Blog: Finding windows of opportunity for political reform

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

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

Let’s be honest about objectives

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

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

Setting out a new research agenda

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

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

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

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

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


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


(Featured image: Flickr Janneke Staaks)

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Shaping democracy: Update from WFD’s openDemocracy 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.

From torture in Georgia to corruption in Mongolia, a range of issues have arisen from the debate since our last update in June. Here’s a quick overview of the direction the debate has taken…

Mari Valdur, previously of SOAS and currently on the Doctoral Programme in Anthropology at the University of Helsinki, shines a light on some of the realities for citizens living in transitioning democracies. With the spotlight on Mongolia, the role of corruption and how this shapes citizens’ perceptions on what democracy can bring was analysed.

“While people say it’s very nice to have democracy, the reality is that [our] salaries are among the lowest in the world. The government provides very minimal services to citizens.”

WFD is proud of the support we have given to the Georgian Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee, tasked with reporting on the torture violations exposed in Georgian prisons by civil society and international NGOs. Mairi Mackay, Senior Editor at openDemocracy, met with Eka Beselia, Chair of the Committee and former public defender, to discuss the systematic torture taking place in Georgia’s prison system before 2012.

“After that, [the] repression [started]. I remember when I met the prisoners, they had always been tortured. We defenders could not help [them], because this happened everywhere, it was a systematic programme.”

In the most recent piece, Bram Dijkstra, policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, introduces the idea of election observation and the weight international organisations hold in pushing for compliance with international standards.

“Foreign donors must pay attention to the rapid release of the rule of law – and the EU should lead them. The EU, together with its member states, is Zambia’s biggest donor of foreign aid, a major trade partner, and maintains regular political dialogue with Zambian authorities.”

If you want to respond to any of these articles, get in touch by emailing mairi dot mackay @

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Blog: A mix of parliamentary strengthening actors can achieve better results

By Devin O’Shaughnessy, Director of Programmes

Do others in the democracy-strengthening sector think it is inappropriate for one country to focus primarily on sharing its model with beneficiaries, rather than offering a more international, comparative approach? This is certainly a legitimate discussion to have, but I hope others will agree that having a mix of parliamentary strengthening actors is helpful.

By embracing Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s unique position in the parliamentary strengthening field, rather than resisting it, I am convinced we are helping bolster the sector’s overall effectiveness. I believe we are offering our partners what they need: an in-depth understanding of a particular form of democratic practice and culture – parliamentary, party, electoral – from which they can decide what is of interest, and what is not right for them. We often mobilise acting and former parliamentarians, senior party members, government officials, and civil servants to share their experiences and offer practical guidance on how to manage the day to day challenges of democratic politics and governance.

One aspect of our unique value add is in decoding and explaining why certain practices have evolved in the UK, what the particular strengths and weaknesses are of these methods, and how they may or may not be relevant for a specific context. We strive to build close, long-term relationships in the countries where we are working, which helps us develop a strong understanding of the local context. This is crucial to our ability to identify relevant practices from the UK – and from other countries – about which our partners may like to learn more.

In Westminster coalition governments are a rarity, so the majority and opposition have developed a system where they treat each other with respect – clearly defining the rights they have to speak and the ‘usual channels’ through which they decide on parliamentary business and the parliamentary/ calendar. It is a positive example of a developed political culture where the opposition is respected, but not able to filibuster or create endless squabbling.

The Westminster approach explains why WFD places so much emphasis on the importance of helping political parties function effectively within parliaments. This isn’t about exporting the Westminster model; it is about ensuring parliament has a strong voice in divided societies and is able to keep a government’s business moving forwards. The Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont is a strong example of this, too. Stormont, as well as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, represents a successful attempt to allow for a diverse set of dispensations at the sub-national level. These strengthen the political ties that bind the UK together – important lessons for other countries going through devolution.

