New Study: Global mapping and analysis of parliamentary strengthening

AGORA moderator's picture

A new Study on global mapping and analysis of parliamentary strengthening has been published. To read the full study, please click here

Parliaments are a central component of effective, transparent and accountable democratic political systems. Globally, almost every national political system (190 of 193 countries) now has some form of representative assembly, accounting for over 46,000 national representatives. Parliaments play a critical role in a democracy. They ensure oversight and accountability of government; represent citizens’ views; legislate; shape public expectations and attitudes about democracy; and channel the interests of their constituencies.

Parliamentary strengthening is a relatively small component of international democracy assistance. The International Development Committee of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons (HoC) estimates that globally approximately 330 million Euros are spent annually on parliamentary strengthening. Donor support has mainly focused on civil society, elections, and decentralisation, while parliaments (as well as political parties) have been considered politically sensitive areas of work. Recently, attention has increased for a more inclusive approach to governance assistance that includes parliamentary strengthening.

Over the past fifteen years, there has been a proliferation in the number and types of players that support parliamentary reform, among them international, governmental, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), national governments, parliaments, and academic institutions. The largest donors are the governments of the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), Norway, Sweden, and the European Commission. The largest implementers among international organisations are the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank Institute (WBI), and the field missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). National parliaments are often overlooked in mapping exercises on legislative strengthening, but they have become important project implementers, with the US Congress and the Parliaments of the UK, France, and Australia the most active assistance providers. In addition to International Parliamentary Institutions (IPIs) and political party foundations, which have been active in the field of parliamentary support for a longer period, private contractors and consultancy companies play an increasingly important role in this area.

Analysing the methods applied in parliamentary assistance projects, one can distinguish between direct and indirect support, depending on whether the objective is to strengthen parliaments for democratisation purposes, the general institution building approach, or for specific policy objectives, the issue-based approach. Both methods open different entry points for a parliamentary project.

Recently, there is growing consensus among donors and implementers on key components of sustainable strategies for parliamentary development. These include the need for a thorough understanding of the political context – typically by conducting a Political Economy Analysis (PEA). However, many donors have found it difficult to use the insights emerging from a PEA to develop more strategic, realistic programs that target the underlying causes of parliamentary dysfunction. In many cases there is a gap between the PEA described in a parliamentary Project Document, or a governance-sector wide Project Document for that matter, and the envisaged project activities. While the PEA often reflects an in-depth understanding of the organisational issues, power structures, interests and patterns that hamper the development of a democratic and fully effective parliament, in many cases the envisaged project activities do not address the issues, structures, and interests. Often, project activities are low risk, entailing only technical capacity building, seminars, and trainings. While such activities are useful and important, the missing link is, in part, the policy advice, coaching, and the use of incentives. For consultations and advice to be successful depends to a large extent on the interests of a parliament’s Speaker, Secretary General, and Committee chairpersons and their ability to learn and benefit from such advice, and a possible shift in power in the direction of parliament. Examples of PEA-based parliamentary development projects are scarce, but have begun to emerge (see Annex 6).

Another important element of developing a strategy on parliamentary development is the role of political parties. To understand parliament’s weaknesses, one needs to understand the power balance among parties. Therefore, recognizing synergies between support to political parties and parliamentary development will strengthen a country’s democratic governance.

For many implementers it is obvious that a parliamentary development strategy should be parliament-designed and that a project should be owned by parliament. However, for many funding organisations the concept of national ownership means agreement with the government, i.e. the executive branch of power. This results in executive influence over administrative, financial, and political aspects of parliamentary strengthening; this in itself is antithetic to the idea of parliamentary strengthening and the separation of powers.

Many parliamentary development organisations have identified lessons learned which include the need for better contextualization, long-term commitment, demand-driven donor support, integrated and target-group specific support, and opportunities to connect national and supra-national programs.

When developing parliamentary assistance projects, practitioners can rely on a comprehensive set of benchmarks for democratic parliaments. Donor agencies can find guidance in the new, IPU-drafted Common Principles for parliamentary support. These reference documents can provide useful guidance on questions of monitoring, evaluation, and measuring impact of parliamentary projects. If donors and other stakeholders are to become brokers of meaningful change by designing programs that help parliaments address the root causes of their dysfunction (rather than symptoms), program managers need the space to work with stakeholders in the early stages of a program to identify realistic, intermediate outcomes, as well as appropriate indicators, and to revise activities as conditions change. This requires M&E frameworks that focus on reporting against agreed processes and strategic objectives. M&E frameworks need to be designed with subjective and objective indicators to make a rounded assessment of progress while trying to ensure that there is space for flexible programming, adapting methods as needed throughout the course of the work.

Finally, it is important to consider the implementation modalities. While twinning and grants are widely accepted modalities, more discussion has emerged recently on the tendering process for larger donor contracts. To provide for consultancy services, studies, technical assistance, training and conferences, USAID, EC, DFID and other donors often contract private consultancy companies. Those donors often contract private consultancy companies for large-scale projects. Such large projects in the parliamentary development sector, launched for reasons of management by the donor agency, can land heavily in a parliamentary institution, either trigger resistance against outside experts or increase dependency on external support. While there is a role for large technical governance programs, there is a strong argument for a greater variety in the programs commissioned. Innovative and not risk-averse programs, which will often be smaller-scale programs, are likely to be more effective, increasing the chance of local ownership and long-lasting impact on the effectiveness of parliament.

Democracy Reporting international produced an international map as part of a study on parliamentary development:


To consult the map, please click here.

To read the full study, please click here.