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 @wfd.org

Featured image: Flickr – MichaelSwan

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