Debate underway on trade-offs in parliamentary strengthening

Debate underway on trade-offs in parliamentary strengthening

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

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

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

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

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

  • How can donors encourage democracy promoters to use best-practice without mandating a single ‘correct’ approach? How do we stop lessons learnt from becoming one-size-fits-all solutions? Where can democracy promoters get the evidence they need to demonstrate that their proposed approach is the best fit for a particular case?
  • Can accountability and innovation be reconciled? How can donors balance pressure to produce results with tolerance for failure when innovative programs don’t succeed? What should democracy promoters do differently to convince donors that risks are warranted?
  • Once they’ve identified an intervention that’s appropriate for the political context, how can democracy promoters persuade funders and beneficiaries to support it? To what extent should the choice of intervention be shaped by what other projects and programmes have been done in the past, or are being conducted now?

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

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

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

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

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