By Anthony Smith, Chief Executive

UK general election

April brought us the news of a snap general election here in the UK on 8 June. As the leading organisation providing insight into the UK democratic experience this is a great opportunity for our friends and partners to witness our electoral process in action.

The timing of the election means new dates for our anniversary conference: Democracy UK – Global Values in an Uncertain World, which will now take place on 12-13 September in the Foreign Office and Parliament here in London.

Jordan acts to protect women

This month we have also learnt how WFD efforts in the Middle East on ending discriminatory laws have led the government of Jordan to propose amendments to Article 308 of the penal code which protects perpetrators of rape from punishment if they marry the victim.

We are very pleased to observe this development and will redouble efforts to support reform of similar laws across the region in partnership with the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries for Combating Violence Against Women.

With support from the Coalition, MPs in Iraq have already put forward proposals to amend sexual violence laws in the country. WFD will continue to support initiatives to protect and empower women throughout the region.

New case studies from WFD programmes published

Today, we publish case studies from our programmes in Iraq, Kenya, Ukraine and Sri Lanka. This is a small sample from the 70 programmes we have implemented in over 40 countries over the course of 2016-2017. We will unveil further results in the coming months and during the Democracy UK conference in September.

The reports detail how, over the last 12 months we have:

Democracy UK conference (London 12-13 September)

This recent work illustrates the type of investment that WFD makes in strengthening democracies around the world. The payback on these investments can be slow but is critical in building stable democratic institutions in our partner countries.  The contribution from UK parliaments, political parties and others is invaluable.

These themes will be central to WFD’s two-day conference where policy-makers, academics and partners will debate how we can sustain democratic culture and practice at a time when democratic freedoms are being squeezed around the world.

The conference will mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and I hope will be a fitting way to mark the International Day of Democracy on 15 September, with contributions from government, opposition and analysts, as well as former and current Governors and friends of WFD.

We are currently in the process of sending out revised invitation letters and agenda. If you would like more details about our conference, please email events@wfd.org

Continue Reading

Access to politics: Cost as a barrier

Encouraging broader political participation has been a cornerstone of international democracy support since its early days.

This has involved working to reduce barriers to entry to politics often based on gender, age, ethnicity, and other contextual factors. Over the past decade, however, an emergent barrier that has received less attention is the cost of politics.

The more expensive a political system is, the less accessible it becomes, and therefore the less representative and accountable. And the global evidence suggests that the costs for individuals moving from private life to public office are increasing, sometimes substantially. This means those with limited access to resources, such as the poor and many women and youth, cannot participate in the political process.

Moreover, in a country where the cost of politics is high, candidates pay large amounts of money in exchange for their constituents’ support and, in many cases, incur great amounts of debt to cover their expenses. Once in office, many will be tempted to take advantage of their access to state resources to pay their debts and, eventually, to finance their reelection – thus spiraling a vicious cycle of corruption.

To address the problem of the increasing cost of politics, countries need to examine their political systems and bring about the necessary changes through cross-party consensus. This is unlikely to happen unless stakeholders find means to break the pattern of incentives for candidates to spend vast amounts of money to get elected and maintain their seats once in office.

Given the detrimental consequences a high cost of politics can have on the democratic development of a country, WFD wants to contribute to addressing this problem through a three-staged approach:

  1. Conducting robust research on the drivers of the increasing cost of politics and encouraging dialogue among relevant stakeholders to discuss findings and conclusions
  2. Supporting multiple cross-party working groups to agree on what changes can be made in the political system to create greater affordability, transparency and accountability
  3. Providing flexible support to political parties, parliaments and executive bodies in the implementation of reforms necessary to address the causes of the increasing cost of politics
(Photo: Campaigning for President Magufuli’s 2015 win in Tanzania)

WFD is currently working on the first stage of this long-term strategy. After doing background studies in 2016 on the cost of politics in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, and Ukraine, WFD is now conducting a six-month long primary research study on the cost of politics in Ghana.

