A new way of sizing up Parliamentary Human Rights Committees

Parliamentary Human Rights Committees face challenges around resource, effectiveness and value-add. Assessing their progress has remained a challenge in itself – until now.

Today sees the publication of a report summing up the first applications of a new assessment tool for human rights committees.

The tool, developed through Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s research programme with Oxford University, gives practitioners a clear way of assessing parliaments’ capacity to monitor human rights policy against a new ‘best practice’ standard.

Having applied the tool to six countries – Georgia (pictured above), Macedonia, Serbia, Uganda, Ukraine and Tunisia – report authors Brian Chang and Graeme Ramshaw are able to provide a detailed picture about the progress of human rights committees in these countries and the common problems they face.

“One part of the answer to these challenges may be for parliaments and parliamentary human rights committees to improve their practices and learn from good practices around the world,” the report concludes.

“Parliamentary human rights committees in particular need to maximise how they use the resources they can expect to be made available to them.” The committees cannot work alone, either; they need to work together with national and international partners, as well as think strategically.

Strengthening parliaments’ human rights work remains a work in progress. “This study found that none of the six parliaments and parliamentary human rights committees studied had fully adopted all the key practices (indeed, not even the UK Parliament or its Joint Committee on Human Rights has done so) that would enable them to discharge that role effectively, although all of them did well in at least a number of areas,” the report stated. It provides a series of general recommendations which can help the committees continue to improve their work.

The report builds on WFD’s ongoing work supporting parliaments’ focus on human rights, which began in 2008. George Kunnath, WFD’s Regional Director for Europe and Africa, describes WFD’s early work in this area in the report’s foreword.

Through the Westminster Consortium for Parliaments and Democracy programme, he explains, WFD worked with committees in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, Uganda, Morocco and Mozambique to strengthen their scrutiny of legislation that would impact on individual freedoms. The project worked closely with the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute.

George Kunnath recalls:

“It was during this programme that I engaged with Murray Hunt, the JCHR’s Chief Legal Advisor, who shared with me his proposed Draft Principles and Guidelines on the Role of Parliaments in the Protection and Realisation of the Rule of Law and Human Rights. I immediately realised the potential of using these principles as the basis for a comprehensive assessment tool that would allow WFD to determine the capabilities of a parliament to protect the rights of their citizens. The outcomes of such a detailed assessment tool would help identify areas of development for future programming.”

Today that potential is realised. There is already evidence that the assessment tool is influencing the work of these committees. When its findings were presented to the Georgian Human Rights Committee in January 2016, its members responded with gratitude for the practical nature of the recommendations – and, as George Kunnath puts it, “shock at the realisation of the extent of work within a human rights committee’s remit that they were unaware of and that they were not fulfilling”.

The tool will help shape WFD’s ongoing approach to promoting human rights. Our work in this area covers a number of countries, as described in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Human Rights and Democracy 2015 report:

In Georgia, its Parliament’s Human Rights Committee spent 2015 scrutinising the Georgian government’s progress towards its Association Agreement with the EU. WFD helped bring Georgian parliamentarians together with civil society organisations. WFD also improved the link between civil society organisations and Parliament in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A group of female Members of the DRC Parliament successfully worked with campaigners to introduce a proposed change in legislation to establish a quota for women’s representation amongst the chiefs selected to serve within the Provincial Assembly of Province Orientale. WFD believes human rights are best protected within a democratic culture. Its work aims to foster this by improving Parliaments’ capacity to scrutinise the actions of their governments effectively. In 2015, WFD helped new MPs by providing induction training in Kyrgyzstan; encouraged dialogue on anti-corruption in Tunisia and Iraq; and supported improved parliamentary financial oversight in Morocco, Ukraine and Serbia.

All of this work will benefit from the assessment tool – and we hope it can help others, too. As George Kunnath puts it: “I hope that those reading the report will appreciate the pioneering nature of this work and the benefits it will provide to legislative strengthening work around the world.”

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Debate underway on trade-offs in parliamentary strengthening

Debate underway on trade-offs in parliamentary strengthening

After our opening guest week editing the front page of openDemocracy, Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s editorial partnership on how parliaments shape democracy (and how democracies shape parliaments) is now well and truly underway. We’re now focusing attention on the first of our four debate strands, tackling obstacles in parliamentary strengthening.

WFD’s efforts to understand more about what works, and how to be most effective with all our programmes, is underpinned by our research partnership with the University of Oxford. Its post-doc research fellow, Susan Dodsworth, penned a paper with Professor Nic Cheeseman on the issue. This was presented in central London at a WFD event earlier this month. Now Susan has written a blog for openDemocracy setting out her thoughts in more detail – and what questions she wants answering.

