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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