(Above: Researchers from the Parliamentary Budget Office in Serbia shadow their counterparts in the Scottish Parliament)

None of the above means we view our role as being to convert the world to British parliamentary practices, however. Instead we offer a response to demand from countries which want to hear practical, detailed examples of how parliaments function in other countries. Those in states transitioning to democracy often want to explore what they hear from a variety of countries and contexts and pick out what works for them. One example among many of this is Tunisia and Morocco’s interest in the UK’s public accounts committee model, which both North African countries are now in the process of adapting for their context, despite using systems historically more similar to France’s.

We believe focusing on the British experience helps ensure our programmes are context-specific, too, as each country we operate in has a different response to the UK approach. Of course we avoid the temptation to offer generic trainings in any case, but what helps with this is the need to understand their interests. In a lot of cases, we find their interests are party interests. This is why helping parties and helping MPs understand how they go about their business within a partisan context is critical. It is an under-focused area of assistance which WFD is seeking to address via our new integrated programming concept. This, too, draws on Britain’s unique democratic experience, as much of the UK’s insight is about precisely this.

There are practical reasons for supporting a country-specific approach as well. One big advantage is diplomatic. Peer-to-peer encouragement and positive pressure for change often proves very effective. Using MPs, who carry real diplomatic weight in this sense, gives WFD’s programmes real clout. This is especially the case where there are strong historical connections and/or growing links between countries.

(Above: Ghanaian delegation meet Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow)

To be clear, we do not just focus on sharing the British model. We have seen that our partners also want to learn about other practices, perhaps from their neighbours or even much further afield. We seek to understand what is happening in parliaments and political parties around the world, so that we can facilitate experience and relationship building globally. We have parliamentary programmes in around 25 countries and deliver party and regional programmes in more than double that amount. These relationships give us the ability to identify innovative, effective practices from all corners, find the right tools for each context, and reaching out to our networks to share them. The historical ties of the Commonwealth and our links to their institutions also reinforce this approach.

We draw confidence from the fact that donors are increasingly recognising the importance of the country-focused approach. In the past, there has been perhaps too much focus on sharing general principles, rules, and institutional structures, and too little on how these components work in real life, where politics, history, culture, and individual incentives intersect and influence actual practice.

There should be space for all kinds of approaches to operate effectively. Non-specific comparative approaches – which can be useful for understanding the general principles of democracy and good governance – should be reinforced by the activities of organisations like WFD which offer their own unique perspectives, rooted in a country’s historical experience and the evolution of its democracy. WFD is also ideally placed to facilitate similar relationship building and experience sharing between countries that have much to offer each other, that without our intervention would be unlikely to happen. The tone of how these lessons are explored will always be important – it must come from a place of respect and friendship – but their value should not be dismissed. We believe a diversity of approaches will lead to stronger overall results.


(Main photo: Alex Schlotzer)

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Blog: Democracy strengthening after the EU referendum

WFD’s CEO Anthony Smith blogs about his initial thoughts on the EU referendum – and what it means for the UK’s contribution to democracy strengthening. 

The past week has been an emotional, as well as a political, rollercoaster across the UK, including inside WFD.  On both sides of the debate there has been surprise, concern, anger, and optimism at some point since the voting started on Thursday. There has been an outpouring of perceptive analysis about the result, much of it very relevant to the challenges that WFD tries to help our partners to address, including how important it is for political leaders to listen to all parts of society, and how to manage political campaigns responsibly.

WFD’s Governors have played an active part in that public debate, and our staff – EU nationals included – have held intensive private debates.  One week on, we are focused on the future, and we are clear that WFD’s role in sharing Britain’s democratic experience will be more important than ever, in all parts of the world.  The global challenges to stability and security have not changed and the support that WFD can provide will remain relevant.  Our work to strengthen democratic practice has always been based on national or sub-national legislatures and political parties and on the diversity of the UK’s systems, with four nations, four parliaments and a capacity to adapt and respond to political, economic and social change that is possibly unmatched in the world.

