By WFD’s programme manager Ali Imran in Lahore
WFD’s programme ‘Deepening democratic engagement in the province of Punjab’ was designed to improve the effectiveness of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab – Pakistan’s largest province in terms of population and a major contributor to the national economy. By working with the Assembly’s members and secretariat staff the programme has contributed to a greater understanding of legislative, oversight and representative roles. This has assisted the parliament to pass legislation after devolution – a highly significant development in Pakistan’s recent history when the constitution was amended to allow for greater distribution of powers to the provinces.
Delivering democratic reforms
The programme has delivered reform initiatives to improve governance, including the Assembly’s rules of procedure, making standing committees more effective, shaping policy and passing legislation that protects the rights of women and children. There has also been progress in more cooperative relations between parliament and civil society. In addition the programme benefited from ‘south on south’ engagement with parliamentarians gaining insights into how counterparts in other countries have made progress on issues of mutual interest such as greater representation of women in politics.
Ownership was an important consideration in designing the programme which required close consultation with the Speaker’s chamber and the Assembly’s secretariat.
Improving parliamentary performance
The timing of the programme was critical as it coincided with Pakistan’s first ever transition of power from one civilian government to another through the electoral process. The greater devolution of power to the provinces created new opportunities for better governance of citizens in these provinces. Welcome as these democratic developments were – they created clear need for support: a striking 55% of newly elected members had no previous parliamentary experience. The programme succeeded in reaching more than 100 newly elected members through its training sessions which covered topics such as the Assembly’s rules of procedure and parliamentary techniques including questions, resolution and adjournment motions. Once this understanding was developed the programme focused on other key areas such as budget analysis and developing a deeper understanding of devolution.
In addition the Punjab Assembly members benefited from gaining insights into how other parliaments and politicians have made progress on issues such as the greater representation of women in politics and engagement with civil society. WFD’s programmes in the Middle East enabled us to work with Iraqi politicians who shared their experience on forging stronger links between parliament and civil society organisations. Similarly, a caucus of women members of the Punjab Assembly was able to benefit from the experiences of their counterparts in the Jordanian Parliament and explore how they have tackled adversarial debate to fight for greater legislation to protect women and children. This resulted in a particularly rewarding development when a member of the Punjab Assembly’s women caucus presented a resolution demanding stricter action against child marriage on her return from Jordan. Earlier this month the government passed a bill to reform existing child marriage law.
Britain’s democratic history and the ‘Westminster brand’
Members of the Punjab Assembly also benefited from Britain’s democratic history and were able to find out about parliamentary techniques deployed by their counterparts in the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons. The concept of institutional accountability through the scrutiny of departmental standing committees was not only appreciated but also resulted in discussions about how to best reform the Punjab Assembly’s standing committees. The work of Britain’s regional assemblies proved informative in enabling Pakistani MPs observe at first hand the work of the select committees, parliamentary procedures and how powers had been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and regional assemblies. Peer-to-peer dialogue was invaluable in advancing this understanding.
Towards greater representation – from aspiration to reality
Another key area of WFD’s work was in forging cooperative relationships between civil society and the Assembly which resulted in tripartite discussions between MPs, Assembly staff and civil society organisations. This enabled a range of organisations to really develop their understanding of parliamentary work and seize opportunities for greater advocacy in political life. In sum the programme resulted in reform initiatives and debates that demonstrate tangible evidence of improving parliamentary performance in Pakistan. Although the programme is scheduled to close this month its work demonstrates a clear case for continuing to support Pakistan’s fragile democracy and turn more hopes into reality.