Expert engagement series: Tom Carothers & Richard Youngs

(Above: Tom Carothers from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace talks to WFD staff in the latest expert engagement series)

If there is such a thing as a celebrity in the world of democracy-strengthening, as WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation Graeme Ramshaw put it, then Tom Carothers is probably it. This explains why staff were so keen to hear Mr Carothers speak at WFD’s London headquarters last week.

Mr Carothers first visited WFD one year after its establishment in 1992, at a time when the “air we breathed” was full of positive assumptions. Democracy was full of momentum, had no serious challengers, and doors were wide open to international democracy support.

How things have changed. By the second decade of the 21st century, those assumptions are being challenged. The same doors are “literally being closed to people”. Yet Mr Carothers is upbeat. “There’s something profound about the idea that people can work across borders to help each other figure out solutions to political problems. I still believe that’s possible, and necessary, for a better world,” he adds.

Mr Carothers and his team at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have spent recent years researching ‘rising democracies’: countries like Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia which have begun promoting democracy abroad in their own, distinctive ways. Carnegie’s conclusion on their work is balanced. While these states are doing more in a quiet, under-the-radar way than many give them credit for, their approach is not quite as original as they claim.

“They always say ‘we have a distinctive approach’,” as Mr Carothers describes it. “You say, what is it? What they describe sounds like an EU document on democracy support. They describe a consensual, non-confrontational approach [driven by] values, harmony. They’re working against a caricatured idea of western democracy support.” In extremis, this caricature ties all western democracy-strengthening work to the foreign policy of George W. Bush’s White House. Richard Youngs, a senior colleague at Carnegie Europe who has previously engaged with WFD on his work, adds: “They have a perception of western democracy support as being about regime change, whereas they are defending democratic regimes against an unjust global system.”

(Above: Professor Richard Youngs of Carnegie Europe addresses WFD staff)

Part of the problem, Mr Carothers suggests, is that non-western democracies feel like they are being asked to do the “hard things first”. Why should South Africa transform its relationship with Zimbabwe, for example, because the USA wants it to? Would the USA respond positively to an equivalent request – for it to shake up its relations with Saudi Arabia, for example?

Getting over this barrier appears difficult, but comments from WFD staff at the session suggest it is at least plausible. Much of WFD’s work is about encouraging south-south learning; as with the recent trip by Iraq’s Anti-Corruption Commissions to their counterpart organisation in Indonesia. “Positive peer pressure,” as WFD’s Director of Programmes Devin O’Shaughnessy puts it, can work wonders. But funding this work is difficult. “No-one’s thinking in a more creative way about how we do provide funding to build those kinds of relationships,” he said. “Your research encouraged us to look more at south-south work, to build a community of people who want to defend democracy.”

WFD understands that each country approaches democracy from its own perspective; it’s why we take pride in being able to share the full breadth of the UK’s unique democratic experience, but also why we recognise that other countries’ approaches are just as unique. Carnegie’s new research has highlighted the unique nature of non-western democracies, like Brazil, and the different experience they bring from their own democratic transitions. Brazil, for example, has been interested in peacekeeping, while Korea and Japan see democracy through the lens of economic modernisation.

But, this leaves organisations like WFD left to wonder whether the scope for western democracy promotion is ending. Tom Carothers and Richard Youngs remain positive about the potential role of rising democracies. “We think there is still merit in trying to build up triangular networks with these countries,” Prof Youngs says and WFD agrees wholeheartedly.

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Theories of change: What do they mean for democracy assistance?

(Above: example theory of change – International Institute for Environment and Development)

WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, Graeme Ramshaw, reflects on this year’s evaluation conference circuit and how to better integrate theories of change into democracy assistance work.

It’s conference season for evaluators. This means a lot of time spent travelling but also a lot of time spent thinking about monitoring and evaluation concepts and methods. In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about theories of change and what they mean for democracy assistance.

This idea has been around for a while now, but I’m not sure anyone outside the evaluation community fully understands its purpose or the potential benefits the theory of change approach brings to development programming. Most seem to use the concept merely as a means of converting their rigid logframes into more compelling diagrams, with arrows connecting various coloured shapes to illustrate dynamism and change. But I think this misses the point.

For me, the theory of change approach is meant to dig into the assumption column—ever present in the standard logframe format but often ignored or misused. At WFD we are certainly guilty of rarely explaining how we expect change to occur at the different stages of our logic model. Others in the democracy assistance community may believe their explanations are more robust, but I think as a whole we haven’t thought enough about how democratic institutions develop and change.

But, before we go any further, we need to make a couple of big assumptions about the nature of the work we do and the impact this has on our theory of change. At the top, we have to assume that institutions like parliaments and political parties matter for democratic development and democratic outcomes. We have to believe that the structure and function of these institutions make a difference in how citizens experience democracy. And at the bottom, we have to assume that parliamentary process and political party development can be learned through a variety of tools or methods, with individual or group learning acting as a sufficient catalyst for institutional change of some kind.

These are big assumptions, but they are supported to a certain degree by our own democratic experience. We have to start from somewhere, because it only gets more complicated when we discuss outcomes. For instance, do we really know how institutions like parliaments and political parties change? And if we do, do we know what role we as outside actors play in catalysing or facilitating that change and how that affects the outcome of that change?