WFD is implementing this project with funding from DFID’s Strengthening Action Against Corruption (STAAC) Initiative and with the assistance of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD). The study seeks to understand how the incentives and constraints that shape the behavior of constituents, political parties, candidates, and sitting MPs in Ghana before, during and after election periods can help explain the increase in the cost of politics in the country and inform strategies to develop a more affordable and accountable political system.

The research study will include survey questionnaires with 300 parliamentary candidates, both successful and unsuccessful, as well as key-informant interviews with political party representatives, traditional chiefs, and members of civil society. By interviewing a wide array of stakeholders, WFD seeks to gain a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of Ghana’s political system.

The study will be completed by July 2017. Its findings and conclusions will inform a national dialogue conference that will bring together stakeholders to discuss the implications of the increasing cost of politics to the development of Ghanaian democracy and to seek a consensus on how to change the pattern of incentives that is currently driving up costs.

This research study is the first comprehensive in-depth assessment of the cost of participating in politics conducted in Ghana. WFD hopes to replicate it in other countries and eventually draw conclusions that can improve the donor’s community understanding of political incentives and inform future programming on democracy strengthening.

More information on our Cost of Politics research is available here

(Top photo: A women casts her vote in the Ghanaian Presidential elections in December 2016)
Continue Reading

Closing civil society space in East Africa

(Above: Working groups discuss trends within the East Africa region and their effect on CSOs operating space: funding, legislation, freedom of information and human rights)

It has been said that democracy is not a spectator sport.

Good governance is rarely bestowed; it must be demanded and defended by active citizens participating in democratic processes. More often than not, the channel for this participation is through civil society organisations (CSOs), which give citizens the opportunity to engage constructively with government on a wide variety of issues.

But all across the world, civil society is under pressure. In many countries, both democratic and autocratic states are systematically restricting the work of civil society. These developments, collectively known as “closing space”, have become a global trend.

Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in collaboration with the East African Civil Society Organisations’ Forum (EACSOF), hosted a two-day conference on 13 and 14 March in Nairobi, Kenya, to explore opportunities to create a consistently open legislative environment for CSOs at the regional level. The event brought together CSOs, CSO Standardisation bodies, Government and academia to formulate draft principles toward the development of a regional bill to promote and protect CSOs.

Within East Africa, crippling legislation has been passed that severely limits the remit of CSOs. From the need for CSO activities to be approved by the government in Burundi to the inappropriate utilisation of the Cybercrimes Act (2015) in Tanzania, it is a challenging time for civil society. Davis Malombe, Executive Director at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, asked critical questions about overcoming negative legislation: “How do we consolidate the space for CSOs and show governments’ the space is ours and our inalienable right, how do CSOs organise themselves better?” he said.

As Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan work toward regional integration as part of the East African Community (EAC), the region’s parliament – the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) – presents an opportunity for CSOs in the partner states to articulate their needs and interests as a block. Advocating nationally for supportive legislation and joint advocacy for harmonised legislation for CSO regulation within the partner states provide two options.

Zaa Twalangeti, Program Manager at Tanzanian CSO TAANGO, highlighted the importance of CSOs’ ability to promote and mobilise resources domestically to secure a power base within society: “CSOs assume they are representing citizens but has this been tested? What are we doing as a sector to ensure that we are entrenched as the voice of citizens and so that citizens demand our [CSO] space?” Jimmy Gotyana, South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), asked: “How can CSOs ensure their struggles are expressed within Parliaments and reach the right audience?”

Concerning trends emerging from the research paper and discussions included:

  1. Restrictive definitions of CSOs to only those concerned with service delivery and not advocacy;
  2. Lack of clarity and unreasonable conditions surrounding the registration processes of CSOs;
  3. Increasing regulation limiting funding to CSOs;
  4. Utilisation of various pieces of legislation i.e. cyber security, anti-terrorism, to undermine progressive CSO legislation;
  5. Lack of independence of CSO regulatory bodies and challenges with self-regulation and standards;
  6. Limited access for CSOs to participate in government or legislative processes, especially around the budget and policy;
  7. Lack of protection of CSOs and human rights defenders.

