigns. Combined with prevailing patriarchal social attitudes and the fact that, as research from Kenya shows, women are disproportionately susceptible to violence during election campaigns, the decision not to stand is understandable.

Tackling exclusion

85% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that the high costs of politics have made it impossible for the average person to seek political office in Ghana. A legislature that fails to adequately represent a cross-section of the population, can, in turn, lead to the alienation of groups in society who feel under-represented in parliament.

Improving the quality, and reducing the cost, of political party primaries can open the space to get more women and young people to think seriously about contesting for political office. Political parties, particularly the NPP and NDC who hold every seat in the legislature, are also in the best position to push forward short-term, interim changes argues Professor Gretchen Bauer of the University of Delaware, whose current research focuses on women’s political leadership in Ghana. “We know from decades of research that parties are the gatekeepers. Parties can recruit and support women; if they really wanted more women candidates, they could make that happen”.

Standing women or youth in “safe seats” to improve their representation is often discussed in Ghana and can be a way of getting greater representation into parliament in the short-term. But these sorts of changes will have to overcome prevailing social attitudes in a space that continues to be dominated by men. Only half of our survey respondents, 90% of whom mere male, felt that the financial costs of politics made it difficult for females to seek political office.

For longer term change, more substantive discussions about whether Ghana’s first-past-the-post electoral system is conducive to producing a diverse legislature is required. As is more research to better understand party primaries; a crucial entry point into politics that is too often ignored. In both settings – the primaries and parliamentary contests – finding ways of reducing the associated costs are key to opening the door to a broader representation of society to stand for public office in Ghana.

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Active transparency and trust in parliament

By WFD Director of Research Graeme Ramshaw

The WFD Research Programme has been investigating citizens’ trust in parliament both in partnership with the UK House of Commons and through its work on the Western Balkans Regional Openness Index with ActionSEE. We found that the picture is neither as rosy nor as gloomy as others contend.

In September 2017, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) published a reported entitled “Trust: The Fight to Win It Back” reflecting the international community’s growing concern about the disconnect between citizens and their governments. The report’s content is rich, and I won’t attempt to summarise it here, but the underlying premise for many of the authors was the prominence of transparency in the quest for improved citizen trust. Now, I’m not about to argue on the side of less transparency, but I think that in the context of the institutions with which WFD works the reality is more complex.

First, there is an issue with presenting trust as a principal objective for parliaments and political parties. Parties are partisan entities and by their very nature will only be trusted by those who align with the party’s platform. Trying to gain the trust of more of the citizenry may dilute the important function that parties serve in aggregating specific interests. This is distinct, of course, from individual politicians being trustworthy, and there is ample evidence that citizens can hold diverging opinions on the integrity of their specific MP versus the institutions to which he or she belongs (Costa et al., 2012; Davis, 2009).

Parliaments find garnering trust equally difficult. They are designed as fora of debate, making partisan ‘bickering’ a feature rather than anomaly of their function. In an era of growing political polarisation, this makes trust an increasingly rare commodity. Indeed, evidence from the World Values Survey suggests that parliamentary trust generally hovers around 40% in established democracies, with very little movement either way. Interestingly, trust in parliaments in authoritarian regimes is significantly higher, also bringing into question the validity of trust as an indicator for democratic legislatures.

On the extent to which transparency leads to trust, there also remains no clear consensus. Recent evidence finds that in several countries, the more citizens know about the workings of parliament as an institution, the less they trust it or are satisfied by it (Hansard Society, 2017). This has led some scholars to openly question the link between transparency and trust: “Not only have MPs never worked so hard, but also transparency has never been so high and there has never been so much information or access to parliament. What is more, decline in trust in parliament depends more on variables external to parliament than on what parliament actually does. However, as collective, visible and accountable institutions, parliaments are destined to be unloved” (Leston-Bandeira, 2012, p. 525).

While trust in political institutions is likely to remain elusive, we can encourage greater engagement and satisfaction of citizens through transparency efforts. But the quality of that transparency matters. Passive transparency, the publication of data, proceedings, and other documentation without description or explanation, is insufficient, and in worst cases, can be manipulated by those seeking to undermine trust in democratic institutions—a point acknowledged in the OGP report.

What is needed instead is active transparency where parliaments and political parties are not only open about their activities but actively communicate the rationale, purpose, and outcome of these activities. Parliamentary communications remains a nascent field at present, but its development is necessary to ensure that open data initiatives progress beyond merely presenting material to creating genuine citizen access. WFD through our partnership with OGP and others looks forward to supporting this transition and the emergence of truly open parliaments and political parties.

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WFD research to inform cost of politics talks in Ghana

At what point does the cost to stand for election become so high it affects equality, trust and good governance?

New data shows the cost of running for political office in Ghana went up by nearly 60% over one single electoral cycle (2012-2016).

Opening the second phase of WFD’s flagship research into the cost of politics, an in-depth analysis of the costs incurred by candidates in Ghana, published in February, will inform WFD technical talks with government, political parties and civil society about practical steps to ensure wider and fair access to politics.