I don’t think we really do. This doesn’t mean there are no theories; there are many. Traditional approaches to parliamentary and political party development are largely based on the premise that structure matters in determining performance of institutions. The theory is that if you create the right form, function will follow. Many still subscribe to this theory, but it has proved problematic in practice. How many parliamentary research centres have been created that generate no research? How many committees created or ‘strengthened’ still don’t perform any meaningful function?

Critics of this approach point to the inherent difficulties in simply transferring structures from one context ‘where it works’ to another without any understanding of why it had worked previously. Indeed, a new generation of parliamentary and political party assistance trumpets the innovation of incorporating incentives into their approach. They argue that institutions are not monolithic but composed of individuals whose incentive structures must be re-shaped to enable change to occur.

While certainly more nuanced than the traditional structural approach, it remains no less prescriptive. We are still imposing ‘best practice’ on them; we’re just smoothing our path to implementation by getting local support first. This is more effective in the short-term, certainly; but if the incentive structures did not facilitate a certain structural set-up prior to our engagement, how long will it survive after we’ve left, if we don’t also address the culture and norms of the institution itself?

Indeed, reliance on political economy analysis (PEA) as the tool for informing programme design only reinforces this trend in my view. In many applications I’ve witnessed, the PEA isn’t used to suggest how we can develop a specific model for a particular context to produce our intended outcome. Rather, it’s used to determine the best method for inducing an institution to accept a predetermined solution. The question wrongly being asked is: who do we need to convince?

The Problem-Driven Flexible Approach tries to mitigate this by avoiding prescription and engaging beneficiaries in identifying locally-rooted solutions to the problems that surface. This idea has a lot of potential for democracy assistance, as we really don’t know what combination of individual, organisational, structural, or contextual factors actually influence the performance of any given parliament or political party. We can identify deficiencies easily, but our solutions based on UK experience or otherwise may not be universally applicable. Being honest about what we don’t know is probably a better approach than assuming we intrinsically understand how institutions like parliament and political parties develop and change for the better.

Our partnership with the University of Oxford is looking at these gaps in our knowledge, using our unique position at the nexus of research and practice to think more deeply about the institutional change theories that underpin democracy assistance programmes. We want to get a better understanding of the conditions under which different theories are more or less successful at explaining why parliaments or parties developed the way they did. This means digging deeper into the theoretical bases for a variety of international democracy assistance programmes and the changes they aim to achieve.

We at WFD articulated a new theory of change last year, and it’s significantly better than anything we had before. But we don’t want to stop there. We want our next strategic review, planned for 2018, to have more and better evidence on which to base our programming decisions. This will give us confidence that while everything we do won’t necessarily work, we will at least have a sound basis from which to learn from our failures, as well as our successes.

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RESEARCH: Making the most of sister-party support

(Above: WFD bilateral sister-party programmes, 2010-2015)

In the latest paper from our research partnership with the University of Oxford, Susan Dodsworth and Nic Cheeseman explore the sister-party approach to democracy promotion.

The full paper, more than ideology, more than elections – a strategic approach to sister-parties is now available.

Key lessons:

  • In the right circumstances the sister-party model can be a valuable means of strengthening political parties.
  • The right circumstances are when:parties genuinely share ideology (at least at a high level of abstraction), parties share more than ideology (for example, similar structural positions in the political system), and other democracy promoters
    are addressing system level issues (such as the regulation of party finances).
  • As democracy promoters, political parties tend to focus too much on election campaigns. This is understandable; elections are ultimately why political parties exist. However, it risks reinforcing certain problems and tends to produce only superficial change.
  • The current funding model does not always create strong incentives for UK political parties to be selective about where they work, who they work with, and what they do. This renders a valuable tool – the sister-party model of party support – less effective than it would otherwise be.

Policy Implications

  • When employing a sister-party approach, democracy promoters need to be more selective about where they work and who they work with. The sister-party model works best when parties share not just ideology, but similar structural positions in the political system.
  • Sister-party programmes also need to be more strategic about what they do. As well as focusing on election campaigns, they should focus on the foundations – party finances, membership, policy development – on which successful campaigns are built.
  • Efforts to co-ordinate with other democracy promotion actors should shift from a mind-set of avoiding duplication to a mind-set of creating and exploiting complementarities between programmes.
  • A more flexible funding model could create stronger incentives to be selective and, consequently, foster more effective party support programmes.
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Gender as a lens for democratic progress – openDemocracy guest week

(Above: In July 2015 WFD supported the first ever Women’s Parliament in Kampala)

This month Westminster Foundation for Democracy explored how gender works as a lens for democratic progress, in our second week guest-editing openDemocracy’s front page.

WFD’s research team chose this topic because, put simply, women matter. Leaving women out of key decision-making bodies risks alienating over half of the population from policy outcomes that have a significant impact on their lives.

Representation of all groups – including women – in institutions like parties, parliaments and civil society is essential to ensure the interests of all citizens are represented.

The benefits of women in politics – an argument won?

The perception that women’s claim for representation has been resolved with the increased number of female politicians in the UK parliament and the appointment of the second female Prime Minister is false, according to Professor Sarah Childs, Director of the Gender Research Centre at the University of Bristol in her article ‘The ‘problem’ of women in politics has not gone away’.

In the UK 70% of all MPs are men which means they are over-represented relative to their percentage in the population. But Professor Childs hopes that the newly established Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion will take the necessary steps to change this statistic and ensure women’s representation is addressed in line with the IPU Good Parliament Report.