The main insight of her work so far, as she explains in her thought-provoking article, is that parliamentary strengthening programmes struggle to strike the right balance on two trade-offs: between issue-based and institutional approaches, and between narrow and inclusive approaches.

The key to shaping a programme is, of course, context analysis; but as Susan puts it, “context is a compass that doesn’t always point in the same direction”. She points to the age of the legislature and the nature/extent of social cleavages as useful pointers, before highlighting another awkward truth. Democracy promoters, she warns, often respond to what donors want, but “”successful legislative strengthening requires… a mixture of approaches”.

Susan’s article finishes with a list of questions – and we want all those active in the global parliamentary strengthening community to help us answer them. Please get in touch if you want to contribute an article in response to her views. Her queries are:

  • 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?
  • Can accountability and innovation be reconciled? How can donors balance pressure to produce results with tolerance for failure when innovative programs don’t succeed? What should democracy promoters do differently to convince donors that risks are warranted?
  • Once they’ve identified an intervention that’s appropriate for the political context, how can democracy promoters persuade funders and beneficiaries to support it? To what extent should the choice of intervention be shaped by what other projects and programmes have been done in the past, or are being conducted now?

We’re looking forwards to seeing the debate on these issues taken forwards in the coming days. And we’re already had an initial response: thanks to Alina Rocha Menocal, a senior research fellow at the University of Birmingham, for her thoughtful comments.

Alina agrees on trade-offs, but is not so sure about the distinction between identity and ideological cleavages. She raises issues of her own, calling for more focus on the benefits of multi-party dialogue and the importance of understanding politics within parliaments – and the incentives that drive parliamentarians. Our ‘cost of politics’ research area seems relevant here. Alina also notes that parliamentary strengthening work is often remarkably similar wherever in the world it takes place. She wants to know if there are any “truly distinct” ways of working in specific countries – and so do we.

That’s why we’re looking forwards to seeing more responses in this area in the weeks to come. WFD has a track record in improving policy, increasing citizen participation, promoting accountability, and bettering representation. But that doesn’t mean we have a monopoly of knowledge on what works best. By exploring these issues in detail, we hope to strengthen both WFD’s programmes and the broader democracy and governance sector.

Email Graeme dot Ramshaw @wfd.org if you want to contribute to the debate.

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openDemocracy partnership: Shaping parliaments, shaping democracies

Announcing our new partnership with openDemocracy: How do parliaments shape democracy (and democracies shape parliaments)?

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.

However many programmes any one organisation actually involved in tightening up the nuts and bolts of democracy operates, it can always learn more. By mid-2016, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy will have parliamentary strengthening programmes in about 22 countries, and political party programmes in around 40 countries. We have a track record in improving policy, increasing citizen participation, promoting accountability and bettering representation. But that doesn’t mean we have a monopoly of knowledge on what works best.

This is why WFD, as well as supporting countries as their democracies develop, is looking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening. This is partly about making the details of our work available to researchers; we are funding a post-doctorate research fellow at Oxford University who will take forward this work throughout 2016. But there’s more to it than that. We want others to contribute too.

The problem is that the many actors which contribute to this work are necessarily dispersed. Some are focused on development; others have a regional or sectoral focus. None have quite the same approach as WFD, which offers British expertise in both parliamentary- and political party-strengthening.

So our aim is to use the openDemocracy platform to encourage others to offer their views on what works and, as they do so, explore some of the most pressing issues facing the sector:

What, for example, are the big obstacles to parliamentary and political party strengthening? We’re more interested in the surmountable problems than the intractable roadblocks. For those actually trying to promote democracy, how can these biggest obstacles be overcome?

We believe that the question is not whether to support parliaments and parties but how.  The needs in a post-conflict country are different to those in a more stable country; those in a country with a dominant party are different to those in a country with large numbers of small parties. What guidance would others offer to policymakers about when to focus on parliaments and parties?

Many are worried about the overall trend of democratic ‘backsliding’ – a problem which applies in countries in every part of the world. We’re focused on exploring more about how parliaments respond to – and sometimes reinforce – the closing spaces for civil society to operate within.

Much of WFD’s work focuses on gender issues – a pressing problem of human rights and politics as much as one of representation and political participation. We want to explore views about what approaches work best.

Finally, we’re interested in the relationship between countries with established democracies and those developing. Both have a lot to learn from each other – and WFD wants to explore these lessons more closely.

WFD’s vision is of the universal establishment of legitimate and effective, multiparty, representative democracy since 1992. How we get there, we believe, should remain a subject for constant discussion. We’re hoping you’ll join us as we open the conversation up to openDemocracy’s readers in the coming months.

