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Parliamentary strengthening in developing countries: Review of current issues and DFID's experience to date

Governance is key to development. Parliaments have an important role to play in delivering governance which is effective both in terms of reducing poverty, and in terms of building democracy. The aim of this project was to enable DFID to make informed decisions about how it can best contribute to strengthening parliaments in developing countries.

The project commenced with a literature review about the role and performance of parliaments in developing countries. The major component of the research process was a review of the parliamentary strengthening work, first of organisations based outside the UK, and second of UK-based organisations. Beyond the UK, these organisations included: the Canadian Parliamentary Centre, UNDP, the World Bank Institute, the National Democratic Institute, AWEPA and a number of bilateral aid agencies such as USAID and Sweden’s Sida. In terms of UK-based organisations, the review examined the activities of DFID, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s British Group, and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

The review found that in many developing countries parliaments are ineffective. Parliamentarians lack the knowledge and skills to do their jobs effectively. Parliaments lack the necessary resources and institutional capacity. And the political context (the electoral systems, constitutions, and nature of political parties) and wider social and cultural environment (citizens’ expectations of their MPs, and neo-patrimonial social relations), militate against effective parliamentary performance. Looking beyond the domestic political context, donors’ engagement with the executive can also serve to marginalise parliaments.

If donors and others are to help parliaments to perform more effectively, they need to:

  • Respond to demand: Parliamentary strengthening should be demand-led, and responsive to local needs, rather than externally-driven
  • Address causes: Parliamentary strengthening should seek to address the causes of poor parliamentary performance, rather than addressing solely the symptoms.
  • Take account of context: Parliamentary strengthening must take full account of the local context - including the local political context - within which parliaments function.
  • Involve recipients: Parliamentary strengthening should involve a range of local organisations, and interest groups, including opposition MPs and parties as well as members of the government.
  • Focus on issues: Parliamentary strengthening should use particular issues such as budget oversight, anti-corruption, HIV/AIDS and poverty reduction as vehicles to improve parliamentary performance, rather than focusing solely on parliamentary procedures.
  • Coordinate and deliver appropriate activities: Agencies involved in parliamentary strengthening must do more to coordinate their work, and to ensure that their activities are appropriate to the objectives of parliamentary strengthening. Think twice before setting up or supporting study visits and seminars.
  • Provide long-term sustainable support.
  • Do more to evaluate and learn from their parliamentary strengthenig activities.