WFD x University of Birmingham


WFD x University of Birmingham

Since 2016, WFD has been in a research partnership with the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. Led by our Director of Research and Evaluation, Dr Graeme Ramshaw, Professor Nic Cheeseman and Dr Susan Dodsworth, the partnership takes a new and innovative approach by giving a research institution contemporary and direct access to our data, practice, people and beneficiaries. Research produced under the partnership - on parliamentary strengthening, political party support and civil society assistance - has generated positive attention, both for its findings and as a new model for collaboration between academics and practitioners.  

Research questions 

Our research is focused on the following questions:

How can the norms and standards that strong and effective democracies rely on be influenced?

Effective democracies rely on norms and standards that shape and regulate individual and institutional behaviour. WFD’s research in this area considers the political economy of the creation and enforcement of international and regional benchmarks and conventions. 

What lessons can be learned from democratic process and practice?

Democracy is a process, not an event, and that process must be learned through practice. But while there are certain consistent core elements, that process will differ from one context to another, with each country determining for itself how its democracy will look and function. WFD’s research in this area takes a comparative approach, analysing a variety of democratic practice across numerous contexts to draw out potential lessons for countries looking to reform or consolidate their democratic processes or institutions. 

How can political spaces be opened up so that more people can access them?  

Following years of democratic liberalisation after the early 90s, an authoritarian backlash is seemingly in full swing, imposing restrictions on civil society and individual rights in countries in every region of the world. For some groups, most notably women, access to political participation and rights has always faced constraints. WFD’s research in this area looks at the distribution of power, be it political, social, or financial; how political elites limit democratic space and access to politics to maintain existing power structures; and how democracy support actors can address this. 

How are parliaments shaping democratic landscapes in their countries and how do other democratic institutions and processes shape the ways parliament functions?

WFD’s unique mix of parliamentary and political party access enables us to look at parliaments from both an external and internal perspective.  WFD’s research in this area works to inform and test our programme activities – improving WFD’s performance while sharing lessons and good practice with colleagues in the donor and democracy assistance community.

Key findings from the research partnership:

  • Parliamentary strengthening programmes face unavoidable trade-offs when selecting programme approach (focus on issue or institution) and defining programme scope (who to include).
  • The sister-party model has greater impact when parties share not just ideology, but also similar levels of representation and power in the political system.
  • Citizen participation programmes tend to focus on narrow groups of established CSOs, potentially perpetuating a de-politicised vision of civil society. 
  • Three factors influence how easy it is to motivate legislators to reject repressive laws: the existing level of democracy; the strength of international leverage; and the nature of the electoral system.