It is too early to know what the detailed implications of Britain’s exit from the EU will be on our EU funding but the fact is that in any case we will continue to work closely with our European partners.  We share with them a vision and a determination to invest in democracy and to share the lessons, good and bad, that we have learned together over centuries.  This is a time for WFD to support an enhanced British contribution to democracy strengthening and we intend to rise to that challenge over the months and years to come.

Photo: Abi Begum

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Five reasons why WFD is #ProudOfAid

At the Westminster Foundation for Democracy we are funded from the 0.7% aid budget that the UK government enshrined in legislation last year, a topic that will be discussed in Parliament this week.

At WFD, we are proud of aid. And there are many reasons why the UK public should feel proud of this commitment too.

WFD’s vision, the universal establishment of legitimate and effective multi-party democracy, in the long-term, is part of the solution to sustained economic and social development. That is why we invest in parliaments, parties and civil society, as they are the institutions that must work together to deliver change to vital public services like health and education. So here are five reasons why good governance is a good use of British taxpayers’ money.

1. Good governance matters.

Especially with the advent of Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goal – which calls for inclusive and effective governance – good governance has been cemented in the international agenda. At WFD we understand the benefits offered by good governance and democracy (a word controversially missing from SDG16). Effective parliaments which contain competing political parties that engage with civil society have a fundamental responsibility for ensuring that services often provided by aid are actually delivered: health, sanitation, education. Increasing the accountability of a country’s institutions and the willingness of its parliamentarians to represent the interest of citizens is at the heart of WFD’s approach, and can be demonstrated through our focus on financial oversight and our work with parliamentary committees.

2. We are building sustainable change…

By working to strengthen institutions within parliaments that will continue to operate beyond the end of our programmes, your money goes further. In Jordan, WFD established a Research Centre which will be fully independent by the end of 2018. Providing evidence to parliamentarians that improves their ability to make decisions informed by evidence on issues important to citizens – like health, sanitation and education – is a crucial part in any democracy. Likewise, in Ukraine, the establishment of the Financial Economic Analysis Office, which provides parliamentarians with evidence on public spending, will continue to operate in the Verkona Rada after the WFD programme ends.

3. At a relatively low cost…

Our work is about bringing people together to learn about the British experience of democracy. We have learnt you do not have to spend huge sums of money to make a difference to people’s lives. We utilise the goodwill of staff from across all UK institutions to share best practice with their counterparts overseas who have not been exposed to the same systems and methodologies. Our new programme in Sierra Leone, for example, is benefiting from the Isle of Man Parliament’s offer to clear the backlog of the Sierra Leone Parliament’s Hansard. The Head of the Scottish Parliament’s Budget Office has mentored his Serbian counterpart after WFD helped establish a similar office in the Serbian parliament this year. This type of support is priceless, and it really matters: solid records of parliamentary debate and parliamentarians who are scrutinising spending are essential for public accountability in countries transitioning to democracy.

4. … in cooperation with local partners…

WFD have an in-country presence for all our parliamentary and integrated programmes. This helps us understand the local context and develop lasting partnerships with grassroots organisations. In Uganda, for example our Country Representative, Dorine, understands the issues that matter to women and girls in her community. And she uses this insight to develop successful partnerships with CSOs tackling violence against women and girls in Uganda. The Women’s Parliament WFD hosted last year brought together grassroots CSOs to discuss the issues that impact women’s and girls’ lives in Uganda. Our new programme in Macedonia is working with local CSOs to improve their advocacy and lobbying skills, which can put on the parliamentary agenda issues that are important to citizens such as the benefits available to families with children with disabilities.

5. … to advance the British national interest.

Building strong democratic culture overseas has many benefits directly for the UK, and the rest of the world too. Democracies protect human rights at many levels: an active civil society defends the most vulnerable, competitive political parties ensure that discriminatory legislation does not make it on the agenda, and parliamentary committees are able to effectively call to account government policy that does. Effective democracies represent all elements of society and bring them together, in a peaceful way, to solve problems through debate, not violence. Aid spent fostering democratic values has the added benefit of encouraging peace and a respect for universal human rights.