At the end of the two-day conference participating CSOs agreed that regional solidarity is needed and eight draft principles were agreed upon to form the basis of a draft regional bill. Stakeholders must now collaborate across borders and take proactive steps to engage with EALA in order for the draft regional bill to materialise.

This bill can ensure that CSOs operate in a more enabling environment with a dedicated framework for human rights defenders’ that will promote greater accountability from respective governments. The East African experience has the potential to contribute to the global discourse and provide a practical example of how this issue can be overcome.

This conference was organised by WFD’s Kenya Team, based in Nairobi, contact maureen.oduori@wfd.org for more information. 

The WFD-EACSOF Commissioned Research on this topic which triggered this event will be available in coming months and is part of WFD’s wider research around this topic.

Continue Reading

Advancing research on democracy between theory and practice

Graeme Ramshaw, Director of Research and Evaluation

What image comes to mind when you think of ‘research’? A white lab coat? A tall stack of books? An Excel spreadsheet full of data? The truth is that people hold a lot of preconceptions around the word ‘research’ (to say nothing of related words like ‘theory’) and the role it has to play in democracy support programming. At WFD, we’re trying to break down some of these assumptions and encourage better dialogue between researchers and practitioners. This includes recognising that research has many contributions to make in informing the work of WFD and organisations like us.

“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing”

Wernher von Braun

Practitioners never like admitting that they don’t know what they’re doing. But learning requires acknowledging mistakes. Indeed, emerging trends towards more adaptive approaches to development programming encourage a healthier relationship with failure and uncertainty. WFD is working with our partners the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and DAI Europe to contextualise these lessons to parliamentary strengthening programmes. At our recent conference “Deliberating Democratisation,” this theme of acknowledging the limitations of our existing evidence and working with academics and others to push these boundaries further came across clearly.

“Research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose”

Zora Neale Hurston

Oftentimes, however, we have an idea about what we’re looking for when we turn to research. Whether through activities or discussion, questions arise whose answers can only be found through careful and persistent enquiry. Over the past year, WFD has been interested in understanding more about how parliaments can protect and promote human rights; what are the trade-offs in designing parliamentary and political party support programmes; and why political parties in the Middle East and North Africa struggle to gain traction with citizens in the region. The answers we’ve found so far are available on our website, but we’ve got more ‘poking and prying’ to do. In the next year, we’re looking into the relationship between open parliament, transparency, and citizen trust; how to measure and benchmark parliamentary effectiveness in the context of the SDGs; the politics of decentralisation; and much more.

“Research is to see what everybody else has seen and to think what nobody else has thought”

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Innovation is always a popular buzzword. Everyone wants to find the next best thing. But research teaches us that old ideas are critical for progress. New ideas build on old ones, filling in gaps or refining the thinking to take it to a new level.  At WFD, our cost of politics research is not inherently new. But by assembling concepts in a way that no one else has done before we have added unique value. Likewise, our upcoming research into closing civil society space with our partners at the University of Birmingham takes an old concept and looks at it from new angle, analysing the processes and incentives that inform decision-making around CSO legislation.

In this intro piece, I’ve tried to show there is no single definition of research; everyone can find one that fits best. The articles that follow give further depth to some of the topics WFD has explored this year through its research and its events. I hope they inspire you to take risks, be curious, and find your own questions and your own answers. Happy researching!