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, echoed this sentiment in her article that suggested even in 2016 women can’t afford to be complacent over the idea that the increased participation of women in politics is a good thing. “I take it for granted that it’s generally accepted as morally right for 52% of the population to be represented” she wrote.
Pointing to the double standards often placed on the shoulder of women leaders, Smethers’ article raised an important issue that women who want to be active in politics feel globally. Nang Phyu Phyu Lin, Chair of the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process in Myanmar, said: “If men want to participate in politics no-one questions his [political ability]. But if a woman wants to participate in politics, people – including women – question that women and demand proof [of her knowledge and ability].”

Barriers to women’s participation

Birgitta Jonsdottir, Pirate Party MP for seven years and prominent figure in Iceland’s political revitalisation, spoke to openDemocracy’s Phil England to discuss n Icelandic politics’ transformation in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Since then Iceland has come top of the World Economic Forum index on gender parity for the past seven years. Are the two linked? Birgitta advocates that women must play a role in shaping their own futures. “I have had the same opportunities as a man because I don’t genderise myself when I’m following my dreams and passions. I understand that the language about women in politics is sometimes quite depressing…. But at the same time I don’t care what people say about my style of being active in politics” she said.

This contrasts significantly with the hand African women and girls are dealt where traditional norms and stereotypes regarding a woman’s role prevail.

Eliza Anyangwe, freelance writer and founder of The Nzinga Effect – an organisation that seeks to change the narrative about Africa by changing the narrative about African women -thinks “the logic that just having women in politics will itself serve to challenge patriarchy and negative social norms is flawed.” Despite having three female leaders across the African continent there has been little improvement in the economic, social and cultural parity of women, she argued. Connecting political representation to these arenas is key to changing the narrative.

UN Women’s contribution gave a practical example of what can be done to support women candidates to overcome the barriers they face. By providing advocacy and leadership training alongside campaign and management skills, the UN women programme in China trained young women ahead of the local elections, giving the confidence and encouragement women needed to get involved in political life. Participant Liao Bin from Hunan province in China said: “Chinese women are as capable to govern and lead as men, and must be given equal opportunities to do so.”



Our openDemocracy editorial partnership seeks to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion about what approaches work best, including addressing the representation of women. If you would like to contribute to the debate, contact

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Blog: Finding windows of opportunity for political reform

Susan Dodsworth, WFD’s research fellow, captures the discussion on political party support from an  event at Oxford.

In early July, at a workshop in Oxford, Nic Cheeseman and I hosted a small group of academics, policy makers and practitioners for a great discussion around our latest research paper that tackles the issue of political party support and democracy promotion more broadly.

Let’s be honest about objectives

Our research on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s (WFD) political party programmes triggered a lot of questions. One particularly hot topic was what are the goals of political party support? While Nic and I have approached party support through the lens of democracy promotion, this is by no means the only end to which political party support might be turned. For some, party support is a way of spreading ideology and building the capacity of like-minded parties. This could help to improve the quality of democracy, but that’s not the primary goal. For others, political party support is about good governance, a term that is not synonymous with – and may not require – democracy. In some cases, political party support is less about delivering immediate change, and more about building relationships with political leaders over the long term. In those cases, the hope is that these relationships will provide a foot in the door if windows of opportunity for political reform emerge, or a seat at the table in times of crisis.

Honesty about the objectives of political party support is critical because it shapes our answer to another question: what constitutes success? For political parties, success tends to be defined in terms of electoral gains. Yet the rise of a single political party may have little impact on the quality of democracy in a country. If the goal is to build the capacity of opposition parties so that the electorate is presented with viable, programmatic alternatives to the ruling party, are we successful even if voters do not choose those parties? If the objective of a programme is to build relationships with political leaders, then different time horizons come into play. Success (or failure) will be evident only in the long term and will be contingent on a wide variety of factors beyond our control. Misrepresenting our objectives is dangerous because it makes it harder to demonstrate success. This, in turn, fuels scepticism about the effectiveness of democracy promotion, making it difficult to justify to the people who ultimately fund it: taxpayers.

Setting out a new research agenda

We challenged our audience to set out a new research agenda for democracy promotion. We asked them to tell us what they wished they knew, and how we might find out. Pretty much everyone was keen to know how we can detect and measure the impact of political party support, and other democracy promotion programmes. There are plenty of challenges here: questions about the comparability of different programmes, about what to do when ‘big data’ (the latest buzz word in both political science and international development) is unavailable, and the difficulty of conducting rigorous qualitative research in a field where (somewhat perversely) transparency is often lacking. Many of these problems stem from, or are exacerbated by, the relatively small number of programmes that provide political party support. This limits the pool of cases on which research can be based.

Some of our participants also asked whether previous research has had an impact on practice, and, more importantly, on results. In the last few years a number of researchers have suggested ways in which political party support and other forms of democracy promotion could be improved. However it’s not clear to what extent these recommendations have been implemented, or, where they have not been, why. As democracy promoters, including the WFD, respond to past research by adopting more innovative approaches (such as those that integrate political party support and parliamentary strengthening), researchers need to respond by helping them to evaluate the dividends delivered by these new tools.

Perhaps the most challenging question posed was whether democracy promotion can work in authoritarian settings. The first wave of democracy promotion took place in countries that had experienced reasonably clear-cut transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. In that context, the challenge was (to steal a line from Thomas Carothers) that of speeding up an already moving train. Today, an increasing amount of democracy promotion takes place in regimes where the political space is severely restricted or receding. The challenge is not to consolidate democracy, but to prevent the roll-back of earlier democratic gains and increase the chance that windows of opportunity for political reforms will be acted on, if they arise. At the moment, we simply don’t know whether this is possible.