We’re proud of the work we do. We’re proud of good governance. Above all else, we’re #ProudofAid.

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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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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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What does Europe offer for peace, security and development?

Collective action at the EU level is essential to improve the correlation between peace, security and development.

By Kerrie Doogan-Turner

This was the key theme highlighted by Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) event on Europe in the world which took place this week. In his call for greater multilateral cooperation to tackle the global challenges of climate change, human trafficking and mass migration, he said there can be “no peace and security without development and no development without peace and security”.

Actors from the international development community gathered at the ODI event on Tuesday to discuss what Europe’s role in the world means for the peace and security. 2015 saw a culmination of global crises that are set to boil over at the European level as 2016 begins. Mass refugee migration on top of conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are putting strain on an already tense European community.

The gap between public opinion, national sentiment and foreign policy in Europe is stark – and growing. You only have to look to the rhetoric being used when discussing UK membership of the EU at the moment to see this. But the majority of problems and challenges the EU face at the moment are cross-border issues that will not be defeated unilaterally. And now more than ever, it was suggested, is the time to focus on what the European Union has to offer collectively in terms of achieving increased peace, security and development.

(Above: Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development)

If the EU can harness collective momentum to gather around the values that connect them, simultaneous improvements in development and national security can occur, the panel agreed. This applied particularly to the importance of sustainable development goal 16, which calls for “the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, the provision of access to justice for all, and building effective, accountable institutions at all levels.”

The importance of goal 16 has been repeatedly underlined by Anthony Smith, WFD CEO. Although welcoming its inclusion in the SDGs,  and its reference to the accountability of institutions, at the ODI he expressed his disappointment that the word ‘democracy’ was not actually used. He outlined a specific tension between the wider development community and the democracy and governance sphere. This develops when considering whether democracy directly correlates with improvements in key development indicators like health, education and climate change. He argued that – in spite of the evidence – democracy, especially in Europe, is about values. Respect for human rights, the rule of law, access to justice and strong institutions, which hold the executive to account, are all prominent features of the most successful democracies.

The European Union, he said, “can make a distinctive contribution in these areas”. When it comes to managing internal conflict, authoritarianism and abuses of power, Europe has a lot to offer. The experience the EU can share with states encountering such issues now is a vital tool that should not be overestimated. Europe’s promotion of democratic values comes as a result of the collective challenges we have faced and overcome together. And in spite of the challenges we do face in Europe at the moment, he argued, the systems are “pretty much as good as it gets, in terms of forms of governance that reflect the will of the people and protect from abuses of power”.

The development sphere “can and should address politics more directly” as development tends to deal exclusively with the executive, and therefore ignores the ability of parliaments and political parties to hold the government to account. If health, education, women’s rights and climate change are not on the agenda of the executive, then how can progress be made without parliaments, parties and civil society trying to change that agenda? It’s all these skills which need to be drawn together from the wealth of diplomatic and political experience that exists within Europe to help tackle the current global challenges.

This is why at WFD we share the experience of the UK parliament and its devolved bodies in the countries we work in. As WFD’s Anthony Smith highlighted, this “allows others to learn from our experience and decide their own way”. We encourage small, practical changes that can be made in fragile and transitioning states to build institutional change. We work with parliaments and parties to ensure they have the right tools to hold the government to account, improve participation and representation of individuals and therefore create policy that is addressing the needs of citizens.

It is this collective approach and understanding of shared experience that should be reflected in the EU global strategy it was agreed. But ultimately, it is the wealth of experience in establishing developed, democratic societies and maintaining relative peace and security that Europe can and should bring to the table.

Featured image: Flickr – bibliotecabne
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The ‘golden thread’ of good governance can help achieve all the SDGs

By Kerrie Doogan-Turner

As the dust settles on the post-2015 sustainable development goals, International Development Secretary Justine Greening has made clear her belief that the British contribution to achieving them means looking for support from beyond her department.