Highlights: WFD research programme

Seeing democracy as an ecosystem By Anthony Smith, CMG

Shaping an innovative approach to adaptive programming in democracy assistance By Sarah Leigh Hunt Consultant in Governance at DAI Europe and Graeme Ramshaw Director of Research and Evaluation 

Are we measuring what really matters? By Susan Dodsworth, Research Fellow 

Closing civil society space in East Africa By Charlotte Egan, Africa Programme Officer

Access to politics: Cost as a barrier By Angie Melano, Research Assistant 

 

Photo: From top left: West Africa Cost of Politics conference, Deliberating Democratisation event and Closing Civil Society Space conference
Continue Reading

Are we measuring what really matters?

Susan Dodsworth

Research Fellow – International Development Department University of Birmingham

At Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s recent conference – Deliberating Democratisation: Examining Democratic Change and the Role of International Democracy Supportone of the more contentious panels addressed the role of research in democracy support.

During that panel, I discussed how the quality of evidence available to academics shapes its utility to practitioners and policy-makers.

There’s both good news and bad news in this area. The good news is that there have been significant advances in how democracy is measured. Thanks to work like that of the Varieties of Democracy Project, we now have much more transparent, more finely grained indicators of democracy. The bad news is that measures of democracy only tell half the story. We also need better measures of democracy support.

This is bad news because our primary source of data on democracy support is the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s (DAC) database on aid flows. For academic researchers, this is the ‘default’ approach to measuring democracy support. Why? Because this is what we can access. Organisations that support democracy are often very reluctant to share their data, in part because it can put those they are trying to help at risk.

Our reliance on OECD data constrains research and limits its usefulness in three ways. First, reducing democracy support to money spent tends to produced recommendations along the lines of ‘spend more on X and less on Y.’ This has some value, but there are limits to its utility. Ultimately, it’s more useful to know how to spend money, rather than how much money to spend.

Second, we are limited by what is – and is not – captured in the coding of these databases. The OECD data only captures the primary purpose of aid. But we know that aid generally, and democracy support in particular, is often multi-purpose. Aid flows have also been reported in a way that creates blind spots. As I pointed out in a recent policy paper, it’s essentially impossible to calculate how much democracy support is invested in civil society – a significant problem given how important civil society is in democratisation.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we might be missing what really matters. When you talk to democracy supporters about their work they will explain that ‘You can’t buy political will,’ or emphasise that ‘It’s not about the money.’ Instead, they (and their strategic documents, like this one) stress the importance of relationships, or of intangible resources like respect and recognition. The difficulty, of course, is that these things are extremely difficult to measure.

If research is to play a constructive role in democracy support, we need to have better measures of it. The challenge is to work out how we can get those better measures. This won’t be an easy task and, unless researchers and practitioners work together, it will probably be an impossible one. That’s why I hope we’ll see more events – like WFD’s conference – that create opportunities for better dialogue and – hopefully – more sustained collaboration between researchers and practitioners.

Highlights from Deliberating Democratisation conference

(Photo: Jo-Ann Kelly)
Continue Reading

How does the cost of politics impact on marginalised groups?

(Above: Commissioner from Nigeria’s Electoral Commission addresses the Cost of Politics regional conference)

Money remains one of the single most important barriers to political participation, but there are other non-financial costs associated with being active in political life that need to be considered too.

We often forget about who is excluded from politics because they can’t afford to run for office, or who is discriminated against when they choose to engage.

The impact the increasing cost of politics has on marginalised groups such as women and disabled people was explored at Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s regional West Africa conference on 31st January and 1st February 2017. The two-day event explored the West African perspective with case studies from Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The term ‘mainstream politics’ and how marginalised groups are thought of as fringe perspectives – to be brought in from the peripheries when needed – it was argued limits the expansion of views in political dialogue, often leading to key issues like healthcare, education and support for vulnerable people being ignored.

As Professor Abubakah Momoh, Director General of the Electoral Institute noted at the conference, anyone who does not have the financial resources or capital to insert themselves in the mainstream is effectively marginalised. The distinction between inclusion and participation is therefore crucial. While inclusion is about valuing all individuals, giving equal access and opportunities to all, it does not capture the agency of the individuals involved to actively participate and engage.