This makes it important to consider whether there is an authoritarian threshold beyond which democracy promotion does not work. If that were the case, then it might sometimes be better for democracy promoters to do nothing. If it is not, then perhaps we should stay engaged in countries come what may, in the hope that this makes it more feasible to take advantage of future opportunities to promote reform, should they arise. This is an essential question to answer if we are to best target the time and resources of democracy promoters, but it remains an issue on which there is little clarity, and certainly no consensus.

Perhaps more worryingly, there’s also little to go on when it comes to avoiding unintended, negative side-effects of democracy promotion. Democracies don’t have a monopoly on political institutions (like parliaments) nor political processes (like elections); they can provide authoritarian regimes with legitimacy as easily as they provide it to democracies. A central task for any future research agenda is not only to identify where democracy promotion works best, but where it is likely to backfire.


More than elections, more than ideology – a strategic approach to sister-party support


(Featured image: Flickr Janneke Staaks)

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Blog: What works best in political party strengthening?

(Above: The Africa Liberal Network is an alliance of African liberal democratic parties.)

Susan Dodsworth, WFD’s research fellow, blogs about her latest paper on political party support.

Support to political parties is perhaps the most difficult, and most criticised, form of democracy promotion. This is particularly true of programmes that use the sister-party approach, a model of political party support that centres on relationships between parties with similar ideological positions, and which is favoured by UK political parties. In our most recent policy paper, Nic Cheeseman and I draw on the body of practice accumulated by UK political parties, through programmes funded via the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), to work out what the sister-party approach has to offer. We argue that the sister party approach has value but that shared ideology should be just the start; sister-party programmes work best when parties have something more than ideology in common.

Why are people dubious about the sister-party approach?

The limited research we have accumulated to date suggests that the results of political party support are at best limited, and rarely transformative. There is some evidence that other forms of party support can make a difference, but scepticism about the value of sister-party programmes is particularly deeply entrenched. This is partially because democracy promoters are often working in countries where the left-right ideological spectrum that has defined politics in the West is blurred or non-existent. In such a context, finding genuine sister-parties can be a stretch. It is also because there is less evidence available about how sister-party programmes work in practice. Sister-party programmes rely heavily on relationships of trust and confidence and often touch on politically sensitive issues. This has reduced transparency: those providing support to political parties have been unwilling to let outsiders see their programmes at work. Luckily, as our collaborative project with WFD demonstrates, some democracy promoters are now more willing to open up their work to outside eyes.

Why is the sister-party approach worth saving?

A shared ideological position, even if it only exists at a relatively abstract level, makes it easier to establish a relationship of trust and confidence between parties. It is that relationship – not the shared ideological position itself – that accounts for much of the value of sister-party programmes. In political party support, the presence or absence of trust can make or break a programme – and this can be very difficult to build for actors who are not politicians themselves. A relationship of trust and confidence brings a number of advantages. Where such a relationship exists, party leaders are more willing to listen to advice and more willing to be honest about the weaknesses or short-comings of their parties. A strong sister-party relationship can allow those providing assistance to tell party leaders things they don’t want to hear. It also fosters strong, personal relationships between key individuals in both parties. This is critical. No matter how well a programme is designed, if the leaders of the party being assisted do not support it, or at least tacitly accept it, it is unlikely to change anything.

An important caveat is that these are potential advantages. Simply using the sister-party approach won’t generate them automatically. They are far more likely to arise if the sister-party approach is used in the right circumstances.

(Grant Haskin, ACDP Head of Communications meets DUP MP, Ian Paisley, as part of WFD’s Multi-Party Office programme)

When does the sister-party approach works best?

This, of course, raises the question: what precisely are those ‘right circumstances’? In our policy paper, we argue that the ‘right circumstances’ are when political parties share not just ideology, but something more. Often, that something more is a similar structural position in the political system. This refers to several things, including the relative size of a political party, whether it is part of a coalition, and – in the case of opposition parties – whether it seeking to regain power (having been in government previously) or to gain power for the first time.

These kinds of similarities cropped up again and again in all of WFD’s most successful political party programmes. For example:

• The Liberal Democrats gave the Liberal Democracy Party (LDP) in Serbia tough advice about the weakness of its position on LGBT rights, prompting them to establish a new human rights council within the party. According to someone familiar with the programme, ‘the key was getting them to accept that they were always going to be a junior party in any coalition or government’ and so did not need to adopt “catch-all” policies. This harsh truth was far more palatable coming from a party in a similar position to that of the LDP.

• The Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) has supported the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) in South Africa. The ACDP had struggled to attract media coverage on issues other than those seen as having a moral or religious aspect. The DUP experienced the same problem in the past. It drew on its experience to help the ACDP to develop a stronger communication strategy, one that expanded the range of issues on which it received media coverage.

(Above: Like the Labour Party’s support to Tha’era, the Green Party’s work with the East African Green Federation provides another example of sister-party work at the regional level.)

What are the implications of this?