Ghana has held six elections since returning to multiparty democracy in 1992 with three peaceful power transitions, including, in 2016, the first defeat of a sitting incumbent. However, multiparty competitive elections can be costly affairs for aspiring and incumbent legislators. WFD research found between 2012 and 2016 the cost of running for political office in Ghana increased 59%. On average candidates needed to raise approximately GHS 390,000 (approx. USD 86,000) to secure the party primary nomination and compete in the parliamentary election in their constituency. If the cost of politics rises to unaffordable levels the danger is that politics becomes the domain of the elite and wealthy, and that the motivation and incentives of MPs move from serving the public to recovering their own investment.

The cost of elections in Ghana

WFD’s new study, in collaboration with the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD), breaks down the various costs involved in seeking public office in Ghana. Over 250 candidates and sitting MPs were surveyed about their experiences in the 2012 and 2016 elections. These findings were complemented by individual interviews and focus groups. Four key areas of election expenditure – campaigns, payment of party workers, media and advertisement and donations – were analysed in detail at both the party primary level and during parliamentary election campaigns. They paint a picture of an environment where male candidates outspend female ones; where the greatest costs incurred are by candidates standing in municipal areas; where party primaries, particularly those of Ghana’s two main political parties (the NDC and NPP) can be very expensive affairs; and where an ability to spend the most money is, by and large, a critical factor in successful winning a seat in elected office.

In Ghana, a sitting MP earns GHS 233,000 annually (approx. USD 51,000). Therefore a successful election campaign on average costs them the equivalent of the best part of two years’ wages. This illustrates how much of a barrier to entry the cost of politics can have on ordinary Ghanaians who are keen to seek political office but lack substantial sponsorship.

It is important to note that the figures quoted for the items above also do not account for all the ‘soft’ money raised and spent by the candidates in the parliamentary primaries because according to respondents, tracking how much a candidate spent in any contest is an extremely difficult exercise: ‘it is a fact that there are so many items we spent money on, which cannot be accounted for in our election budgets’, a candidate who wished to remain anonymous said. The actual cost is therefore likely to be higher than the numbers provided.

Implications of the increasing ‘costs of politics’ on democracy

From those surveyed, three broad themes emerged on the political and societal implications of rising costs of running for and maintaining public office:

  • Exclusion: women and youth suffer disproportionately when the cost of politics rises.
  • Disillusionment: increasing costs lead to the perception that competence takes a backseat to wealth in gaining seats in parliament.
  • Corruption: mounting MP debts makes them susceptible to a variety of forms of corruption.

What kinds of options are available to counter the trend or mitigate its impact? The research presented respondents with several ‘good practice’ solutions that have been implemented elsewhere to limit the growth of political finance.

Adopting ‘good practice’: what will work for Ghana?

First, those surveyed expressed strong support for remedies that affected other institutions or groups. For instance, 80% supported laws that requires balanced media coverage during elections. 88% supported civic education programmes that encouraged voters to stop making financial demands on candidates or MPs.

The sample also supported interventions that would likely benefit them personally, whether financially or indirectly. 85% supported a reduction in filing fees imposed on candidates by electoral commissions or political parties. This has been a particularly large growth area for political costs, as parties have come to realise the potential rents to be gained from extracted significant fees from their candidates.

There was far less support, however, for regulations that restricted their own ability to operate within campaigns. Just 50% favoured a cap on spending for electoral campaigns, while only 56% supported a similar cap on how much candidates could spend on media advertising. These kinds of caps have a somewhat chequered history in Sub-Saharan Africa, so the resistance may not be entirely self-serving, but the distinction is intriguing.

Lastly, over 72% of the respondents expressed support for sanctions against those who engage in political patronage. Given that 83% of these same respondents declared their approval of political patronage in a previous question, this juxtaposition strengthens the hypothesis that most political actors would like to see the system change (and the costs reduce) but few to none feel they can make that change on their own.

Instead, they accept the rules of the game as they are while expressing support for certain changes that might eventually shift the rules in a positive direction. Further research will explore this collective action problem and the effect this cognitive dissonance has on efforts to catalyse political finance reform.

The complete study, funded by DFID Ghana through the Strengthening Action Against Corruption (STAAC) programme, will be available on in February 2018, when WFD will begin engaging institutions and civil society in Ghana to present the results of the research and discuss practical action.

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UK democracy assistance: Westminster Foundation for Democracy in 2017

By Anthony Smith, Chief Executive

This year saw WFD turn 25 (we were established in 1992). As 2017 draws to a close, I would like to recall some of our best results and lessons learnt over the last 12 months.

January: making politics affordable in developing countries

We presented findings and recommendations from WFD research into the cost of politics in Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Senegal and Ukraine.

Recommendations on how to reduce the cost of becoming a legislator and being a political representative were given to members of parliament, electoral commission and parliamentary officials gathered in Abuja.

We are now working on a follow-up paper on the cost of politics in Ghana, in partnership with the Center for Democratic Development (CDD) with support from DFID. This will look at solutions that could be tested in the Ghanaian context and will be published in January.

February: peace in Colombia

We shared lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process with Colombian legislators and civil society to help inform reconciliation efforts following the peace deal between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).