Women very often have the social capital – the meaningful relationships and networks within their communities – that is mobilised for their male political peers instead of for their own campaigns. In a workshop carried out in Gaborone, Botswana aimed at supporting current and prospective female candidates, I witnessed just how integral women are to the campaigns of their male peers – organising door-to-door leafleting, rallying, networking and campaigning. The question then is not about whether women are capable of contesting and holding political seats, but rather about supporting women to mobilise the skills they do have, and helping them to identify innovative ways to access the necessary financial resources.

(Above: Representatives of people with disabilities address the regional Cost of Politics)

When contesting a seat women or persons with disabilities are often attacked on a personal rather than a political basis suggesting the cost of politics are not only financial. Prospective women politicians often face higher levels of abuse and scrutiny when compared to their male counterparts. This was a point reiterated by a female MP who spoke candidly at the event of how she and her family had been threatened and a close relative kidnapped because of her frank and vocal political views. Women face far higher risks and are often criticised for defying traditional gender roles like looking after the family. This moves the dialogue away from the political capability of candidates to deliver on electoral issues and promises towards personal characteristics.

Persons with Disabilities, in many countries particularly in Africa, still face a lack of understanding and awareness from other citizens about what having a disability actually means. While countries have ratified international conventions and agreements to safeguard equal rights and fight discrimination, this is too often undermined by a failure to translate these into everyday practices, for example, braille versions of government documents; services for the hearing impaired, wheelchair accessible buildings. Until political and public spaces are more accessible it is difficult to meaningfully facilitate political participation amongst these groups.

The social cost of exclusion, marginalisation and the denial of fundamental rights to equal political participation is a real concern prospective candidates face around the world. Westminster Foundation for Democracy hopes our research into the full cycle of political participation and the costs associated at each stage will encourage active participation and engagement by people from all groups in political life. To do this we need to re-focus on the politics and not the personal.

 

By Tobi Ayeni, Programme Officer – Africa

Continue Reading

From presence to influence: Beyond International Women’s Day

(Above: Shannon O’Connell has joined the Westminster Foundation for Democracy as Senior Policy Advisor – Gender and Politics. With over twenty years’ experience in the field of politics, governance, and international development, Shannon has particular experience in women’s political empowerment and gender mainstreaming.)

In the 1990s, I worked in the House of Representatives in the United States. I purposely sought a position with the staff of a Member of Congress who was considered one of the most progressive of the 435 representatives. Among other important issues, his voting record included consistent support for initiatives to protect and advance the interests of women and girls.

One day, a group of school girls from the Congressman’s constituency came to visit. They were given a tour of the Capitol, told a bit about the functions and history of the legislative branch and then ushered back to our office to meet the Congressman. They asked questions about how the House worked, and then one of the girls asked the Congressman, “Do you think I could ever be a Member of Congress?”

Immediately, without taking a breath, the Congressman replied, “No. I’m the Congressman from this district. This is my job.”

The girl was about twelve years old. By law, she could not even run for the House of Representatives for another thirteen years. Yet even then, in an unguarded moment, a very senior, experienced, well-established and (theoretically) progressive Congressman saw her as a threat.

During that time, I also dated a guy who was a strong proponent of Valentine’s Day. It’s not that he was particularly romantic (he wasn’t), but he felt it was a useful reminder that, once a year at least, you should say or do something endearing for your partner.

(Above: Shannon participates in a WFD organised round-table for marginalised groups in Uganda)

How are these two meandering memories linked? Oddly, they’re linked by International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day in many ways serves as one of these kinds of reminders. Once a year, we stop and remember to say laudatory and important things about women and girls, and about the state of their well-being in the world. But if this is where our focus and our agency stops, what we are offering is of little more value than the Congressman’s voting record.

In recent years, the conversation about women’s participation has focused on the numbers – getting more women into elected and appointed offices and into executive positions. Globally, the news in this regard is good. The number of women in national legislatures stood at 23% in 2016, up from 17% ten years earlier. Affirmative action efforts in Uganda, for example, have raised the number of women in parliament to 34%; Rwanda leads the world at 61%.

