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Parliaments, governance and accountability: What role for parliaments in poverty reduction?

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

Alan Hudson, Research Fellow, Poverty and Public Policy Group, ODI
Niall Johnston, Senior Parliamentary Consultant to the World Bank Institute
Lisa von Trapp, Consultant, Parliamentary Strengthening Program, World Bank Institute


Baroness Janet Whitaker, Member of Africa APPG Executive

1. Alan Hudson introduced the meetings series by noting that governance was increasingly recognised as vital for development, and suggested that parliaments could and should play an important role in delivering governance.

2. He said that in DFID’s useful formulation there are three elements to good governance:
i. State capability – formulate and execute policy
ii. Accountability – relationship between state and citizens
iii. Responsiveness – when state seeks to identify and meet needs of citizens;

And that these correspond to the three primary parliamentary roles:
i. Legislation
ii. Oversight – including budget oversight
iii. Representation – aggregating and expressing views of citizens.

3. Parliaments ought therefore to be playing an important role in delivering good governance. But in practice, in many cases, parliaments are weak and ineffective. This mismatch between theory and practice suggests several high-level policy questions that this meeting series will attempt to answer:
i. what might parliaments do in delivering good governance and poverty reduction?
ii. why are parliaments marginalised?
iii. what can donors do to strengthen parliaments in developing countries?

4. He stated that the series builds on a growing body of work at ODI, including:
- ODI’s work on governance and the state e.g. last year’s series of meetings on the developmental state;
- Emerging research on parliaments at ODI, including work just done for DFID;
- ODI’s long history of engagement with UK parliament, including with the All Party Group on Overseas Development (APGOOD) and various Select Committees
- And also the recent Africa APPG inquiry into parliamentary strengthening in Africa.

5. He finished by outlining the questions which he had asked the speakers to address:
- What role can parliaments play in delivering governance?
- How effective in practice are parliaments in developing countries?
- What shapes parliamentary performance?
- How does the World Bank engage with parliaments?

6. Niall Johnson opened by looking at parliaments and PRSPs, noting that too often parliaments felt that PRSPs were a donor imposition and left the process to the government. But where parliaments are involved in institutionalising PRSPs, there is better country ownership and the PRSP is more likely to have an impact. There are two entry points for parliaments into PRSP – as part of the budget cycle, and in departmental scrutiny after the budget is agreed.

7. He said that poverty reduction should certainly be seen as related to parliamentary strengthening. Organisations supporting parliaments should not stop with workshops on procedural issues (e.g. how to run a committee), but can stay engaged and support parliaments in applying these basics to issues like poverty, HIV, etc.

8. In general parliamentary support needs to be related to the wider governance situation and coordinated; he cited an example of projects with parliament and judiciary in Nigeria which had directly conflicting objectives.

9. As to whether parliaments were effectively working on PRSPs in practice, he gave contrasting examples from the Solomon Islands, where parliament was performing well in its scrutiny role, and Sierra Leone, where an impressive PRSP committee existed on paper but had never met. He felt ownership of the process was key.

10. He then asked, are parliaments effective as institutions, or through individuals? While many parliamentarians get involved in PRSP processes as individuals, it is much more effective for parliament as an institution to have the PRSP formally referred to it for approval in some form, and to carry out a monitoring & evaluation role. However, some initiatives of individuals – e.g. the African Parliaments Network Against Corruption (APNAC) have been very effective at sharing experience and learning.

11. He discussed how to determine whether parliaments are effective. He noted that the Bank, UNDP, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association have recently produced a report setting out benchmarks (available on CPA website). This is particularly interesting as it is designed for parliamentary self-appraisal, rather than for donors to use, which tends to be more productive.

12. Despite many rays of hope, he noted a number of impediments to effective parliamentary strengthening:
- Donor funding to parliaments is limited.
- Donor coordination and proliferation – although e.g. in Uganda, parliament and donors had worked to create a ‘donor basket’ with joint donor and parliamentarian management.
- Unrealistic expectations, both too high and too low. Sometimes the donor community expect funding to quickly produce developed and experienced parliaments; but also sometimes expectations are too low. Support can be inappropriate, e.g. bringing members of a tiny parliament to Westminster.
- Political will i.e. the executive may try to block parliamentary strengthening. Uganda was again an example where parliament had resisted with some success, Trinidad and Tobago another.
- Lack of successor planning and dependency, with too much training to a few individuals, and lack of planning for when project funding ends. Technical assistance is also too often about running a workshop, when follow up is vital – in developing parliaments, there may be a lack of trained staff, finance, or cooperation from the executive, all of which mean that sustained support is vital;
- Focus on individuals rather than institution – especially where on members of parliaments at the expense of permanent administrative staff, who may be there longer than members if democracy is working well!

13. He ended by stating that despite this, things are getting better and especially where donors work in partnership with parliaments.

14. Lisa von Trapp introduced the World Bank Institute’s relatively new parliamentary strengthening programme, which began in 1993 and got a big boost in 1997 with the Bank’s increased focus on corruption and governance. The programme also moved from awareness-raising to capacity-building, and developed a training programme with workshops designed on models of parliamentary procedure; so for example, a workshop on corruption would call expert witnesses, debate findings and produce a report.

15. The Institute’s programme has several areas of focus:
- Anti-corruption
- Governance
- Gender budgeting
- Strengthening administration for building long-term institutional capacity
- Promoting research on parliamentary capacity building
- Supporting parliamentary networks e.g. AFNAC, etc

16. Their modus operandi is to adopt a long-term country focus (linked to the WBI focus countries) and work in partnership – they almost never work alone. She cut short her presentation for reasons of time, but further information can be found on their website.

17. In the discussion a wide range of points was raised, including

  • The calibre and motivation of many parliamentarians in African countries, and the possibility for international institutions to be involved in the education of parliamentary candidates and to engage better with political parties. While World Bank rules do not permit it to train political candidates, the UN was involved in related programmes and speakers generally agreed that political parties were important for strong parliaments, with some comments that donor institutions should be more open to engaging with them. Incentives were another issue, with one comment that government was often seen as the domain of the ‘big boys’, with a career in parliament viewed as second rate – sufficient remuneration to attract good candidates and guard against corruption was suggested, while MPs' pay will always be controversial;
  • The importance of transparency and effective engagement between parliamentarians and civil society; the speakers stressed that transparency was vital for accountability, and gave examples where, with some diplomacy on both sides, parliamentarians and civil society in developing countries had bridged the divide between them and productively supported each others’ work;
  • Parliamentary scrutiny of budgets, where it was noted that scrutiny by various organs of parliament was vital as public accounts committees were often overwhelmed, and work by Paolo di Renzio of ODI and the international budget project was highlighted;
  • The lack of reliable data on donor funding for parliamentary support was raised, with some discussion about DFID’s level of funding in this area; it was suggested that this was an example of the limited effort put into evaluating parliamentary support programmes and learning about what works;
  • The importance of parliaments securing sustainable funding domestically rather than from donors, and cases of this in practice – although some felt that donors had an important medium-term support role, and others that general budget support might perhaps be conditional on some funding for parliamentary development;
  • Other points raised were: the problem of politicians not being genuinely committed to multi-party systems and executive hostility to parliament; that parliaments in Africa were generally very new, even compared to African states; and that people working on parliamentary strengthening should share their experiences and coordinate better, with this meeting series hopefully providing such an opportunity.


The first meeting in this series examined the role that parliaments can play in delivering governance which is good for poverty reduction and democracy. Asking how effective developing country parliaments are in practice and examine the reasons for good and bad parliamentary performance.

Boothroyd Room