The parties of Northern Ireland, along with representatives of the Church, women’s organisations, and the British government presented their experiences to Colombian counterparts in a series of meetings and workshops organised by WFD’s Multi-Party office.

The experience of Northern Ireland and the role parties and parliaments can play in addressing conflict remain highly relevant for WFD going forward, especially with reference to countries such as Myanmar and Venezuela.

March: the role of civil society in East Africa

We convened a conference in Kenya with civil society, parliamentary and governmental organisations to respond to growing threats against the role of civil society in several East African countries, where governments have taken actions to restrict and limit the autonomy and influence of non-governmental organisations.

As Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan work toward regional integration as part of the East African Community (EAC), participating organisations agreed to coordinate national responses and take action at regional level, in the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), to support civil society.

(Photo: Participants discuss the closing civil society space phenomenon at a conference organised by WFD’s research programme in Nairobi in March 2017.)

April: tackling corruption in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

We unveiled the first anti-corruption strategy in the Kurdistan region of Iraq after facilitating engagement between the Integrity Commission of the Kurdistan Region and the equivalent Federal Commission in Baghdad.

Central to the strategy is a commitment to improve the transparency of public institutions, promote an anti-corruption culture and introduce active coordination mechanisms for tracking and investigating corruption within different institutions.

Our future work in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq will depend on political progress following the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum. We continue to monitor developments very closely but we believe that the training we delivered to beneficiaries and the relationships we built can have a lasting and positive impact.

May: building citizens’ trust through open government

In May, WFD co-sponsored the Global Legislative Openness Conference, which is part of the Open Government Partnership. The conference took place in the Ukrainian Rada and was opened by the Lord Maude, former Minister in the Cabinet Office (UK) and former co-chair of the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee.

Open and transparent parliaments can contribute immensely to effective democratic governance. WFD supports partner parliaments to become more transparent and build the confidence of their constituents. At the conference, WFD presented the achievements of the Western Balkans Network of Parliamentary Committees, as well as recent work on civil society participation in the budget process in Georgia.

June: protecting women and girls in Arab Countries

Between April and August, Jordan and Lebanon repealed legislation that protected rapists by allowing them to marry their victims and escape prison. Tunisia also passed landmark legislation to promote gender equality. These landmark advances were the subject of long campaigns by WFD’s partner, the Coalition of Arab Women MPs to Combat Violence Against Women, which is supporting parliamentary initiatives in 13 Arab countries.

In June, Wafa Bani Mustafa MP, Chair of the Coalition, reported on the process to draft a Convention to Combat Violence Against Women, which earlier this year was formally submitted to Member States of the Arab League. When adopted, the Convention will be the first regional treaty to protect women from violence.

Alongside the Coalition, WFD supports a number of regional networks where effective South-South cooperation takes place. These include networks of activists and political parties such as Tha’era, Women’s Academy for Africa and CEE Gender Network for Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans (all supported by the Labour Party International Democracy Programme funded by WFD) and Rae’dat, which is being supported by the SNP’s WFD-funded programme.

(Photo: Rt. Hon. Francis Maude, former Minister in the Cabinet Office (UK) and former co-chair of the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee opens the Global Legislative Openness Conference with a key-note address on “envisioning a democratic renaissance”.)

July: giving young people a say in how Nigeria is run

In July, the Senate of Nigeria adopted legislation to lower the minimum age for candidates to certain political offices – an important step on the long road toward constitutional reform. This milestone took place as WFD launched its programme to increase political participation and representation of young people in the country.

WFD Nigeria’s Youth Empowerment Programme focuses on cementing consensus around constitutional reform (the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign is run by our local partner YIAGA), supporting Nigerian political parties in creating effective youth wings, and enabling civil society to engage more young people in the democratic process.

The ultimate goal of this programme is best summarised by the words of Kate Osamor MP, chair of the UK House of Commons All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nigeria. At the launch in Abuja she said: “Nigeria’s success as a prosperous and progressive country depends on enabling young people to get involved in the political system, shaping the agenda and taking decisions about the future of their country. That is what the WFD programme will focus on.”

August: giving a voice to persons with disabilities in Sierra Leone

On 7 March 2018, Sierra Leone will go to the polls to elect the President, Parliament and local councils. This August, working in partnership with Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI), we launched a new National Agenda for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the electoral and political process.

The agenda is centred on six pro-disability public policy priorities identified by the disability community following inclusive nationwide stakeholder consultations with nearly 1400 persons with disabilities across Sierra Leone’s 14 administrative districts. Seven political parties, four State Commissions, the Ministry of Social Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs, the Ministry of Sports, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), the media and other pro-disability organisations also contributed.

As this historic election approaches, our work continues to ensure minorities and vulnerable groups are involved in the campaign by competing parties. Following the election, our work will continue in parliament.

September: a new strategy for WFD, a new partnership for elections

In September, WFD launched a new strategic framework for the next five years during a two-day conference in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Houses of Parliament which reviewed the UK’s role in promoting democratic values globally and marked 25 years since WFD’s establishment.