This is the quantitative side of moving towards more equal and inclusive decision-making. It is a start. It is the Valentine’s Day equivalent of women’s participation – a nice gesture that injects a bit of energy and strengthens the connection, and without which the relationship would not be particularly vibrant.

But the real romance is not about quantity, it is about quality – the quality of women’s participation. This means not just increasing the presence of women, but also increasing the influence of women.

Worldwide, political systems are stumbling. Problems range from general voter discontent and disengagement to genuine instability and chaos. The call for change, for reform, for stronger more engaged systems that deliver real benefits for voters, is loud.

Democratic activists are responding to this call and part of the answer, unequivocally, is about supporting women’s leadership and injecting their influence into these systems – not just as window dressing, but as a core component of the architectural restructuring that needs to happen. Women (and other groups who tend to live outside decision-making frameworks) are part of an opportunity to do things differently, and do them better. We know there are multiple benefits to more inclusive decision-making systems and that these are not just limited to the well-being of women and girls. All of society gains.

This is not a silver bullet that will solve all our democratic woes, but figuring out how we not just let women in but also let women lead means we are asking the right questions – the ones that will get us all on the path to stronger systems of government that will deliver for all citizens.

This International Women’s Day, ask yourself and the organisations that you influence what you can do to help women be part of doing things better.

Continue Reading

Can democracy supporters let civil society be itself?

Susan Dodsworth

Civil society is a central part of the democracy support tool-kit.

Those who seek to promote democracy almost universally identify strong and vibrant civil society as an essential driver of political reform. Supporting civil society is popular because it offers the tantalising prospect of fostering change from the bottom up. Adding to its appeal, civil society provides democracy supporters with an alternative to engaging directly with governments, which are often highly repressive or corrupt. It also promises (or more accurately, appears to promise) a way to support those working on sensitive issues, such as human rights, without interfering in domestic politics.

Democracy supporters want to help civil society because it is an important political actor. Yet, paradoxically, many democracy promoters continue to implement programs in a way that denies or ignores this truth; they engage primarily with professionalised, advocacy-centred NGOs, who they encourage to campaign on the basis of evidence, rather than ideology. This problem arises with respect to development aid more broadly, but it is particularly problematic in the context of democracy support because it perpetuates a de-politicized vision of what civil society is, and what it ought to be. It is understandable that both donors and democracy supporters fall into this trap; more technocratic civil society actors are typically better set up to engage with international partners, and are less likely to trigger resistance from authoritarian governments. However, in reality many civil society organisations are not impartial or evidence-based, but are campaigning bodies established to promote a specific perspective. Moreover, these political variants of civil society are essential to the health of democracy.

The discrepancy between the motivation for and practice of civil society support is well established, but has proved difficult to remedy. In 2010, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned a review of donors’ civil society strategies. It authors observed, ‘All donors now acknowledge that the term includes other associational forms, including trade unions, “traditional” associational groups, and faith-based groups.’ Yet despite the rhetoric of inclusion, the donors continue to prioritize a particular type of organisational structure, built around formal, professionalized organizations. In its recent Civil Society Partnership Review, published in November 2016, DFID highlighted this issue. It noted that grassroots organisations, such as smaller local NGOs and faith-based groups, are often better positioned to achieve lasting impact, admitting that DFID still needs to become better at engaging with these kinds of actors.

In our most recent policy paper for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Nic Cheeseman and I discuss several ways in which democracy supporters might expand the range of civil society organisations that they engage. One is to ‘borrow’ the multi-party dialogue format that is often employed by the Netherlands Institute for Multi-Party Dialogue (NIMD) and develop an equivalent version for civil society. Instead of trying to negate or ignore political divides, this approach would aim to work around them by fostering tolerance and mutual respect between those at different ends of the political spectrum. Rather than depoliticising civil society, such a strategy would seek to reduce distrust and foster collaboration between adherents of rival views and beliefs.

