Using aid to strengthen Parliaments: fix the car, or worry about the driver?

November 24, 2014 2 By Duncan Green

You’d think that all the aid money trying to install functioning democracies around the world would target parliaments and political parties. In fact, they are more often an Alinaafterthought. Alina Rocha Menocal (Developmental Leadership Program, University of Birmingham) looks at the evidence and explains the neglect.

People all over the world have a very low opinion of parliaments and parliamentarians. Indeed, surveys suggest that, along with political parties, parliaments are the government institutions that citizens trust the least (while the army and the police are the most trusted). This is true across different countries, irrespective of income levels.

Yet parliaments and political parties are two of the most crucial institutions of democratic representation and accountability. However flawed, they are here to stay, and it is difficult to imagine how democracy could exist without them. This is why the question of how parliaments can become more effective is as pressing as ever for those interested in strengthening democratic governance.

Parliaments (alongside the political parties that populate them) have always been treated as the poor cousins of democracy assistance efforts in international development. The lion’s share of resources goes to elections, decentralisation, and civil society. And the stakes have become even higher as the demand for measurable results and cost efficiency grows in donor countries.

The International Development Select Committee, which is part of the UK’s parliamentary Commons Select Committee system, wants to understand why efforts to strengthen parliaments have so far been relatively ineffective, and what, if anything, can be done differently.

Parliamentary debate in Taiwan

Parliamentary debate in Taiwan

This is exactly what my ODI colleague Tam O’Neil and I explored in a study for Sida. So last week, I appeared before the committee. One of the most striking messages from our Sida study is that, while parliamentary development assistance (PDA) remains under-evaluated, a clear and remarkably consistent body of lessons and recommendations has emerged over the past 20 years.

These lessons, which will likely sound familiar to anyone involved in aid and development, include the need to remain engaged with PDA efforts over the long term; ensuring they are driven from within rather than imposed from the outside; encouraging South-South learning; and integrating parliamentary support into other areas of democracy assistance.

Perhaps the single most important lesson (surprise surprise…) is that parliaments are deeply political institutions, and they don’t function in the idealised ways that donors often imagine. Formal rules and individual and organisational capacity constraints are important, but they are not the only, or even the most significant, determinants of parliamentary effectiveness. The political context that parliaments and parliamentarians operate in, and the kinds of incentives they face, are an integral part of the puzzle.

Or to put it figuratively, this means that parliamentary strengthening should not only worry about fixing the car (i.e. formal rules and capacity), but also about engaging with the driver and his/her incentives, while having a sound understanding of the condition of the roads. In other words, the state of the car matters, but the drivers and the interactions between them as they encounter each other on the road heading in different directions is perhaps more important.

Some progress has been made over the past decade to absorb and act on these different lessons. A strategic consensus has emerged at the conceptual and policy levels about the key features of more effective parliamentary programmes. For instance, more donors now use political economy analysis to better understand context and implications for programming. Individual agencies, such as the European Commission (EU) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), have also taken steps to improve their programme management and evaluation, including efforts to develop more appropriate process and performance indicators to assess the impact of PDA. Various stakeholders are making more consistent efforts to share knowledge and experience. However, at the operational level progress is uneven and limited, and innovations have remained at the margin.

Why has uptake proven so challenging?

One obstacle, certainly, is that there are genuine gaps in our knowledge, and we need a better evidence base for what works, what doesn’t work, and why. This will take tyranny-is-the-absence-of-complexitymore substantive, focused and targeted evaluations, and more in-depth and comparative research. There must be more systematic sharing of findings about both successes and, perhaps even more importantly, failures.

But perhaps the most important obstacle to progress on PDA is the political economy of the aid system and the negative incentives within the aid architecture.

For instance, as a number of observers have argued, the desire (imperative?) to demonstrate quick, measurable results in the life of a single project can distort its effects and outcomes, especially when the aim is to influence complex social and political processes. It can encourage a focus on easily quantifiable targets (for instance, the number of training sessions held) rather than more substantive ones (whether the training made any difference and why/why not). The negative incentives that staff in donor and implementing agencies face affects their ability to work in a flexible and adaptable manner and to remain open minded about risk and failure. The short-termism embedded in staff incentives makes it much more difficult to develop in-depth local knowledge and nurture the relationships that would help development actors act as trusted brokers of change, rather than simply as purveyors of funds.

Aid allocated in a series of short-term projects (or “the tyranny of the project”) exacerbates all these problems, while core or stable, longer-term funding provides much needed visibility to experiment and learn. As a savvy practitioner has put it, the upshot of all this is that bureaucratic compliance and accountability wins out over learning, and staff are pushed “to focus on doing things right rather than the right things”. This is not necessarily compatible with working in a more politically aware manner.

democracyThe political economy of donors and their ways of working are a foundational constraint to the effectiveness of PDA. Parliamentary strengthening efforts will continue to fall short unless internal incentives and relationships within donor organisations are confronted head on. That is absolutely essential if donors are to get better not only at thinking politically, but also at working accordingly – focusing on fixing the car (i.e. the formal rules), but, much more fundamentally, engaging with the driver and the driver’s incentives. This is messy and difficult and will require a radical shift in the way donors currently work – but it may well prove worth the risk.