WFD’s traditional focus – supporting more effective political parties and parliaments – remains central to our mission (we are now delivering parliamentary programmes in over 30 countries worldwide).

In addition, WFD will partner with other institutions with different skills, methodologies, and approaches, working together to find ways our programmes can complement one another and address the challenges of strengthening democracy from different angles.

As a leading member of the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), we remain committed to working closely with this network of democracy-support organisations and other European institutions. We will also expand our partnership with institutions from the Commonwealth and around the world, in particular from the global South.

We were therefore delighted to use our 25th anniversary conference to sign a new partnership for electoral assistance in Africa with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA).
October to December

(Photo: The National Agenda for People with Disabilities was launched in Sierra Leone in August 2017 following a series of consultations with people with disabilities across Sierra Leone.)

In the last three months of 2017, we have:

What’s next for WFD?

In 2018, WFD will begin to implement our new strategy. This will coincide with the negotiations on a new partnership with the EU which, as the PM’s Art.50 letter said, will include our shared democratic values. I have attended half a dozen discussions in the past few months about the future of Britain’s role in the world. My clear conclusion is that Britain’s democratic culture will be a critical asset not just in setting a clear direction for the future of our country but also in securing our global relationships. This is borne out in the daily interactions that I and the rest of the WFD team have with our partners in Britain and around the world.

A review of 2017 cannot end without heartfelt thanks to all of you who support our work. I wish you all a very peaceful and restful Christmas break and a Happy New Year.

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Time to stop talking about ‘closing space’ for civil society?

On 26 September 2017, the research collaboration between the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the University of Birmingham launched a new policy paper at the European Endowment for Democracy in Brussels. 

WFD Research Fellow, Susan Dodsworth reflects on the discussion at the event.


In the last few years there has been mounting concern about the state of democracy around the world. Experts have expressed fear of global democratic recession, authoritarian leaders have become more savvy in resisting democratisation, and Western democracies have become vulnerable to ‘hollowing out’ as an increasing number of people become disillusioned with, and disengage from, their political systems. While it’s probably a bit too pessimistic to claim (as some have) that ‘democracy is dying’, it is clear that democracy is under mounting pressure.

Policy-makers and practitioners tend to talk about this problem in terms of ‘closing space’, with the relevant ‘space’ defined in terms ranging from civic, to political, to democratic. Indeed, this is the kind of language that Nic Cheeseman and I use in our latest policy paper for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). In that paper, we examine when parliaments protect political space by rejecting (or reforming) restrictive civil society laws.

In the discussions that followed the launch of our policy paper, Richard Youngs (one of the leading experts on democracy support) expressed his dissatisfaction with the language of ‘closing space’. As he explained – and I found myself agreeing – talking about the repression of opposition political parties, or attempts to constrain the activities to civil society groups, in such terms obscures the fact that these things are not accidents of chance or products of circumstance. Instead, they are the products of deliberate decisions made by political actors.

This made me wonder: is it time to stop talking about ‘closing space’? There is a real risk that this term, though fashionable, is encouraging us to ignore or underestimate the agency of political leaders. This is important because if we ignore agency, we’ll never understand incentives. This matters, because it’s generally incentives that explain why certain interventions (be they diplomatic appeals, or democracy support programmes) work, while others do not.

Photo: Susan Dodsworth presenting ‘Defending Democracy: when do parliaments protect political space?’ at the European Endowment for Democracy.

Understanding the incentives that are driving the phenomenon of ‘closing space’ won’t be easy. They’re likely to vary, not just between countries but also between individuals. As our policy paper highlights, things like the nature of the electoral system can have a significant influence on what motivates legislators to resist – or facilitate – the passage of laws designed to restrict the political influence of civil society. So too can the historical legacies of colonialism, which continue to shape debates about the legitimacy of groups reliant on donor funds and those who defend them.

It may also be hard to find the time and attention required to understand incentives properly. In some parts of the world, political activists face real threats – threats of harassment, imprisonment, and serious physical harm. There are good reasons why the attention (and funding) of many policy makers and practitioners has tended to focus on supporting and protecting these front-line defenders of democracy.

Despite this, it’s critical that we invest time and resources in better understanding the incentives that are driving the closure of political space. If we don’t understand why some political leaders are adopting laws, policies and practices that undermine democracy, we don’t have much hope of helping others to fight against them in a sustainable and successful way.

Read: Defending Democracy – When do parliaments protect political space? in full. 


Photo (main): Support for LGBT+ rights has been used to discredit civil society groups in several countries, including Russia and Uganda (credit: Marco Fieber)
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WFD launches new Strategy at 25th Anniversary Conference

On 12 and 13 September, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) launched a new strategy to strengthen democracy across a growing global network at a conference marking 25 years of WFD activity.

The strategy commits the Foundation, sponsored by the UK Government, to expand the remit of its programmes – working across a wider range of institutions, processes, and themes – to help reform-minded actors and institutions in developing countries to transform their own democratic practices.

Democracy UK: Global Values in an Uncertain World

WFD was founded in 1992 in a period of optimism about the prospects for democracy in the post-Soviet world. Twenty-five years later, the challenges to democratic values have evolved and, on the 25th anniversary of WFD, the conference focused on what lessons the world is learning about sustaining democratic change when democratic freedoms are being squeezed.