In some countries, large civil society forums already exist. However, they are typically seen (by both donors and local governments) as a means of getting civil society to agree on a common position, rather than means of capturing a diverse range of opinions. Governments sometimes use disagreement within civil society as an excuse for ignoring it, asserting that it needs to speak with a single voice if it wants to be heard. Democracy supporters can help to resolve this impasse by encouraging governments to develop consultation processes that accommodate a range of perspectives.

More inclusive strategies for supporting civil society do have risks. There is growing evidence that as external support for civil society grows, so too does the risk that authoritarian incumbents will retaliate, employing a variety of tactics to close political space. Broadening the kinds of civil society that donors support could exacerbate this risk, but taking no risk at all might also prove counterproductive. Playing it safe all the time will leave us with an impoverished version of civil society and a superficial form of democracy. Democracy supporters cannot work with all types of civil society all the time; to attempt this would be both impractical and foolhardy. They do, however, need to find ways to let civil society be itself whenever this is possible.

Publications

 

(Photo: Top: WFD’s, EU funded programme in Uganda supported local CSOs, GWED-G and REACH, to raise awareness about the implementation of CEDAW)
Continue Reading

Westminster Foundation for Democracy in 2017

Anthony Smith, WFD CEO, signs MOU with Speaker of the Hluttaw in Burma

Anthony Smith, CMG

This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD).

In this time, the Foundation has worked to support democracy in over 70 countries, sharing experiences and forging strong partnerships around the world.

We owe our existence to the vision of a group of British parliamentarians that saw how important it was to invest time and energy in sharing Britain’s democratic experience – good and bad – with countries emerging from the Soviet Union. Democracies in those early partner countries have been transformed and many are now helping other countries take the same journey. Britain’s democracy has also evolved, with four vibrant parliaments sharing that same vision – that we are stronger when we share our experiences and work to support democratic institutions around the world.

WFD’s approach is simple. We draw on the rich diversity of Britain’s democracy – political parties of every size, parliamentarians that have helped Britain remain stable and prosperous through economic expansion, recession and austerity, external and internal conflict, and officials that have provided expert guidance – including through intense constitutional debate – without getting in the way of political leadership.

The two years since our present strategy was published have seen WFD expand geographically and diversify our work. We now have offices in 25 countries and programmes in many more, which means more opportunities for “South-South” learning as well. The variety of the work is fantastic. A number of our partners have started on historic transitions – Burma, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela spring to mind. Some of our partners – for example Tunisia – have had their first democratic transition of power while a second generation of citizens in others such as Ghana have enjoyed peaceful transitions.

Wherever we work, we always tailor our work to local demands. That means ensuring that we understand the local context, but it also means combining political party and parliamentary programmes in new ways, addressing behaviours and political culture, not just the formal rules and structures. WFD has also launched two new lines of work. First, we have begun to provide and train UK election observers for international election missions and, second, our research programme is both looking back at lessons from our previous work and looking forward at issues that will affect our future work.

We want to build on that progress in 2017, in three main ways:

We will work with new partners and in new countries. There is a strong demand for this in every region and, while we cannot respond to every request, we do think there is scope for further expansion. We have seen a lot of interest in regional networks among political parties and parliaments. Respect for and interest in Britain’s democracy and our approach – sharing experiences not pushing any specific model – is global.

We will renew established partnerships and build new ones. World-class British organisations such as the BBC, the British Council, the National Audit Office and think tanks like Chatham House, Wilton Park and Overseas Development Institute can provide critically important lessons on a range of issues that affect the quality of political and civic life in our partner countries. We would like to work as closely with them as we already do with others such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

We will increase our impact on some key policy issues. At the top of the list is women’s political empowerment where we want to ensure that all of our programmes consider their impact on women. Tolerance and dialogue are also a top priority – parties and parliaments can help build shared rules of the game and tackle conflict within society. And anti-corruption remains critically important.