The Department for International Development (DFID) needs to draw on expertise from across all parts of British society, she told the Commons’ International Development Committee earlier this week.

Making progress, she suggested, requires an evolving approach. The new goals have shifted in focus; they now incorporate not only traditional markers of development like health, education and the environment but also broader ones like inequality, gender and governance. So to succeed DFID needs input not just from private sector and civil society but also, MPs heard, from “all our [British] institutions, heritage and experience to help other countries build their golden thread”.

The ‘golden thread’ was first outlined by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012, and referenced again by him in his speech at the United Nations in September 2015. He had outlined Britain’s commitment “to build accountable and transparent institutions and representative decision making to ensure everyone has a legal identity and access to information and to protect basic freedoms”.

Now the golden thread is at the core of the UK’s approach – and is reflected in goal 16 of the SDGs. This looks towards “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”. Effective institutions and good governance are at the heart of universal democratic principles, after all. In Justine Greening’s view, this approach is pivotal. “Development can happen,” she said, “but if you do not have good governance it’s like a millstone around the country’s neck. You cannot get as far as fast if you have corruption.”

Financial and Economic Analysis Office established with Ukraine Rada

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy understands this. Parliamentary strengthening is a vital part of the bigger picture of achieving progress in countries transitioning to democracy around the world.
We work closely with institutions to identify how we can best establish lasting change. Our work on financial oversight and scrutiny, for example, is fundamentally linked to achieving progress at the state level in education and health. If a parliament can scrutinise financial legislation effectively it can question where money is going and how much is being put back into the country to address development needs. So in countries like Tunisia and Ukraine we’re helping parliaments get a better grip on the figures, by working with Public Accounts Committees and developing offices which analyse financial and economic information.

It’s not just goal 16 which our work contributes to, either. A number of our programmes aim to tackle the pertinent issues of violence against women and girls, as well as getting more women into decision-making roles. Both are targeted by goal 5. Like the spread of good governance, the increase of women as decision-makers carries benefits for the communities they live in and politics more broadly.

Women in Politics panel discussion at University of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

But how do you measure those benefits? For all the SDGs, though, tracking progress poses a challenge. Counting the number of women candidates and the number of countries that operate quotas is one thing; achieving and measuring a change in social norms is a little trickier. We all await the announcement of key indicators measuring progress against the SDGs, which will be announced in March.

Those working on the indicators will have to grapple, for example, with the question of how to measure progress against the aim to “leave no group behind”. When IDC chair Stephen Twigg raised this in relation to women, youth and religious minorities, Justine Greening pointed to lessons from DFID’s work on FGM and child marriage. Achieving a change in social norms “needs all parts of society and a country pulling in the same direction”, she said. That certainly resonates with our experiences supporting the Women’s Coalition across the Middle East and North Africa.

The realities of politics and governance can often get in the way, too. Elections can completely transform the makeup of parliaments. Military coups can simply remove the government of the day. Even the realisation that conflict is spreading across a country can render its institutions redundant. But that’s just the way it is in democracy and governance. Change takes time. Capturing it requires patience. As the UK Government said about its Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, this is “patient, long-term work”.

“What an achievement,” Justine Greening said of goal 16. “It’s there now, in black and white, something we can come back to and work from.” At WFD we’re committed to doing so in the years ahead. We’ll work from it in countries that are tackling the instability associated with extremism, extreme poverty and migration. And we’ll work from it in more stable countries that are tackling either the threat of autocracy or the curse of low economic growth.

“We are going to need governance,” Nik Sekhran from UNDP emphasised in written evidence to MPs,“and we are going to need peaceful societies, otherwise there cannot be development”. WFD’s mission of supporting democratic transition will contribute to that. We’ll contribute to the Prime Minister’s ‘golden thread’ and ultimately the achievement of all the SDGs, too.

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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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