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Politics, parliamentarians and the public: The politics of parliaments and constituency relations

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

Dr Rasheed Draman, Director of African Programmes, Canadian Parliamentary Centre (Ghana)
Hon Dr Benjamin Kunbuor MP, Member of Parliament, Ghana

Dr William Shija, Secretary General, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association


Hugh Bayley MP, Chair, Africa APPG

1. Hugh Bayley MP introduced the final meeting in this series, which focused on African voices and how parliamentary strengthening is shaped by wider political forces.

2. Rasheed Draman said he would address four topics:

             I.        the work of the Canadian Parliamentary Centre;

            II.        recent work the Centre has been doing in Africa on poverty reduction;

          III.        factors that shape parliamentary effectiveness (legal constitutional issues, political parties, MP-citizen relations);

           IV.        and some lessons.

3. He gave an overview of the work of the Canadian Parliamentary Centre. It was originally established in Ottawa to support the Canadian House of Commons. Over the years, it took the experiences of Canadian legislatures (federal and provincial) and applied them to parliaments around the world. The Centre studies parliaments in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. The Africa programme works with around 20 parliaments, around five of which are bilateral programmes. In some, assistance is given to oversight committees. Each regional programme at the Centre is led from the field and by people of regional descent.

4. He set up a poverty reduction programme at the Centre that has now been running for five years. The programme runs in conjunction with work on anti-corruption, the role of gender in political discourse and the role of parliaments in HIV/AIDS. Particular attention has been paid to the role of MPs in financial oversight and how this impacts on the implementation of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and thus on poverty reduction.

5. In 2004, the Parliamentary Centre conducted a study about parliamentary involvement in PRSPs in Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi and Niger.

The study found that the notions of participation and country ownership inherent to the PRSP process did not exist in these countries. Another conclusion was that parliaments did not have the space to operate in poverty reduction strategy processes because of legal and constitutional constraints. The role of women in PRSP oversight was also very limited in these countries. Two years later, in 2006, he revisited these countries and Kenya and Zambia. He said that not very much had changed, except sometimes parliaments had begun to assert themselves in the PRSP process, especially in Tanzania and Ghana.

6. The Centre also works in Francophone Africa, which has very different constitutional systems to Anglophone African systems. There is very little oversight of the budget process in parliaments.

7. He stressed the importance of a good working environment for MPs. Many MPs in Africa have very rudimentary research support and IT Systems, or even rooms for committee discussions. Many African parliaments suffer from a severe lack of financial and human resources. Often committees must conduct their business with only one clerk or researcher.

8. He said that the legal or institutional framework often restricts MPs' abilities to oversee poverty reduction, such as outdated constitutional arrangements.

9. He highlighted the restrictions placed on MPs by their political parties. Donors and NGOs avoid dealing with political parties, for fear of entanglement and partisanship. However, parliamentary strengthening must include working with parties. Independent-minded MPs are often disciplined by their party bosses or removed from committees. The freedom of MPs is particularly curtailed in Francophone Africa because of the party-list system, where dynamic individuals are often demoted or removed from the party list.

10. Benjamin Kunbuor MP explained that development activism led him into politics. He is pleased that the connection is being made between development and parliamentary strengthening. He gave a history and overview of the Ghanaian system, which has its roots in Africa's first all-African parliament, instituted in 1951. Ghana has suffered from a legal pathology - the coup d'etat. Ghana's parliament has developed little as it was normally the first body suspended by military juntas. However, there is now considerable political freedom; Ghanaians are free to join political parties, which must be national and not drawn along ethnic lines.

11. Dr Kunbuor stressed the centrality of the political party in the development of parliamentary democracy. He noted the difficulty of instituting financial oversight when parliamentary democracy and parliamentary independence were not fully appreciated by political parties. A recent potential set-back in Ghana’s development is the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act (ROPAA), which made expatriate Ghanaians eligible to vote. He wonders how such an expensive and impractical measure is defensible when Ghana is still so poor and under-developed. He suggests that this is a matter of shopping for votes.

12. He explained the composition of political parties and institutional arrangements in the Ghanaian system. This is explained in detail in the PowerPoint presentation.

13. He highlighted the problematic relationship an MP has with his constituents. The District Assemblies’ Common Fund apportions at least 5% of total revenue to the districts, as a constitutional basis for fiscal decentralisation. Money is apportioned to MPs for development activities, which profoundly affected the relationship between MP and constituent. MPs are not properly assessed for their abilities or performance, rather by what they do with Common Fund money. Therefore, MPs spend most of their time lobbying ministers for spending, establishing disturbing patronage networks. He said that an MP is seen primarily as a development officer, a role that belongs to the executive. Because voters do not understand this, MPs tends to avoid their constituents until electioneering. This has seriously weakened parliamentary oversight in Ghana.