Challenges to democracy-strengthening

Whatever the eventual shape of WFD’s programmes, 2017 will be an important year for any organisation that is working to support democracy. The political turbulence of 2016 was in at least some cases an indication that existing democratic leadership and institutions were not serving their citizens well. At its heart, democracy is the best way of preventing the abuse of power by political leaders. But if democracy is seen to be failing citizens, then there is a greater risk of autocracy gaining ground, at least in the short term.

That creates two challenges. The first is of political leadership, whether exercised by Presidents and Prime Ministers, parliamentary Speakers, Committee Chairs, judges, editors or heads of civil society organisations. Their behaviour will determine the atmosphere in which democratic institutions can work to tackle the real problems – security, the economy, social inclusion – that our societies face. Political competition is important, but so is respect for minority opinions and for their right to express them.

The second is a challenge of effectiveness. Institutions need to work well enough to maintain public confidence in them, so it is important to tackle the nuts and bolts of institutions as well as their strategic roles. For example, if a parliament cannot carry out its core role properly, or even publish records of its proceedings on time, then it will lose credibility and dent the perception of the democratic system.

For both these reasons, WFD will continue working to support both political leadership and institutional effectiveness in our partner countries. We value your contributions and hope that together we can strengthen democracy in the year ahead.

 

(Photo: Anthony Smith, WFD’s CEO, signs MOU with Speaker of the Hluttaw in Burma)
Continue Reading

The Cost of Politics in West Africa: WFD regional conference

How do we make politics more affordable?

This is the central question WFD’s research into the cost of politics is tackling. The research programme, launched last July in London, will explore the issue in West Africa by convening the region’s experts at a conference in Nigeria on 31 January.

The conference will address the whole cycle candidates face – from securing nomination to campaigning and maintaining a parliamentary seat – and the associated costs individuals face at each stage of this journey.

The variations in social, cultural and political dimensions that exist between Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone will be examined with the aim of exposing the different contexts politicians must operate in, and the impact this has on the incentives which drive MPs.

“Because our work is political, it is most successful when there is political will – a factor commonly driven by incentives. What we’re learning is that a lot of these incentives are set well in advance and the cost of politics plays an important role in determining the incentives” WFD’s Regional Director for Africa, George Kunnath, explained.

To address the issue of incentives in the region, the event will focus on how existing regulations can be enhanced and the role political parties and the media play in shaping them.

The impact this phenomenon has on marginalised groups, such as women and youth, as well as the need for cross-border cooperation will be debated by leading experts from election management bodies, civil society, political parties, MPs, the media, academia and enforcement agencies. By facilitating cross-border learning and an exchange of best practice we hope to identify priority issues that can be addressed in the region, with the long-term aim of developing a regional action plan.

Going beyond an assessment of politicians and political parties, the conference will look at the role citizens and society play within this phenomenon and the broader impact this has on governance. In Ghana, George Kunnath explained “people have done the numbers and realised it is not worthwhile for them to get into politics” – especially when an MP is compelled to spend £750 a month supporting funerals in their communities. These ‘associated costs’ mean political life is intrinsically linked to corrupt practice, whether by securing re-election through the exploitation of state resources or the increased power that comes with the role.

Adebowale Olorunmola, WFD Country Representative for Nigeria, highlights trust as a major issue in the region. Contributing to WFD’s Cost of Politics report he illustrated the “gulf between the parties and people” that currently exists; a gulf created in part by the huge costs associated with selection but also by the motivations of current politicians who “get into political office to serve personal interests, leaving well-intentioned citizens, with ideas to move society forward, without access”.

For more information about WFD research click here. Follow WFD on Twitter for updates on the #CostofPolitics

 

(Above: Photo – Henry Donati captured citizens’ waiting to vote in Ghana’s most recent presidential elections as an Election Observer on the European Union Mission in December.)
Continue Reading