Photo credit: Tim Green
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Research in 2016: Taking the challenge head-on

WFD’s research in 2016: Taking the challenge head-on

Graeme Ramshaw, WFD Director of Research and Evaluation, outlines WFD’s plans for expanding its research and learning in response to calls for better evidence on parliamentary and political party strengthening. Though the context for democracy assistance remains challenging, he is certain our initiatives will contribute to generating substantive knowledge on this topic.

A year ago, the Carnegie Endowment’s Tom Carothers posed a choice to those supporting democracy internationally. They could scale back, reducing risk and ambition. Or they could work harder, investing in learning and arguing more effectively for the benefits democracy brings.

We at WFD have chosen the bolder, if more difficult, option. Using the lessons we have learned from our experience and our evaluations, we have re-dedicated ourselves to our mission of fostering democratic culture and practice in our partner parliaments and political parties.

A big part of that is investing in our learning, both from our own work and from that of others. “Parliamentary strengthening work needs to pay closer attention to political party strengthening and to reflect the local context,” our CEO Anthony Smith has previously argued. ”More evidence is needed on what works in the field of parliamentary and political party strengthening.” As WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, I’ve been working to put those words into practice through our research programme.

At WFD, we want to better understand the inherent challenges we face in strengthening parliaments and political parties. We want to know more about how our staff and our beneficiaries can be best supported to overcome those obstacles. Through a research partnership with the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, WFD is exploring the political economy of democracy promotion. This involves first reviewing the evidence from our own work and then situating it in the broader context of international democracy assistance. A first publication focused on lessons from parliamentary strengthening is expected in March.

Photo: University of Oxford’s Professor Nic Cheeseman discussing the impact presidential coalitions have on democracy.

We also want to know about specific contextual issues that shape the way parliaments function, but also constrain their role as democratic actors.

Following on from our successful work under the Westminster Consortium, we’ve been assessing Human Rights Committees in a number of our partner Parliaments. There is a growing international consensus about the importance of the role of parliaments in the protection of human rights. The ambition for our research is to give elected politicians a framework to apply these standards in their work.

We’re also worried about the rising cost of politics and the possible distortions this factor brings to parliamentary function and outcomes. WFD’s research in this area aims to create a data set that can deepen the donor community’s understanding of electoral incentives. We hope our work will inform future programming aimed at improving democratic outcomes from elections. The evidence from primary sources will also be mapped against existing campaign finance regulations to generate policy-relevant recommendations.

Finally, we want to understand better the intersection of political party strengthening and parliamentary development. Parliaments are fundamentally political institutions and need well-developed political parties to function effectively. The development of these political parties has proved a particular challenge in the Middle East and North Africa, perhaps preventing more substantial democratic gains from the Arab Spring. WFD’s research will investigate the parliamentary-political party relationship in the region and look for ways to encourage complementary development.

There will be more to come. But these are a few of the ways WFD is looking to establish itself as a recognised source of policy-relevant evidence in the fields of parliamentary and political party strengthening. To stimulate further debate on these issues, we will soon be launching a partnership with openDemocracy on ‘Shaping democratic parliaments.’ We will welcome your contributions as we continue to deepen our own learning and cultivate knowledge about democracy assistance.

Photo: ZackLee

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Is an effective legislature the cornerstone to an effective democracy?

At the latest Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) expert engagement event we were joined by Dr Tim Power, who spoke about the relationship between comparative political institutions such as parties, legislatures, and the executive in Brazil. Dr Power outlined the impact that factors external to parliaments such as the electoral system and the attitude of politicians towards other countries have on internal characteristics like the make-up of committees, the role of the speaker and procedural rules about votes. In order to change the way a legislature works, he argued, “you must change these factors “.

It’s clear that the increasing power of politicians, in systems where public opinion favours those in the executive, has created an uneven playing field. Dr Power described the tension between Brazil’s executive and legislature, even when party fragmentation occurs in the Parliament, the president is able to continue governing by decree with the approval of the Speaker of the House. Thus, the president can manipulate internal divisions to shape the political agenda and build a coalition which can govern.

Brazil’s experience is very much of interest to WFD. Our programmes focus on the expertise UK MPs and their staff have to offer parliamentarians in transitioning countries, often that involves support in crafting legislation and developing public policy. In Brazil, though, the top level of government can legislate freely. Where the majority of legislation is coming from the executive, such as in Latin America, there are potential lessons to be learnt about how WFD adjusts its programme strategies.

To do so effectively, WFD must understand that the major concern of politicians is, as Dr Power suggested, not initiating quality legislation but being re-elected in four years’ time. Every time politicians are presented with an opportunity to change the way the executive and legislature interacts, he argued they instinctively ask themselves: what’s in this reform for me? The main goal in the four-year electoral cycle is to achieve something that they can claim credit for – like a bridge they can have their photo next to. A role in the executive, even as a coalition member, allows politicians to claim a piece of the credit for delivering key public services. Hence the parade of posters featuring smiling politicians which litter the roadsides by every new infrastructure project.