14. Ghana's economy is donor-driven, yet there is little parliamentary oversight of bilateral and multi-lateral financial instruments. This has made external interventions ineffective. There have been serious reversals since the wave of democratisation in West Africa in the 1990s. He suggested that African parliaments should be able to learn from the mistakes of long-established parliaments.

15. Hugh Bayley raised the issue of donor agencies presenting themselves to recipient parliaments, perhaps in a select committee environment, in order to encourage financial oversight. He said that both DFID and the World Bank are reviewing this possibility.

16. William Shija said that he could relate to the problems highlighted by the previous speakers, having served as an MP and minister in Tanzania, as chair of the foreign affairs committee and as a presidential candidate. He explains that he was voted by his constituents for his honesty and that he received most of his support from women.

17. He suggested that three factors were vital for an effective parliament:

             I.        relative peace;

            II.        relatively low levels of corruption;

          III.        and progress in education.

18. In terms of poverty reduction, he stressed the importance of land redistribution. Much progress has been made in access to land for the poor in Tanzania. The other priority of MPs is to pass the budget and oversee foreign assistance.

19. He concurred with the difficulties raised by the speakers concerning MPs’ relationships with their constituents. He suggested a need to improvise, such as setting up a constituency office to provide constituents with access to their representative. Many new MPs do not know what to do with the petitions of individual constituents or whether to give assistance from their personal funds.

20. Inter-party consultation, through committees, is vital to bridge the gaps between religious and other groups. He added that it was time for Africa to achieve self-reliance.


21. Questions raised in the discussion included:

  • Is it possible for African institutions, such as NEPAD, to encourage parliamentary scrutiny and best practice?

  • Are Western concepts not particularly helpful when approaching the demands or expectations of constituents in societies with strong traditions of patronage?

22. Benjamin Kunbuor responded by citing that many African leaders visit Western capitals to secure financial assistance so as to consolidate their own position at home. Western leaders need to disengage these diplomatic relationships where adequate standards are not being met. He said that no elections are better than bad ones, which diminished the sanctity of the ballot box. He also emphasised the part of globalisation of democracy; he noted that all African constitutions since 1987 are carbon copies of a Western model. Innovative, African constitutional approaches tend to be rejected by African Constituent Assemblies.

23. Rasheed Draman said that, in the long term, Africans must solve their own problems. He said that development was dependent on institutions that will work and that outsiders cannot provide this. There are crucial roles for the media, civil society and parliaments. Although huge challenges remain, over the last 10 years the media has helped to allow individuals to question government policy. He also noted the importance of mobile phones in disseminating information. He conceded that, in the short run, there was a role for outsiders in strengthening parliaments.

24. Further questions were raised:

  • What should donors be doing to strengthen parliaments, especially in terms of the relationship between MPs and their parties and constituencies?

  • What role can effective media coverage play in better scrutiny and oversight?

  • What is the role of women in parliamentary strengthening and how do women MPs respond to their constituencies?

  • How can parties regain the trust of the people and become real representatives?

25. Rasheed Draman responded by stating that, although donors are engaged in parliamentary strengthening, their engagement has been patchy and not substantial. They can be very little impact from a one or two-year project.

26. Benjamin Kunbuor said that most donor money was going to the executive because donors see parliaments as being too partisan. He reiterated the importance of a good working environment for MPs, who in Africa often do not have e-mail and are paid much less than members of the executive branch. There needs to be greater balance in capabilities between the executive and legislative branches. He noted that the media landscape in Africa is becoming very interesting. Although some newspapers are providing admirable scrutiny of public policy, many media outlets are being co-opted as they cannot afford to stay afloat without government advertising.

27. William Shija pointed out that some African countries (e.g. Tanzania and South Africa) have adopted a formula for agenda representation and the gender balance is improving.

28. Hugh Bayley said that the series ended on a high point. He felt that meetings had emphasised the dangers of pork-barrel politics and agreed that parliaments have an important role in breaking patrimonial models and inappropriate relations between leaders and donors. The Africa APPG will be publishing a report on parliamentary capacity-building to improve British international development assistance.


The final meeting in the series examines how the wider political system – constitutions, electoral systems and political parties – impact on the effectiveness of parliaments. It explores the issue of how MPs engage with their citizen-voters, and how this shapes the performance of both individual MPs and parliaments as a whole.

Boothroyd Room