Almost 200 delegates from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas took part in the event, held in the Foreign Office and in Parliament in London, which was opened by a video message from UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and keynote speeches by:

  • Mark Field, Minister of State – Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Liz McInnes, Shadow Minister – Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
  • Hanna Hopko, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee – Parliament of Ukraine
(Video: Message from Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, opens the WFD conference.)

Panel discussions chaired by Baroness D’Souza, Dame Margaret Hodge and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson heard interventions from Wafa Bani Mustafa, Chair of Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries to Combat Violence against Women, Aaron Mike Oquaye, Speaker of the Parliament of Ghana, Karu Jayasuriya, Speaker of the Parliament of Sri Lanka, Dr Bronwen Manby (London School of Economics), Samson Itodo (Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement), Rebecca Kadaga, Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda, Hakim Benchamach, Speaker of the House of Councillors of Morocco, Nikola Dimitrov, Foreign Minister of Macedonia and Alina Rocha Menocal (Overseas Development Institute).

The results of two days of engagement on the themes of democracy and development include:

  • The launch of a new Strategic Framework 2017-2022 which will guide the development of WFD and expand our range of work to cover electoral assistance and enhanced partnership work with civil society (building on parliamentary and political party support).
  • The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between WFD and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), which will help strengthen electoral processes in Africa.
  • Renewed partnerships with long-standing and new partners including the UK Government (FCO and DFID), the UK parliaments, the Parliaments of Ghana, Morocco, Uganda, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, the Government of Macedonia, the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries, European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), BBC Media Action and others.
(Photo: Chair of the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries, Wafa Bani Mustafa MP from Jordan addresses the WFD conference on 12 September.)

WFD’s New Strategic Framework 2017-2022

WFD’s traditional focus – supporting more effective political parties and parliaments – will remain a central part of the Foundation’s mission. Following nearly three years of expansion, WFD is now delivering parliamentary programmes in over thirty countries across Africa, Europe, MENA, Asia, and Latin America, and political party programmes in dozens more.

Recognising parliaments and political parties are only part of the picture and institutional strengthening is critical but rarely sufficient to transform political systems. Lasting change requires a wide range of actors to overcome significant obstacles – political, institutional, technical, logistical, and financial – to achieve their goals.

As part of WFD’s new strategy, the Foundation intends to engage more directly with civil society and electoral and other independent institutions. WFD will help them strengthen their skills and partner with other institutions to achieve greater transparency and accountability, more credible and inclusive elections, improved policy making, citizen participation and empowerment, more inclusive representation.


In a side event during the conference, WFD signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) to expand its electoral assistance programme. The new partnership established a formal commitment to collaborate through information-sharing and development of key projects concerning Africa.

Recognising elections in Africa have made significant progress towards inclusiveness and trust, WFD and EISA agree there are still many challenges to overcome. The partnership will look at:

  • Providing immediate post-election support to implement the recommendations of regional and international observer missions;
  • Developing the skills of local citizen observers and support for parties to develop their capacity to effectively monitor the electoral process,
  • Building the ability to conduct parallel tabulation of results to increase accountability.
(Photo: Chair of the WFD Board of Governors, Sir Henry Bellingham, Chief Executive, Anthony Smith and Executive Director of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, Denis Kadima sign the Memorandum of Understanding.)

The Future of Democracy Support

With over 40 democracy assistance and development organisations in attendance, the second day of conference discussed the future of democracy support and provided feedback on the new WFD strategy.

Organised around six different themes (accountability and transparency, youth participation and leadership, security and stability, women’s political empowerment, political parties and elections), a ‘democracy marketplace of ideas’ invited experts to highlight key challenges and ideas within these themes and the impact on broader democracy assistance.

Presentations were given on:

  • Political Parties – by Kate Osamor, Shadow International Development Secretary will be speaking on behalf of all UK political parties working with WFD.
  • Security and Stability – by Antonella Valmorbida, Secretary General of European Association for Local Democracy (ALDA) and Chair of the European Partnership for Democracy Board.
  • Women’s Political Empowerment – by Wafa Bani Mustafa MP, Chair of the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries to Combat Violence against Women
  • Youth Participation and Leadership – by Samson Itodo, Executive Director of Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement (YIAGA)
  • Accountability and Transparency – by James Deane, Director of Policy and Learning, BBC Media Action
  • Elections – by Denis Kadima, Executive Director of Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA)

From promoting a ‘universal’ notion of democracy, to integrating IT professionals into electoral support, the complete list of challenges, actions and ideas will inform the implementation of WFD’s Strategic Framework and provide a starting point for increased strengthening of effective, multi-party democracy around the world.

Conference proceedings

(Photo: Delegates discuss outcomes from the ‘democracy marketplace of ideas’ in a parliamentary committee style session.)
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What does power asymmetry mean for decentralisation?