The advantage of having more in common than ideology has, paradoxically, made it easier for smaller parties to do effective sister-party work and harder for larger parties to do the same. Newer, less established democracies tend to feature a lot of small parties; smaller UK political parties can often find several parties with whom they share a similar structural position. It is rare for larger political parties to find this kind of match. In the countries where political party support is needed, large parties with experience in government tend to be the ruling (and often distinctly authoritarian) party. The opposition is often fragmented into a number of smaller parties; no large opposition party exists. This means that it is more difficult for larger parties to do sister-party support well. They have to be far more selective about who they work with, and more strategic about what they do. Abandoning the sister-party approach to democracy promotion would be a mistake, but we do need to be more careful about where we use it.


The full paper: more than ideology, more than elections – a strategic approach to supporting sister-parties

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Cost of Politics synthesis report: What surprised Peter Wardle most?

Westminster Foundation for Democracy spoke with Peter Wardle, former Chief Executive at the UK’s Electoral Commission, on his work summing up our research on the cost of politics.

Peter’s synthesis report is available here. There are some tickets remaining for July 18th‘s Cost of Politics event, where Peter will sum up his findings.


Peter, you’ve written the synthesis paper summing up the findings from WFD’s six research papers looking at the ‘cost of politics’ in Macedonia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda. What exactly is the problem that all these countries face?

What we’re starting with here is the age-old issue of money and politics. I think no-one’s starry-eyed about this. Politics takes resources – whether to organise parties, develop policies or communicate positions to voters. But I think the problem we’ve seen in these particular cases is that when the cost of getting elected gets too high, or gets so high that most people could never contemplate it, you get a range of problems.

What sort of problems might they be?

They could include the complete dominance of the political scene by those with the resources to be there – and coupled with that, the exclusion of huge groups and numbers of the population. This then leads to corruption – either because these are the wrong kind of people going into politics in the first place, or because elected politicians need to recoup the investment they’ve made, which gets in the way of almost everything else.

That doesn’t sound good.

No – the combination of all that leads to the diminution of democracy. You have MPs focused more on their personal financial position than on their role as constituents and national representatives, or on their parliamentary role in terms of holding the executive to account. And you get big, wealthy individuals dominating at the cost of less powerful, less well-represented groups.

Which areas of this research are breaking new ground?

Looking at the six countries, we’ve divided it into three distinct phases. There’s the cost of getting on to the ballot paper in the first place; the cost of campaigning to be elected; the cost of being an MP; and then it all starts again with re-election. What struck me most was that while there is a reasonable amount of research and understanding around that second phase, on the formal election campaign, what is often overlooked are the costs of getting selected. In all the countries we’ve looked at, individuals face immediate and very significant financial challenges. There’s a lot of risk that favours granted at that stage may be called in when the candidate reaches parliament.

And it’s when a candidate becomes elected that they face further costs and challenges?

Yes – then there are the costs associated with success. If you end up with a seat in parliament as an MP, in many societies you face a public expectation that you – regarded as a rich and prominent figure – will put your hand into your pocket. That brings additional financial burdens which, if you’re not wealthy, could lead to temptation to seek cash from other sources. You might try to divert state funds. Once you’re in parliament, it’s quite easy to cross the line between responding to demands, and then making offers with a view to re-election.

At the same time, once you’re in parliament and you’ve experienced the very high cost of getting there, you face a difficult moral dilemma – what incentive do you have to make the political system cheaper for your potential opponents in the future?

What surprised you most as you read through these reports?

The sheer cost that individuals face before the election campaign even starts, and after they’ve been elected. Although I was aware of the issue, I wasn’t aware of the scale. The research papers really bring that out very well.

You say ‘sheer scale ‘ – what sort of numbers are we talking about here?

We haven’t got the data yet; one of the recommendations is for further research into this. But we know that in Ukraine, you’re getting into an estimated cost of millions of US dollars to secure a parliamentary seat in some of the most hotly contested constituencies. In other cases, there are estimates that the cost of a vote is about a day’s supply of food. What is clear is that in all of the countries, the idea that you give a voter money or goods in return for your vote is very firmly entrenched. That is particularly corrupting of public discourse and democracy, because it reduces an election to a transaction, rather than any meaningful debate.

How do you see this issue fitting in with the broader global anti-corruption agenda?

It does seem from this research that you can make a link between the incentive to engage in some of the manifestations of corruption – misuse of state resources, awarding contracts or determining policies in ways that favour particular interests – and the fact that as a politician you are either yourself heavily invested or you are reliant on sponsors who have put you there. They will expect corrupt behaviour as a payback from their investment.

So if we can do something about the high cost of politics, then two things potentially can flow from it. First, we can reduce the incentive for people to respond to demand to engage in those sorts of corrupt practices. Secondly, we can make the political scene more accessible to people who might be coming into politics for purer reasons.

What, then, can we do to tackle the high cost of politics?

The first recommendation – which chimes very well with the agenda of Westminster Foundation for Democracy – is to help political parties rediscover their role. They should move away from being no more than vote-winning machinery, and rediscover their role as a broader-based public organisation which is looking for the good of the nation, the good of the citizens. I think that the British political party tradition has a lot to offer, particularly to some of the countries that still look to Britain as a good model for democracy, to say a political party can and should be much more than simply a vote-winning, and even a vote-buying machine.

Coupled with that, there needs to be some focus on the funding of political parties. There are two aspects of that. One is the question of whether there is a case for public funding. Interestingly, following an upward spiral in the cost of politics, Ukraine has cracked down very significantly, and is not only putting in place legislation to try and curb the spending, but is also offering in return a greater element of public subsidy for political parties, recognising that properly functioning political parties are a public good. There is a topic there that deserves kicking around.

