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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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 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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