What, asked WFD CEO Anthony Smith, “is the real issue – parties, or the executive, or the legislature?” The best solution, Dr Power argued, is to tackle the electoral cycle. In Brazil, the staggered nature of the legislative and municipal elections means that the window to produce quality legislation is dramatically reduced by politicians who are too preoccupied with getting re-elected. It is this external factor – the electoral system – Dr Power believes is the key to successful reform in Brazil.

The absence of a strong political party system, the increasing fragmentation of the parties that do exist, and the individualistic nature of politicians has a significant impact on the way the legislature functions. All this is related to the electoral process. The large number of individual candidates at elections means politicians are “poorly identifiable with voters” and therefore not held to account for their actions. The public pressure to create strong legislation is absent from the system. Changing the legislature to one that is proactive would mean addressing all these issues.

But is this essential in creating a fully functioning strong democratic country? No, Dr Power believes – and WFD’s Director of Research, Graeme Ramshaw agrees.

Graeme argued that the real lesson will be from international organisations, like WFD, accepting that a reactive legislature is not necessarily a bad thing. He asked about the relationship between a proactive legislature and the need for a strong parliament, to which Dr Power responded with a question: “How many transformative legislatures have there been in the world?” He argued that “everyone else (outside of the UK and US) was a follower at best”. This does not mean that they did not have a ‘strong parliament’ though.

Take the Brazilian case: the legislature is perceived as “the second mover in everything” and the President as “dominating the legislative agenda”. This is true – almost 85% of legislation originates with the executive – but it is the Congress which reviews the presidential decrees being put forward. If it does not approve them, they will fail. The most appropriate intervention, therefore, for an organisation like WFD may be to identify the best way of strengthening the reactive system which is already in place.

“We conduct context analysis to build up an understanding of why a parliament is structured the way it is and functions the way it does”, Graeme Ramshaw explained. “It is by building our evidence base about different systems and parliaments that we can improve the quality of our programmes in countries that have political traditions distinct from those of the UK. Far from attempting to impose a particular model or set of institutional relationships, our focus is always on supporting parliamentary cultures and practices that enable each country’s democracy to flourish in its own unique way.”

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Expert engagement series: Are coalitions undermining democracy?

By Alex Stevenson

Any organization involved in parliamentary strengthening or broader governance issues will be interested in the findings of Oxford University’s latest research on presidential coalitions – and their troubling implications for democracy.

The way new democracies are governed is changing. In the 1980s, well over half of the world’s democracies were run by parliaments. Today, two-thirds are presidential systems. This trend is accompanied by a rise in the number of political parties, up from an average of 2.4 per parliament in 1974 to 3.04 in 2013. The result, unsurprisingly, is more coalitions.

After Dr Richard Youngs kicked off Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s expert engagement series with his thoughts about The Puzzle Of Non-Western Democracy, our latest event saw Professor Nic Cheeseman of Oxford University offer his thoughts on the implications of these coalitions on democracy.

There is some good news. Coalitions offer countries more political stability, tend to prompt more socially inclusive governments, and help make decisions stick. But they come at a cost.

The problem’s been revealed by Prof Cheeseman’s research among 350 MPs (in nine different languages and six different alphabets, no less). He and his team have found that coalitions tend to lead to a form of politics based on ‘exchange of favours’ – a phrase which essentially means ‘corruption’. Informal processes of exchange – negotiations resulting in the granting of political power in exchange for specific personal favours – do not exactly lead to good governance. Under presidential coalitions, Prof Cheeseman suggests, they are more likely to occur.

Corruption is unwelcome in itself, but there is more to it than that. All parliaments rely on the presence of a strong, robust opposition which is capable of challenging the government. Prof Cheeseman’s findings show that under presidential coalitions, the odds are you’re less likely to encounter this. Parties are lured to sign up to support the president’s party because of the temptations of power, and often end up splintering if they can’t all agree on whether they should do so. Others find themselves toning down the intensity of their attacks on the government because, at some stage or another, they too were part of the same administration. In some instances, around three-quarters of party leaders will have shared a platform with the president on one issue or another during the course of a single parliament. That’s not good for fostering healthy opposition politics.

“Coalitions bring a governability-accountability trade-off,” Prof Cheeseman explains. “On the one hand you get political stability, decisive governance and better policy… but that isn’t possible without weaker accountability, the breaking-down of opposition parties and greater exposure of higher numbers of parties to informal practices.”

The emergence of presidential coalitions presents a challenge to WFD. It’s not that it makes the UK less relevant; Britain has plenty of experience of coalitions. The UK was governed by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance from 2010 to 2015, and both the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have plenty of experience of minority governments. Instead the real headache for WFD lies in the implications of Prof Cheeseman’s argument – the existence of a vicious circle of fragmentation. Coalitions weaken parties, which in turn weaken parties’ ability to win overall majorities – necessitating more coalitions. Parliaments can only be as effective as the parties that operate within them.

