Anthony Smith, CMG
This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD).
In this time, the Foundation has worked to support democracy in over 70 countries, sharing experiences and forging strong partnerships around the world.
We owe our existence to the vision of a group of British parliamentarians that saw how important it was to invest time and energy in sharing Britain’s democratic experience – good and bad – with countries emerging from the Soviet Union. Democracies in those early partner countries have been transformed and many are now helping other countries take the same journey. Britain’s democracy has also evolved, with four vibrant parliaments sharing that same vision – that we are stronger when we share our experiences and work to support democratic institutions around the world.
WFD’s approach is simple. We draw on the rich diversity of Britain’s democracy – political parties of every size, parliamentarians that have helped Britain remain stable and prosperous through economic expansion, recession and austerity, external and internal conflict, and officials that have provided expert guidance – including through intense constitutional debate – without getting in the way of political leadership.
The two years since our present strategy was published have seen WFD expand geographically and diversify our work. We now have offices in 25 countries and programmes in many more, which means more opportunities for “South-South” learning as well. The variety of the work is fantastic. A number of our partners have started on historic transitions – Burma, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela spring to mind. Some of our partners – for example Tunisia – have had their first democratic transition of power while a second generation of citizens in others such as Ghana have enjoyed peaceful transitions.
Wherever we work, we always tailor our work to local demands. That means ensuring that we understand the local context, but it also means combining political party and parliamentary programmes in new ways, addressing behaviours and political culture, not just the formal rules and structures. WFD has also launched two new lines of work. First, we have begun to provide and train UK election observers for international election missions and, second, our research programme is both looking back at lessons from our previous work and looking forward at issues that will affect our future work.
We want to build on that progress in 2017, in three main ways:
We will work with new partners and in new countries. There is a strong demand for this in every region and, while we cannot respond to every request, we do think there is scope for further expansion. We have seen a lot of interest in regional networks among political parties and parliaments. Respect for and interest in Britain’s democracy and our approach – sharing experiences not pushing any specific model – is global.
We will renew established partnerships and build new ones. World-class British organisations such as the BBC, the British Council, the National Audit Office and think tanks like Chatham House, Wilton Park and Overseas Development Institute can provide critically important lessons on a range of issues that affect the quality of political and civic life in our partner countries. We would like to work as closely with them as we already do with others such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
We will increase our impact on some key policy issues. At the top of the list is women’s political empowerment where we want to ensure that all of our programmes consider their impact on women. Tolerance and dialogue are also a top priority – parties and parliaments can help build shared rules of the game and tackle conflict within society. And anti-corruption remains critically important.
Challenges to democracy-strengthening
Whatever the eventual shape of WFD’s programmes, 2017 will be an important year for any organisation that is working to support democracy. The political turbulence of 2016 was in at least some cases an indication that existing democratic leadership and institutions were not serving their citizens well. At its heart, democracy is the best way of preventing the abuse of power by political leaders. But if democracy is seen to be failing citizens, then there is a greater risk of autocracy gaining ground, at least in the short term.
That creates two challenges. The first is of political leadership, whether exercised by Presidents and Prime Ministers, parliamentary Speakers, Committee Chairs, judges, editors or heads of civil society organisations. Their behaviour will determine the atmosphere in which democratic institutions can work to tackle the real problems – security, the economy, social inclusion – that our societies face. Political competition is important, but so is respect for minority opinions and for their right to express them.
The second is a challenge of effectiveness. Institutions need to work well enough to maintain public confidence in them, so it is important to tackle the nuts and bolts of institutions as well as their strategic roles. For example, if a parliament cannot carry out its core role properly, or even publish records of its proceedings on time, then it will lose credibility and dent the perception of the democratic system.
For both these reasons, WFD will continue working to support both political leadership and institutional effectiveness in our partner countries. We value your contributions and hope that together we can strengthen democracy in the year ahead.