Graeme Ramshaw, Director of Research and Evaluation

An organic milk factory in the rural heartland of Ukraine may seem an unusual place to contemplate the impact of power asymmetries. However, on the way to a workshop on the local experience of decentralisation, I witnessed a sense of physical exclusion that was connected to a feeling of political disempowerment among participants.

This location provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on the forms of power asymmetry identified in the 2017 World Development Report: exclusion, capture and clientelism.

We were greeted by the local mayor, newly elected following the process of community amalgamation that was the subject of our visit. He was clearly proud of his town but also acutely aware of its limitations and challenges. There were ambitions among the local council to use decentralisation as a means of reducing the impact of exclusion, but this would not be a simple endeavour. Early evidence from surveys in Ukraine suggest that initial reforms are improving service delivery and increasing citizen trust in local government. Yet, despite this progress, the process of decentralisation remains incomplete, with key legislation stalled in the national parliament.

The main stumbling block for decentralisation in Ukraine is clearly the conflict in the east. The process has now become linked with the implementation of the Minsk II Agreement, meaning that action in any direction is bound to alienate either the Russians or significant sections of the Ukrainian public who don’t wish to see any concessions made to the separatist regions. Below these context-specific headlines, however, the political manoeuvrings around the rollout of existing decentralisation legislation are all too familiar and illustrate two further elements of power asymmetry explored by the WDR17: capture and clientelism.

There is a temptation among development actors to perceive decentralisation as principally a technical exercise, to be addressed through the provision of capacity-building. Ukraine’s experience suggests another approach is needed. While there is undoubtedly a need for expertise in local structures to manage the new financial and service provision responsibilities, the main obstacles to the institutionalisation of decentralised governance are largely political. Different sides of the debate believe that the other is trying to capture the decentralisation process. Proponents of decentralisation see the government’s plan to appoint ‘prefects’ as local executives as a power grab by the central state, designed to undermine local power. By contrast, critics of decentralisation argue that local elites will or have already captured the existing financial decentralisation process and are undermining efforts to reduce inequality and exclusion. Reconciling these competing visions will require political, as well as technical, support.

But this is complicated by the kinds of clientelism highlighted in the WDR17. At the local level, Ukrainian politics is dominated by prominent individuals who shop around for a political party with which to campaign, based on likelihood of victory not ideology. As such, the relationship for constituents operates at a personal rather than party institutional level, facilitating the formation of patron-client linkages. Many of these emerging leaders are likely to play a prominent role in the 2019 elections. At the national level, politics is immensely expensive, not only excluding vast swathes of the population but also distorting the incentives of politicians once in office. A WFD report on the cost of politics in Ukraine found that while the situation was improving from its nadir in 2012, there is still a long way to go. In the past, the Ukrainian legislature has passed a modest number of relatively well thought-out laws that were supposed to prevent the spread of political corruption in the country. Unfortunately, many of them were never implemented.

This is a common theme in Ukraine. The parliamentary culture is very legalistic, with even minor changes to process or policy requiring legislative action. WFD’s recent work providing research and evidence to the parliamentary committee on local self-government is likely to result in a flurry of bills; the extent to which they will be implemented in is less clear.

So what about decentralisation in Ukraine in the coming years? The mood on the ground is mixed. Local and international actors are pleased with the progress made on fiscal decentralisation and the community amalgamation process that has begun. There are concerns, however, that even these gains are under threat as the 2019 elections approach. As long as the outstanding constitutional amendments remain stalled, the sustainability of Ukraine’s reforms seems tenuous. Those looking to move the process forward will need to operate within the tight confines of international diplomacy dictated by the Minsk II Agreement. But they will also have to consider the power asymmetries that operate beneath this top-level, whose influence is likely to play a far greater role in determining whether even the existing decentralisation reforms will last.


(Photo: embroidery festival and organic milk factory in a local community outside of Kyiv, Ukraine)
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Engaging sceptics : parliamentary communications in a post-truth era

Anikka Weerasinghe, WFD Research Associate and former Head of Media Relations, UK House of Commons

With a minority government in power and Brexit looming on the horizon, for the next two years, all eyes will be on Westminster. Renewed public interest in parliament will accentuate its responsibility to communicate with, and engage citizens in, its work.

As part of our broader open parliaments and democratic space agenda, WFD has partnered with the House of Commons for a research project to explore what effective parliamentary communications looks like. Over the next six months we will be working together to add to the body of work on the impact of parliamentary communications to provide insight and observations for policymakers inside and outside the UK.

Increased interest presents a positive opportunity for parliamentary engagement. The rise in voter turnout and use of social media in the general election last month hints at increased appetite from the public to know what parliament is doing, but still the perception remains that more must be done to address the relatively low levels of political engagement and trust.

Was there ever a golden age of politics?

In part, as a result of the 2009 Expenses Scandal, the UK Parliament has put considerable effort into increasing transparency, public engagement, education and communications. Yet many wrongly assume that there was a golden age of politics before the Scandal where an unquestioning public revered their politicians and democratic institutions. In actuality, trust in the UK Parliament has held at roughly the same level for the past decade, with the Expenses Scandal acting as only a blip in the public’s attitudes towards their representatives.