More work is needed to properly understand the true depth of the implications for those who want parliaments to succeed. Should organizations like WFD, for example, decide to avoid operating in countries where presidents are staying in power thanks to coalitions? Probably not. Our focus is always going to be on what we can do to support those who want a more democratic future for their country. Fully understanding the political context in which a parliament functions is a big part of our work, though – it’s our politically astute, strategically-minded presence in countries around the world which marks us out from others, after all. What Prof Cheeseman’s research underlines is that we need to understand this trend.

“This research raises a lot of important questions for WFD,” says Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation. “We look forward to exploring them through our new research partnership with Prof Cheeseman and the University of Oxford.”

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Women’s caucuses and committees: What do they offer?

“The Parliamentary Labour party is a men’s club.” That was Baroness Corston’s response when talking to the chief whip about establishing a Labour Women’s Parliamentary Group in 1992. Over two decades later, women caucuses and committees are becoming more and more important in parliaments around the world.

The impact they can have – and the challenges they face – were discussed at Tuesday’s meeting of the Westminster Community of Practice. At the first discussion since the launch in September, representatives from the UK parliamentary practitioner community met to consider the effectiveness of formally structured groups in parliaments and how they can achieve gender sensitive policy and legislation.

There was consensus across the panel that female parliamentary bodies are an effective tool for putting issues that impact on women’s lives on the agenda.

Such groups, Professor Sarah Childs from the University of Bristol argued, can provide “a different way of doing politics” and “by design have great potential”.

Kenyan MP Hon. Sanjeev Kaur Birdi, a member of the Kenya Women’s Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA), highlighted their work in influencing recent bills on marriage and reproductive health.

Baroness Corston explained that “issues only women raise politically” were the motivation for starting the parliamentary Labour party women’s organisation. She pointed to the first ever childcare strategy adopted by the UK government in 1997 as a result of lobbying from the women’s group and the increased number of women in parliament that year.

WFD’s Anthony Smith flagged our regional women’s programme tackling legislation across the Middle East and North Africa. This programme is trying to raise awareness of discrimination towards women. Achieving this means engaging all members of society to debate issues that impact all citizens.

Getting the support of male parliamentarians was also seen as essential when advocating for women’s groups and caucuses. Hon. Birdi referenced a dinner event KEWOPA held in which they invited male parliamentarians to be their “dates” to the event where the bill would be discussed. The support this act of engagement earned for the bill reiterated the importance of a united front. Baroness Corston, too, referred to how she measured the success of the Labour party parliamentary women’s group by the amount of times they were asked for advice from the mostly-male frontbench. They became the go-to organisation for policy concerns on gender and women’s issues.

The work Baroness Corston and other female MPs did to create an outlet for the voice of women in the House of Commons was inspirational. Hon. Birdi expressed the pride she felt in sharing the panel with women who have provided precedent for change in countries around the world. Joining the Kenyan parliament could be a daunting experience for women, she said, but added that women now in Kenya “are where they are because of the previous generation of women MPs”.

She spoke of the absurd discrimination some encountered, including bans on taking handbags into parliament and wearing trousers. Parallels were drawn between Mrs Birdi’s experience and that of Baroness Corston, who joined the UK parliament in 1992 when there were only 37 female Labour MPs. Despite the huge strides taken by the Labour party women’s group since then, including the introduction of all-female shortlists for party selection, an effective mechanism for scrutinising legislation was still lacking – until this year.

This summer marked the establishment of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. Its chair, Maria Miller, was present at the event. Her committee “filled the obvious gap on scrutiny and accountability mechanisms” that the informal groups like the parliamentary Labour party women’s group did not have. These groups, Professor Childs argued, often lack the needed resources and level of engagement from members. The select committee was established as a response to the recommendation from the all-party parliamentary group on women’s issues that more “responsive, inclusive, equal” consideration of legislation that impacts on women was urgently needed.

This positive step in the UK mirrors the approach WFD takes in countries where it has programmes that encourage women to be more active in politics. Anthony Smith highlighted the importance of fostering leadership, increasing effective participation and debating legislation – a prime function of the UK institutions that are working toward gender equality in the UK. It is political parties that have the ability to strengthen these processes and get more women active in politics. All panellists and members of the audience pointed to the crucial role political parties play as the gatekeepers to selection.

The level of engagement on such important issues at the event on Tuesday was a wonderful demonstration of the willingness of Westminster institutions and academics to partner and share expertise. It was an extremely positive meeting of the Community of Practice, which was established at its inaugural meeting in September. The wealth of experience and expertise across UK institutions is something that the Westminster Community of Practice will continue to gather together to highlight and inform the most important parts of our work – and the event on Tuesday night was a prime example of that.