There also needs to be more effective regulation of the money coming into, and being spent by, political parties. Most of the countries have got reasonably good regulations on paper, but have great difficulty in implementing them in practice.

What about another of your synthesis report’s recommendations, around campaigning and elections?

There is an issue here around advertising and the media. Countries with a weak and ineffective media force politicians to look at paid advertising, because otherwise there is no real opportunity to get their messages across, on broadcast or otherwise. Continuing work to build a stronger, more confident media in many of these countries, which recognises particularly the role of the media at election time to present the arguments in a more balanced way, is important. One of the other things the UK has to offer, and is of great interest to people overseas, is the concept of free broadcasting at election time. We effectively offer that, as a compensation for our ban on paid political advertising in the broadcast media.

How do we address the question of private sponsorship paying for travel, logistics and security?

This is slightly easier – it’s an area where public subsidy to campaigners or parties could be a useful way of reducing their reliance on private sponsorship. For example, if you’re campaigning in Nigeria, you face a difficult security situation but need to get out to rural areas. It’s an expensive operation. What role could the state resources take in helping people simply get access to voters, rather than it being an incredibly expensive proposition from the outset?

How do we establish this, though?

Well, the third group of recommendations is around further research which can help address some of the tantalising frustrations about there being very little transparency about the costs that go into getting elected. We’ve already done a lot based on interviews with politicians and others involved in each country – some of this is essentially anecdotal, but there have also been some pretty impressive efforts by civil society organisations to do some proxy monitoring. A really important next stage in this area is to get some further rigorous research into particularly those first and third stages, pre-election and the cost of being an MP. If we can get a better handle on those costs, and how they contribute to the corruption problems that we think we can see linked to them, we’ll be in a strong position to keep pushing this issue up the overall governance agenda.

Featured image: Flickr
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Shaping democracy: Highlights from our ongoing debate

In February 2016 Westminster Foundation for Democracy launched our editorial partnership with openDemocracy with the goal of seeking to encourage a discussion about democracy assistance.

“Democracy, wherever it’s found in the world, is a work in progress. The same goes for democracy-strengthening – and it’s time for all those involved in this work had an open conversation about what works best.”

The key questions at the heart of our work were set out by Susan Dodsworth, the WFD-funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow In The Political Economy of Democracy Promotion.

“Is the objective democracy or development? Can it be both, or must the pursuit of one necessarily come at the expense of the other? Should we settle for development first and democracy later?”

And even more questions followed in her article exploring the trade-offs inherent in parliamentary strengthening:

“How can donors encourage democracy promoters to use best-practice without mandating a single ‘correct’ approach? How do we stop lessons learnt from becoming one-size-fits-all solutions? Where can democracy promoters get the evidence they need to demonstrate that their proposed approach is the best fit for a particular case?”

democracy puzzle_1Alina Rocha Menocal, a senior research fellow in the Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) at the University of Birmingham, responded by suggesting that donors ought to be more risk-tolerant – but wondered what these innovative programmes might actually look like.

“It is crucial to understand that all good things don’t always go together automatically and choices need to be made, and to be aware of any potential implications.”

This partnership begins as the broader global development sector looks to explore how it can most effectively achieve the Sustainable Development Goals agreed last autumn. Myles Wickstead, who wrote the agenda-defining1997 Department for International Development white paper, set out why he thinks governance is central.

“‘Leaving no-one behind’ is not just a function of economics and financial well-being; it is also a function of justice and governance.”

One of the central challenges in improving governance is tackling corruption – but progress in this area might not necessarily result in good feelings among the citizens whose lives will improve as a result. Daria Kaleniuk, co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Centre in Kiev, Ukraine, explained why.

“This is a success story, that we opened all this information…and this information empowered people…especially investigative journalists. But it means that we have more information about corruption, and people – a majority of the population – feel that there is more corruption. It’s not the case. There was lots of corruption before…but now people just have more information.”

Political parties have an important role to play in this, too…

Parties can only operate in their specific political and constitutional environment – and that can profoundly shape their views. James Martin, Professor of Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, explores the role of the ‘strongman’ in politics – and how in certain political systems this can make a big difference. He asks:

“Parliamentary democracy was once expected to be a bulwark against just such demagoguery. Might it yet rediscover a way to reassert a restraining influence on democracy itself?”

Another specific example – the political situation in Brazil – illustrates the importance of institutions. It explains why, as Pedro Doria writes, the crisis in Brazil is not a coup.

“In the annals of political science, a coup d’état is usually defined as the illegal overthrow of government by an arm of the state… A ‘parliamentary coup’ is at least a novel concept. Usually, after coups, parliaments are forcefully closed.”

The relationship between a Parliament and an executive is always complex. Following the publication of a new WFD/Oxford University report on breaking new ground in parliamentary strengthening, Tom Bridle – a Democracy Fellow at the Center for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance at USAID – explored the challenges of running politically-minded programmes in these contexts.

“Why are developing country legislatures so uniformly weak and dysfunctional? The fundamental political answer is because that weakness is in the interests of the national elites who benefit from having a monopoly over the power to make policy decisions and allocate assets in ways that further enrich and empower themselves and their allies.”

hansardThis is where Westminster Foundation for Democracy comes in. Our Director of Programmes, Devin O’Shaughnessy, has written about the importance of political parties in democracy strengthening.