“Faced with increased public scepticism, apathy and rapid technological change, parliaments around the world are increasingly interested in engaging citizens in the democratic process and are asking searching questions about what really works”

Studies from the UK and abroad reveal that citizens’ feelings about their democracy and the individual actors and institutions that make up their constituent parts are varied, as are their causes and effects. For parliaments in particular the literature is even less revealing. There are only a handful of studies that examine citizens’ trust and satisfaction with parliaments, but even these cannot tell us the full picture. While policymakers often make assumptions about what a healthy democracy looks like, if the public has revealed anything to us over the past 18 months, it is we cannot readily assume to know what they want. We simply do not have sufficient evidence to solve the major ills of democratic decline, and this makes the role of communications professionals who are tasked with the job of fixing this reputational gap, incredibly challenging.

Countering political malaise

Unfortunately, the challenges of low political engagement are not unique to the UK. Faced with increased public scepticism, apathy and rapid technological change, parliaments around the world are increasingly interested in engaging citizens in the democratic process and are asking searching questions about what really works. As discussed at the recent Global Legislative Openness Conference in Kyiv, parliaments are traditionally slow-moving institutions and uptake of new methods of communications to increase trust with the public has been slow to pay dividends.

In part, this may be because many assume that the traditional communications approaches that apply to corporations, governments or non-profit organisations will also work for parliaments. While there are valuable lessons to learn from other professional communicators, parliaments are complex stakeholder environments with competing, politically nuanced communications agendas. Furthermore, the nature of legislatures means that there are a limited number of similar institutions from which colleagues can share good practice or learn from one another.

“This means changing how parliaments communicate, moving away from the passive sharing of information to a more active approach that puts citizens at the heart of their work”

Parliaments, however, cannot simply wait until the prevailing winds tilt in their favour. Instead, they must find new ways of building trust. This means changing how parliaments communicate, moving away from the passive sharing of information to a more active approach that puts citizens at the heart of their work, a trend that is clearly growing and where the UK Parliament is a global leader. Crucially, it also requires further research to better understand the conditions under which citizens trust or do not trust their parliaments and what factors influence this behaviour, positively or negatively.

The challenges facing our political institutions are perhaps the greatest in a generation, and the public needs to trust and engage with their democracy more now than ever before. Public sector communicators generally, and parliamentary communicators in particular, need as much support as possible to tackle the problem of low political engagement. The first step in addressing this growing challenge is to widen the evidence-base and enhance discussions with practitioners in this field in order to provide the best outcomes for the public to participate in their democracy.


(Photo: Students from England and Wales take part in a learning event about democracy in the UK House of Lords © Parliamentary Copyright (Open Parliament Licence v3.0) Image: Mark Dimmock)
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Re-thinking governance for development

Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, participated in the European Partnership for Democracy launch event of the World Development Report 2017  in Brussels last week. Here are his takeaways on what this means for democracy support.

The World Bank’s 2017 World Development Report “Governance and the Law”, encourages its readers to rethink governance for development. The authors are upfront in admitting that very little of its content is new and draws heavily on the efforts of those who have been arguing for a more political approach to development for more than a decade. But that the World Bank has taken the leap in endorsing a thinking and working politically framework is highly significant. For institutions like EU, the principal audience for the launch event last week, the opinion of the World Bank carries weight in ways that we as smaller implementers do not.

For those of us already converted to the political approach to development, the report offers a useful framework for challenging commonly held assumptions around the challenges of institutional reform. How many times have we heard these phrases?: ‘the reform failed because it didn’t follow best practices,’ ‘the reform failed because of a lack of capacity,’ or ‘the reform failed because of a lack of political will.’ These are the go-to excuses for many unsuccessful governance programmes and are littered throughout the copious evaluations of this sector. But how explanatory are they?

According to the WDR, not very. These statements do little to interrogate the underlying causes of stalled reform efforts and paper over serious gaps in our understanding of problems and our perceived solutions to them. By allowing ourselves to stop our analysis at this level, we are depriving ourselves of the real learning and depth of engagement that might bring about real change in future programmes.

To remedy this, the WDR suggests three principles for rethinking governance for development:

  • Think not only about the form of institutions, but also about their functions.

  • Think not only about capacity-building, but also about power asymmetries.

  • Think not only about the rule of law, but also about the role of law.

The WDR’s assertion that function matters more than form, in many ways is intuitive. In nature, form generally follows function, yet we, as development practitioners, have laboured for years on the premise that function follows form, particularly in parliamentary strengthening. This WDR asks why ineffective policies persist; a useful corollary might be why ineffective approaches to institutional development persist. For the democracy assistance community, the answer is likely to be one of the following:

Form is simpler than function: We don’t have an ideal parliament in terms of function; there is too much variation in how effective parliaments around the world conduct their business. What we do have are models of what effective parliaments/parties look like. This ‘good form’ is used as a proxy for ‘good function’ to reduce complexity.

“Form is simpler than function: We don’t have an ideal parliament in terms of function”

‘Best practice’ is more measurable/predictable: Work with parliaments and political parties is already viewed with scepticism by many in the development field, particularly in some donor agencies. Being able to present ‘best practice’ provides some reassurance that we can justify our programming and be held accountable for its performance in the context of heavy scrutiny of aid.