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The International Year of Evaluation: Finding a role for evaluation in programme design

Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, reflects on the M&E team trip to the American Evaluation Association conference last month.

2015 is the International Year of Evaluation. By year’s end, well over 80 evaluation-related conferences and events will have been held across the world. One of the largest of these events, the annual American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference, was held in Chicago earlier this month, and WFD was in attendance.

We were presenting a mixed method evaluation of our parliamentary programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo under the new Democracy and Governance stream within AEA. The presentation illustrated the need to look beyond conventional methodologies when evaluating performance in complex programmatic and contextual circumstances. It also emphasised the inherent challenge in applying evaluation frameworks retroactively, in the absence of clear logic and theories of change.

In many ways WFD’s experience echoed core themes of a conference where participants were both celebrating the increased profile the International Year had provided to evaluation and lamenting the persistent tension between programme implementers and evaluators. The assumption that evaluation exists merely for accountability at the end of the programme cycle clearly remains pervasive among many programme managers in a variety of organisations and fields. At the other extreme, a number of conference sessions documented efforts to run impact evaluations whose conception preceded the awarding of an implementation contract. Clearly, a balance needs to be struck.

At WFD, we are adapting the way we do evaluation to integrate better with our programme design processes. Beyond reviewing logframes, we are working with programme teams to identify their intended outcomes through a more iterative process involving their stakeholders as much as possible. By developing strong theories of change at an early stage, we can make our monitoring, and ultimately our evaluation more meaningful, testing assumptions and interrogating instances where the programme logic has deviated from its expected path.

It is too early to assess the impact of the International Year of Evaluation. But we hope that it includes greater recognition among policymakers and implementers of the role of good programme and evaluation design at the outset as enablers of good evaluation at the end of the programme.  WFD and our colleagues in Europe look forward to working with our North American counterparts in the AEA Democracy and Governance stream to move this agenda forward and ensure that the advances of 2015 are not forgotten in 2016 and beyond.

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Interview: Richard Youngs on the puzzle of non-western democracy

Many politicians, diplomats, and experts today argue in favour of non-Western models of democracy.

Yet it remains unclear what such models should look like. It may be more useful, Dr Richard Youngs argues in his new book The Puzzle Of Non-Western Democracy, to think in terms of specific areas of democratic variation that can encourage democratic renewal—outside, but also within, the West.

As part of WFD’s expert engagement series, our London staff were given the opportunity to discuss the issues raised in the book with Dr Youngs, who is a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Before the group conversation, we had a chance to sit down with Dr Youngs to explore his ideas. Below is the transcript of our interview.

Why did you decide to write this book?

RY: It had become clear to me that this issue of non-western democracy was becoming much more important and powerful at the policy level. It’s been a debate that’s been around for a long time, but it’s been becoming much more prominent in recent years – civil societies around the world, political leaders in rising powers, want to feel they’re contributing new ideas to what democracy means and how different forms of democratic institutions work. All western governments and agencies like WFD realise we need to take this search for democratic variation more seriously. The challenge is to understand what that means in practice.

puzzle of non-western democracyEveryone who works in democracy and governance appreciates context is absolutely critical – and that in different countries you will get different kinds of democracies as a result. But isn’t that something that is already understood by everyone?

RY: It is understood. In a way this is why the book relates to a very live policy debate, because all western governments and their leaders recognise that in trying to support democratic reform abroad, it’s not about supporting one particular model. It’s about understanding what citizens want in different regions of the world, what their understandings of democracy are. But, that’s easier said than done. We do also have to be a little bit cautious in thinking that there is a single non-western model of democracy that is completely different to what exists currently in other countries. We should be able to support forms of democracy that are right for local contexts without undermining core norms of liberal democracy.

That sounds like the key tension really between those two points. Have you figured out a way of resolving that tension?

RY: It’s not easy, and it’s about striking the right, delicate balance between supporting different models of democracy without ending up unwittingly supporting forms of democracy that verge on being almost soft forms of authoritarianism. We need to explore different understandings of rights, what we mean by liberal rights, in different countries around the world. People tend to want a more communitarian form of identity. They believe in democracy but they want to feel democracy is respecting their local understanding of morality and religion, of communal identity. With that, agencies and donors need to do more to change the narrative, in a sense – to convince people and show people that the core standards of liberal democracy don’t need to threaten local, traditional identities.

Was there anything that you weren’t expecting when you started your work on this book that emerged during its preparation?