“Underneath their varying institutional frameworks and rules of procedure, we are convinced that what really determines whether a parliament is a living entity or a rubber stamp is the role parties play inside it. It is why Westminster Foundation for Democracy is so committed to helping parties become more effective actors inside parliaments, in any way we can.”

We were delighted to receive a response to Devin’s article from the International Republican Institute, which put context at the heart of their approach.

“While the political context in the represented countries varies widely, what is common is the understanding of the importance of the feedback loop of citizen engagement and responsive elected officials.”

Westminster Foundation for Democracy believes a diversity of approaches is the right answer for beneficiary countries. Hans Bruning is Executive Director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, set out how his organisation’s approach has been shaped by the Dutch approach to democratic assistance.

“‘To polder’ means to engage in a careful, meticulous and often long-winded practice of deliberation and consultation that eventually leads to an overall agreement on a course to be taken collectively. This – obviously democratic – practice of ‘poldering’ can be observed on all levels of government.”

The conversation continues on openDemocracy. If you or your organisation wishes to contribute, we’d be delighted to include you; email alex dot stevenson

Featured image: Flickr – MichaelSwan

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Expert engagement series: Myles Wickstead on WFD’s ‘crucial’ role

In 1993, when Myles Wickstead first arrived in Nairobi to head the UK’s British Development Division in East Africa, his team of advisers was entirely made up of economists, engineers and natural resources experts.

Within a couple of years that had completely changed, thanks to the emergence of “an exotic new species”. The novelty of this new breed of ‘governance advisers’ reflected the emerging importance of a new approach to aid. “None of us really had any idea what this role might be,” Prof Wickstead remembers. “We thought it had been misspelt.”

Yet such was the rapidly changing context of the period – a post-Cold War environment where the conditionality of EU membership was strongly reflected in aid spending – that by the time of Eliminating World Poverty, the November 1997 White Paper from the newly-established Department for International Development, the importance of governance had become central. “Raising standards of governance is central to the elimination of poverty,” the White Paper stated.

Prof Wickstead, who spoke to WFD colleagues in the latest of our expert engagement series, recalls: “We recognised right from the start you need other things in place if you are going to deliver on your basic health and education objectives. You need reasonable governance and peace and security. If you don’t have those you can’t build the health and education systems you need. But you can’t build those health systems and education systems unless you have strong economic growth, which you can’t have unless you have the private sector given a significant role – and it won’t invest unless you have good governance.”

Group of Black People Marching

Now governance advisers form an essential part of Britain’s aid work in the countries where DFID operates; governance is fundamental to the UK aid strategy, which works to strengthen “global peace, security and governance”. It’s also fundamental to the SDGs, which enshrines the principle in Goal 16. Yet, as WFD Chief Executive Anthony Smith (on right in picture above) pointed out, Goal 16 avoids using the word ‘democracy’. Does this mark the demise of a political approach to development, which had been much more central to aid in the immediate post-WW2 period?

“You have to get behind whatever the politics is in a particular country to do it – that may be why people have avoided the word,” Prof Wickstead, a former WFD governor, replied. “If you use the word democracy, that prescribes a particular way of giving people voice. There may be other ways of giving people voice that don’t come within what we’d call a democracy.” Take Somalia, for example. After many years as a non-functioning state, it is beginning to make progress. That simply could not happen if the role of tribal elders was disregarded. “If you don’t bind those people in, you’re not going to make progress.”

Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, recalled our engagement with Richard Youngs, who had explored the loaded nature of the word ‘democracy’. He sought to understand how goal 16’s inspiring but vague language can be operationalised. The answer, Prof Wickstead suggested, might be that “people can pick and choose” – and that goal 16 gives people a “hook” to work with.

This becomes increasingly important in a world where citizens’ expectations about good governance are being driven upwards by social media. If teachers in Kenya do not bother showing up to work, for example, parents are being invited to alert officials with text messages. “This is a really powerful mechanism,” Prof Wickstead says. “Young people are extremely familiar with it, so I think it’s going to continue to develop momentum.”

eliminating world povertyThe changing shape of aid is a big factor to consider, too. In the next ten to 15 years aid as “concessional resources” will not be nearly so important. Instead the challenge will be about partnerships – a key pillar of the SDGs’ approach. In practice, this means finding new and innovative ways of engaging with governments, civil society and the private sector. Strengthening parliaments in order to ask questions about companies in the extractive industries, for example, will be essential, Prof Wickstead believes.

“Good governance and peace and security have always been absolutely central to the success of any kind of aid and development programmes,” he concluded. “What WFD is doing is really crucial and I think will continue to be so. Aid will become less and less about putting loads of dosh into a lot of developing countries, but that requirement for expertise and skills development will continue to be there for at least a generation ahead.”

WFD celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2017. Our work continues to develop, as progress on effective monitoring and evaluation and our new integrated programming concept shows. Yet we have remained committed to improving governance in the countries where we operate – as the 1997 White Paper puts it, to “encouraging democratic structures which can hold government accountable and give the poor a voice”. Myles Wickstead wrote those words nearly two decades ago. As he confirmed this week, they will continue to be relevant for many years to come.

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Demonstrating WFD’s results: Playing a long game

We’re not building a school or digging a well—the immediate beneficiaries are not children or the vulnerable. Yet parliamentary strengthening is a cornerstone of democracy. How do we communicate this to citizens?