Nevertheless, the WDR argues that to see improvements in policies/outcome we need to change people’s behaviour. Rather than view institutions as monolithic entities, organisations like WFD should conceive of them as a conglomeration of individual actors, each with their interests, assumptions, and incentives. Change is likely to come not in transformational bursts but in hundreds of tiny shifts in how individuals think and behave. This is a welcome statement from an institution like the World Bank and validates a lot of what democracy assistance organisations have been arguing for some time. Incremental change is sustainable change.

So, how should WFD and others respond to these recommendations?

The WDR suggests three functions that institutions should master: commitment, coordination, and cooperation. These resonate with a lot of what WFD has highlighted in our theory of change:

  • Commitment – This is about building relationships, creating environment conducive to change. WFD has put this at the heart of its work for a long time, investing its relationships with parliaments and political parties; our new monitoring and evaluation tools now provide opportunities for these activities to be captured more rigorously.
  • Coordination – This is about changing expectations across institutions and individuals: change is the new normal. Parliaments, in particular, have a certain amount of inertia about them. Some new planning methods that WFD is piloting create opportunities for parliamentary leaderships to think creatively about the change they want to see. Our focus on bringing different groups together through networks and communities of practice also helps build momentum for change.
  • Cooperation – The goal of institutional reform is to induce voluntary compliance, encouraging scale up of change out of direct beneficiaries. WFD’s experience is that parliaments and parties respond best to peer learning and learning by doing. We have been working on mentorship programmes that link MPs and political party leaders with counterparts elsewhere. Following this up through alumni networks encourages these participants to share their experience more broadly.

What the World Bank’s WDR is proposing is not revolutionary. The Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice has long been championing a programming model that emphasises process and function. But if we apply the WDR’s logic on reform to changing development practice, this report represents a rallying point for progress toward coordination and cooperation around a political approach to governance work.

Prioritising function over form requires a change in programming for many democracy support organisations. Capacity-driven models, while remaining part of the toolkit, can no longer be the default option when designing interventions.  Rather we must move toward more adaptive styles that look to improve function by whatever means, in whatever form that emerges.

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Why does research on democracy support neglect success?

Susan Dodsworth, Research Fellow – University of Birmingham 

If we focus too much on examples of failure, how can we learn to succeed?

This question sparked debate on 9 June, at a ‘Policy Day’ hosted by the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department (IDD). The Policy Day featured research from the Political Economy of Democracy Promotion Project – a collaboration between IDD and Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD).

On the day, Duncan Green – a Senior Strategic Advisor to Oxfam – pointed out that the solution to getting researchers and practitioners to work better together is not always more research. I agree with Duncan’s argument that practitioners may often benefit more from some kind of ‘institutional memory support,’ than new research products. However, I also think there are questions to be asked about where academic research tends to focus, and how that might limit the utility of that research to policy makers. Specifically, we need to be wary of the tendency to focus on failure, and pay more attention to cases of success.

Caryn Peiffer, a Research Fellow at IDD, dealt with this in her presentation on anti-corruption initiatives – pointing out that research tends to focus on why such initiatives have failed. In contrast, her project on ‘Islands of Integrity’ is deliberately engineered to explain success, focussing on institutions that have made a surprising degree of progress in implementing anti-corruption reforms. As Caryn pointed out, it’s worth paying attention to these ‘positive outliers’ because they may help policy makers to design better interventions in the future.

This struck a chord because – just like research on anti-corruption – research on democracy support often centres on explaining why things went wrong, or just failed to have any impact at all. There are several reasons for this. For a start, academics worry they’ll undermine their credibility if they look like ‘cheerleaders’ for policy makers.  There are also more fundamental reasons grounded in methodological concerns. Academic ‘best practice’ is to avoid selecting cases on the basis of their outcomes (the ‘dependent variable’), but this sometimes creates problems. When dealing with something like democracy support – where the difficulty of the task makes success rare – this means we look at failure far more often than we look at success.

This has been a big issue in research on closing civil society space. Governments around the world – some already quite authoritarian, some less so – are increasingly using a wide variety of tactics to restrict, control and harass civil society organizations, particularly those seeking to improve the quality of democracy in their countries. So far, most research on this topic has focussed on cases like Russia, Egypt and Ethiopia, where efforts to defend that space have clearly failed. This goes some way to explaining why we’re still struggling to develop sustainable, long-term interventions that ‘get ahead of the curve’ (a problem that Richard Youngs recently pointed out in a review for the European Parliament).

Our project’s next policy paper for WFD – which we’ll be launching in Brussels this autumn – will tackle this problem head-on, paying more to cases in which international and domestic actors have worked together to persuade parliamentarians to defend civil society. This will not only ensure we’re getting the full picture, it will make our findings more valuable to policy makers. It’s useful to be told what not to do, but – ultimately – it’s far more useful to have advice about what to do instead.


(Photo: Democracy success story: following the 2011 Tunisian revolution, the country held the first direct presidential election in 2014 © Aya Chebbi (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence))
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