Research in 2016: Taking the challenge head-on

WFD’s research in 2016: Taking the challenge head-on

Graeme Ramshaw, WFD Director of Research and Evaluation, outlines WFD’s plans for expanding its research and learning in response to calls for better evidence on parliamentary and political party strengthening. Though the context for democracy assistance remains challenging, he is certain our initiatives will contribute to generating substantive knowledge on this topic.

A year ago, the Carnegie Endowment’s Tom Carothers posed a choice to those supporting democracy internationally. They could scale back, reducing risk and ambition. Or they could work harder, investing in learning and arguing more effectively for the benefits democracy brings.

We at WFD have chosen the bolder, if more difficult, option. Using the lessons we have learned from our experience and our evaluations, we have re-dedicated ourselves to our mission of fostering democratic culture and practice in our partner parliaments and political parties.

A big part of that is investing in our learning, both from our own work and from that of others. “Parliamentary strengthening work needs to pay closer attention to political party strengthening and to reflect the local context,” our CEO Anthony Smith has previously argued. ”More evidence is needed on what works in the field of parliamentary and political party strengthening.” As WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation, I’ve been working to put those words into practice through our research programme.

At WFD, we want to better understand the inherent challenges we face in strengthening parliaments and political parties. We want to know more about how our staff and our beneficiaries can be best supported to overcome those obstacles. Through a research partnership with the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, WFD is exploring the political economy of democracy promotion. This involves first reviewing the evidence from our own work and then situating it in the broader context of international democracy assistance. A first publication focused on lessons from parliamentary strengthening is expected in March.

Photo: University of Oxford’s Professor Nic Cheeseman discussing the impact presidential coalitions have on democracy.

We also want to know about specific contextual issues that shape the way parliaments function, but also constrain their role as democratic actors.

Following on from our successful work under the Westminster Consortium, we’ve been assessing Human Rights Committees in a number of our partner Parliaments. There is a growing international consensus about the importance of the role of parliaments in the protection of human rights. The ambition for our research is to give elected politicians a framework to apply these standards in their work.

We’re also worried about the rising cost of politics and the possible distortions this factor brings to parliamentary function and outcomes. WFD’s research in this area aims to create a data set that can deepen the donor community’s understanding of electoral incentives. We hope our work will inform future programming aimed at improving democratic outcomes from elections. The evidence from primary sources will also be mapped against existing campaign finance regulations to generate policy-relevant recommendations.

Finally, we want to understand better the intersection of political party strengthening and parliamentary development. Parliaments are fundamentally political institutions and need well-developed political parties to function effectively. The development of these political parties has proved a particular challenge in the Middle East and North Africa, perhaps preventing more substantial democratic gains from the Arab Spring. WFD’s research will investigate the parliamentary-political party relationship in the region and look for ways to encourage complementary development.

There will be more to come. But these are a few of the ways WFD is looking to establish itself as a recognised source of policy-relevant evidence in the fields of parliamentary and political party strengthening. To stimulate further debate on these issues, we will soon be launching a partnership with openDemocracy on ‘Shaping democratic parliaments.’ We will welcome your contributions as we continue to deepen our own learning and cultivate knowledge about democracy assistance.

Photo: ZackLee

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