RY: One thing that surprised me is how vibrant the debates are in countries around the world about this question, and just how sharp the differences are within different developing countries and rising powers. Some people in these countries feel they do want something that is radically different from western style liberal democracy. Other people find it quite condescending, where people argue their countries should have a different form of democracy. They insist they want the same basic rights as those that exist in established democracies. There’s a great deal of divergent opinion over this. It’s very difficult for agencies working in the field to get the balance right between understanding local contexts, supporting different varieties of democracy, but at the same time realising there are core democratic standards and institutions that do have universal applicability.

That leads to a final question about what we in Britain we should make of this. What should we take away from what you’re saying about these different kinds of democracies?

RY: The UK, as with other countries interested in doing what they can to foster democratic reform, needs to be a little bit more open to experimentation, to realising that a lot of the interesting innovations in democratic representation are today coming from other places in the world like Brazil and India. They need to be open to learning about those innovations and taking them on board. That doesn’t mean reversing everything the Westminster Foundation does; its traditional approach is to parliamentary strengthening and political party strengthening has a lot of validity, but somehow they need to be linked in with very interesting new forms of representation and protest and social movements that are emerging around the world.

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Monitoring democratic governance programmes: Evolution over revolution

Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, describes how our new approach to M&E finds space for flexibility within the confines of the DFID logframe.

Desire for change

The current fashion in monitoring and evaluation, particularly within the governance sector, is to argue the inadequacies of our current tools and approaches. Consistent across all of these critiques is that existing methods inhibit flexibility and adaptability and reward simple accountancy over complex change. The necessity of meeting targets creates incentives for programmes to select indicators that are easy to measure rather than those that demonstrate the full extent of a programme’s impact. These proxy indicators give an artificial specificity to processes of change that are far more nuanced than a small handful of tangentially relevant numbers could convey.

And for the most part, these criticisms are spot on. Almost ten years after the 2006 White Paper that put the concept of governance at the forefront of DFID and other donors’ agendas, we are still using inadequate measures to assess progress. But the problem with many of these critiques is that they offer no useful alternatives to the current mainstream models. Evidence drawn from numerous programmes is distilled down to rather generic recommendations about context, local ownership, and iterative design. Relying on these almost universally accepted concepts, however, means they often don’t engage with the fundamental rationales behind the dominance of current monitoring and evaluation approaches and why donors are so wedded to them.

Tyranny of the Logical Framework?

Logical frameworks have their roots in social psychology literature of the 60s and the 70s (Nakamura and Russell-Einhorn 2015). And they serve two critical functions for institutional donors, particularly governments. They provide clarity on both the deliverables and attribution. The importance of these two concepts in the context of public sector budgeting and spending cannot be overestimated.

Indeed, the calls for adopting less restrictive approaches to monitoring and evaluation could not have picked a worse time. The austerity pervading the British government and others around the world has heightened the demand for clarity about what donors are getting for their money and how the VFM for one project compares to any other possible use of those funds. Results that are difficult to deliver and for which both success and attribution are unclear are at a big disadvantage.

Likewise, DFID’s ring-fenced budget has brought with it increased scrutiny as domestic cuts to services and benefits begin to impact UK citizens at home. Yet, while its funding increases, its staffing relative to that funding declines, putting fewer and fewer people in charge of greater and greater amounts of programming budget. This means less time to engage in the kind of responsive programming that DFID’s own evidence base suggests is the best approach to achieving sustainable reform. Rather, staff must fall back on tools that enable them to track progress in the most time-efficient way, generally through quantifiable indicators.

Any approach adopted by a programme funded by an institutional donor therefore has to find a way to engage with the logical framework, rather than rebel against it. This means finding innovative ways to insert flexibility into the overall rigidity of the model and to attempt to have the logical framework serve the programme rather than the other way around. At WFD, we have worked with DFID to test a number of new approaches that merge old and new forms of monitoring and evaluation that will hopefully allow us to better illustrate the contribution we make to democratic strengthening worldwide.

Contextualising ‘Impact’

To do this, we took the three main elements of the logframe in turn. At Impact level, there’s been an increasing move toward using high level indices (WGI, Freedom House, etc) to measure achievement. This is highly problematic because these indices are designed to capture trends not incremental change. Over the typical two- to three-year time horizon of WFD’s programmes, the data from these indices are mostly useless. Moreover, for smaller organisations like WFD, it is unrealistic to expect that our relatively small levels of investment are going to tilt broad governance indicators at national level.

While the preference was to dispose of indices all together, we ultimately settled on a compromise whereby the Impact level of a programme would be measured by two indicators, one of which would be index-based. However, programmes are encouraged to look beyond the traditional global indices to explore other options that might be better suited to the programme objective. For instance, in our corporate level logframe, WFD is using the Varieties of Democracy project’s Liberal Democracy Index as its components most closely align with our core objectives.