By Alex Stevenson, WFD Head of Communications
Featured photo: Graham Veal
Parliamentary strengthening matters.
It’s a key aspect of good governance and a cornerstone of representative democracy. But communicating its importance and the results which flow from it to donors, stakeholders and even among ourselves is far from straightforward. In extremis, this problem can even undermine the validity of parliamentary strengthening.

In blunt terms, the work of organisations like Westminster Foundation for Democracy is not always thrilling, or even emotive. We’re not building a school or digging a well. The immediate beneficiaries are not children or the vulnerable, and very few of them will be living in poverty. A committee session about tweaking the rules of procedure is never going to be Hollywood box office stuff.Yet the parliamentarians whose working lives benefit from our support aren’t the people this kind of programming is ultimately seeking to help. Whether through improved policy, better accountability, more representative politics or enhanced citizen participation in public life, parliaments matter because they can help change citizens’ lives for the better.

It’s a shame that much of the public debate about parliaments’ role is either seen through a partisan perspective or described by constitutionalists whose terms of reference feel removed from everyday life. During my six years as a journalist writing from the House of Commons Press Gallery about the relationship between the UK’s executive and its parliament, I often made this mistake. As a communicator seeking to highlight why parliaments matter, a more productive approach focusing on the real beneficiaries seems to be essential.

That’s why, in the last few months, I’ve been thinking hard about a new way of showcasing WFD’s results—and, more generally, overcoming the obstacles to communicating the reasons for backing parliamentary strengthening. This is not ground-breaking work, but it does seek to return to first principles and ensure that WFD’s work is not unnecessarily marginalised.

Two obstacles, in particular, need to be tackled head-on. First is the question of what I call ‘citizen proximity’—how close a beneficiary actually is to being an ordinary person. The clerk of a parliamentary committee might make a good interviewee, but their work is framed narrowly and doesn’t speak much to the experiences of the average person in the street. An MP is marginally better, especially if they represent specific constituents. Consulting a civil society organisation, which can speak for a group of citizens and anticipate the changes any shift in policy might bring, is much more like it. Best of all is a citizen—someone whose life has actually been altered by a change that could only have happened because of parliamentary strengthening.

Finding such a citizen might seem rare or unusual—and this is the second obstacle. Achieving change like this takes a lot of time; parliamentary strengthening is patient, long-term work. On a day-to-day basis it involves building the capability of parliaments and political parties. Tracing the link between these activities and a citizen’s life is surely the principal challenge of demonstrating results in this sector.

The answer lies in policy changes resulting from WFD’s interventions. Take our support for the Coalition of Arab Women MPs combating domestic violence, for example. This is campaigning to abolish provisions in the MENA region’s penal codes which allow rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim. At the conclusion of a recent meeting of the coalition, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament declared his wish to see the topic debated. That is an excellent result; it shows an issue is being debated that might not otherwise have been. The use of a research centre’s products, or a parliamentary budget office’s analysis, or the election of a women candidate who had been supported by WFD, to take some of WFD’s other examples, would also fall under this category. Tracing the link between these activities and a citizen’s life is surely the principal challenge of demonstrating results in this sector.

By the time that some of these debates would actually result in a policy being changed, the programme which began the process could well have wrapped up. This is the next big landmark in the policy change process, which should be celebrated. In Kyrgyzstan in April 2015, WFD’s project completion report noted that a new law had been passed regulating veterinary vaccines. This was great news on its own terms, because the issue had been brought to the attention of MPs via regional committee hearings set up by WFD. We could have spoken to a farmers’ union or other representative body, perhaps, and heard how the change had the potential to make a big difference.

But passing a policy doesn’t automatically result in implementation. It takes even more time for this to happen. It’s only then that the link between a strengthened parliament and an individual’s life can be properly completed. In some instances the connection happens quickly: a Jordanian youth leader trained as part of a WFD programme in 2013 quickly led an initiative which reversed a local trend in forest fires, for example. (I travelled to the Jordan Valley in March to find a citizen beneficiary, Roqaya Al-Orood.) In other cases, especially when working with political parties, a decade seems like a reasonable amount of time to have to wait.

That, surely, is a major obstacle to finding and demonstrating results. A combination of journalistic tenacity and rigorous monitoring is needed to keep track of so many potential avenues of inquiry. It is certainly an area of improvement for WFD, which has achieved results in spades, and is now doing more to dig them out.

A new conversation

As part of WFD’s broader exploration of the barriers to parliamentary strengthening, I want to find out more about how other organisations approach this. Of course it is about more than just communications; effective monitoring and evaluation is essential if these comms-friendly case studies are to become logframe-friendly stories of change. But demonstrating results will always be a strategic messaging priority for parliamentary strengthening organisations.

This leads me to my questions for others working on communicating the value of parliamentary strengthening:

• What does best practice in this very niche area of work look like?

• Do others share my conviction that ‘being human’ is the best way to surmount the ostensibly dry subject matter?

• Do you agree that any case study needs to be as long-term in scope as is needed to connect a strengthened parliament with an improvement in a citizen’s life?

• How far should communicators go in finding citizens even before a policy change is achieved?

• Or are there other ways of demonstrating results not even covered in this article?

I hope this appeal for insight from others can help start a conversation about the right approaches to finding results in parliamentary strengthening. WFD and organisations like it have great stories to tell—but there is work to be done in finding and fleshing out those stories. If we share our approaches, perhaps we all might get a little better at it. And that would be something of a result in itself.

This article was published on openDemocracy as part of WFD’s research project How do parliaments shape democracy – and democracies shape parliaments?

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