The second indicator relies on qualitative stories of change written using a consistent methodology across programmes. These contextualise the impact that WFD is making, demonstrating how changes at institutional level can benefit individuals and organisations through policy advocacy and implementation. Together these two indicators present a picture of how the context is trending over the period and how WFD is specifically making a contribution to or against that trend depending on the context, enabling us to situate our work more effectively.

Capturing processes as outcomes

At Outcome level, the big issue was indicators that are black/white, pass/fail. While this may work (emphasis on may) with other development projects in terms of service delivery, it is manifestly inappropriate for institutional development questions we deal with at WFD in terms of parliaments and parties. Measuring democracy, or even changes in democratic processes, is often nuanced and context-specific.

Aggregating this across a varied portfolio of programmes, spanning parliamentary representatives, staff, civil society, and political parties, is a challenge. Setting absolute standards masks achievement at the lower end of the scale and over-incentivises selecting partners or problems that are at or near the intended targets at the baseline. Likewise, allowing too much flexibility leaves the programme as a whole unable to demonstrate its cumulative impact, undermining its relationship with donors.

So, we wanted something that would enable us to measure along a spectrum but at the same time give DFID something they could assess systematically. In response, we’ve developed a hybrid solution that seeks to meld a variety of evaluation approaches. This will produce data that both captures changes at programme-level across all WFD interventions and aggregates sufficiently well that DFID can see and assess WFD’s broader achievement as an organisation. We are calling this approach the outcome matrix approach.

The outcome matrix approach draws on existing achievement rating scale approaches and combines it with elements of the outcome mapping methodology to create a measurement tool that enables each programme to identify its progress markers and assess themselves against them over time. DFID used to have its Achievement Rating Scale whereby it judged projects’ progress against its stated outcomes. It allowed for movement over time within projects and gave some means of comparing across projects as well. The problem was it was never clearly defined as to what each score meant. We’ve tried to mitigate that by mixing in the outcome mapping approach where projects establish their expectations in the beginning with their stakeholders.

The outcome matrix approach will encourage the teams use outcome mapping methodologies to think through what they need to see, expect to see, would like to see, and would love to see and develop a basket of progress markers for each. This way each programme is working toward targets that are appropriate for them and we are judging them on the merits of their own progress rather than their progress relative to others. These four baskets will then be assigned a score from 1 (lowest) to 4 (highest) to enable aggregation across programmes akin to the old achievement rating scale.

Throughout implementation, the outcome matrix will be monitored and updated, if necessary, based on events. At the end of each year, each programme will report progress as a score, providing evidence in their annual report to support their self-assessment. This will be reviewed by central M&E staff and by external evaluators as part of the Annual Review process.

Defining the contribution

Lastly at Output level we wanted to switch the conversation away from counting activities and focus on what parliaments and parties actually gain from interacting with us. This enables us to have a more direct theory of change about how we create the right conditions for democracy to be consolidated and practiced. We determined that WFD has three principal approaches to catalysing change through its programmes.

First, WFD provides its partners and direct beneficiaries with relevant, in-depth knowledge and technical expertise on parliamentary democracy drawn from practitioners and politicians across the UK and global political spectrum. Second, WFD links its partners and direct beneficiaries to networks and international platforms that promote inclusive democratic policies and practice. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, WFD brokers relationships within political spheres, recognising that in many cases, the impediments to democratic change lie not within the structure or rules of institutions but in the relationships between political institutions and how these create informal ‘rules of the game.’

Adding this layer to our monitoring work takes us beyond merely counting number of participants or number of products produced. It makes us think more deeply about exactly how we’re expecting our partners to benefit from our programmes and how they can translate it into their parliamentary and political party work. It also allows us to have much more meaningful conversations around value for money and why, in a crowded international development field, our programmes offer a unique contribution.

Going forwards

There is general recognition that monitoring and evaluation for governance work remains an inexact science. It seems, however, that rather than collaborating to adapt and evolve existing approaches to meet the needs of practitioners in the governance field, different segments are proceeding in opposite directions. On one hand, the critiques mentioned earlier in this piece have called for abandonment of logframes and renewed emphasis on qualitative methodologies. On the other, cadres within DFID have pressed on with ever more quasi-scientific, quantitative tools that seek certainty where, perhaps, there is none.

A better approach may be to agree that, as with so many other things in this area of work, adaptability is the critical factor. Where objectives lend themselves to being measured quantitatively, let us do so. Where objectives lend themselves to being measured qualitatively, let us do so. And where a mixed approach is needed, develop one. Let the nature of the programme guide us in how we monitor it rather than our own preconceptions of the evidence we expect to see. But let us also not lose sight of a sense of realism that reminds us that we are all ultimately beholden to the political economy of our donors whose need for predictability and accountability is ever present. As appealing as a revolution may be, evolution is more likely to take us where we want to go.

Featured image: Kate Dollarhyde

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