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Strengthening democracy around the world

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The Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) is the UK Government’s democracy-support agency for developing countries. Here WFD’s CEO, Anthony Smith, a former diplomat with 20 years’ experience in DFID and the FCO, looks at how WFD is responding to the main challenges to democracy today.

Early years

Berliners stand on a section of the Berlin Wall, two days after the fall of the GDR on 11 November 1989
Berliners stand on a section of the Berlin Wall, two days after the fall of the GDR on 11 November 1989 (© Agencja Fotograficzna Caro)

The 30th anniversary this November of the fall of the Berlin Wall should prompt reflections on the state of democracy around the world. Back then, democracy was an easy sell – the contrasts between rich Western countries and impoverished autocracies in the former Soviet Union and the developing world were stark. Brave reformers in Central and Eastern Europe, Southern Africa and parts of Asia finally saw light at the end of the tunnel and were eager for support.

The UK Government’s decision in 1992 to establish the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) as an arm’s-length body of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was a response to cross-party pressure from MPs and a recognition that sharing Britain’s democratic experience – good and bad – could help others build their democratic institutions and practices.

In the years that followed, WFD worked in many corners of the globe where support for democracy was needed most. We supported the post-apartheid National Assembly in South Africa, to accompany the historic transition to democracy in that country. As peacekeepers entered Kosovo after the conflict with Serbia, WFD was one of the first organisations to follow to help develop democratic institutions. We shared lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process to inform reconciliation efforts in Colombia, bringing people from Northern Ireland’s churches, women’s organisations and government to present their experiences to Colombian counterparts in government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).

Context for our work

These are just a few examples of our work. There have certainly been successes, but the challenges feel bigger than ever. Democracy is no longer an easy sell in any country, no matter how mature its democratic institutions. Three challenges stand out:

  • democracy is not anymore a prerequisite for economic growth
  • even dictators are now elected, so the line between democracy and autocracy appears blurred
  • the combination of digital technologies and post-industrial societies has fractured some traditional pillars of political power, with vacuums being filled by groups with no developed respect for political norms

It is in this context that WFD works in over 40 countries around the world to promote democratic values and freedoms.

Working primarily with parliaments, political parties, civil society groups and on elections, WFD seeks to make developing countries’ political systems more inclusive, fair, accountable and transparent.

Last year, WFD implemented 55 programmes directly through our offices across 33 countries, in addition to four programmes through the UK political parties.

Across our network we organised over 1,200 activities, which engaged nearly 26,000 participants, employing over 600 experts to create tailor-made approaches to address local challenges to democratic governance.

The organisation also continued to lead research in the international democracy support sector, including looking at issues such as what donors and practitioners can do better, women’s political leadership, and the cost of politics.

Our research partnership with the University of Birmingham enables researchers to access the data, practice, people and beneficiaries of a development agency – WFD – that is working at the heart of politics in emerging and fledgling democracies around the world, providing innovative insights and analysis of trends and patterns across the governance community.

Overcoming challenges to improve citizens' lives

Our expertise runs both wide and deep, way beyond Westminster itself. We rely on parliamentary clerks in all four UK parliaments and assemblies, political party officials from across the country, local government staff, the Electoral Commission, Select Committee Chairs, civil society organisations and other arm’s length bodies to share their experiences with counterparts and overcome the challenges we face.

But how do we overcome the challenges to democracy that we see in our work? WFD has two main responses, based on our own experience and on the evidence from the democracy support community, including ‘thinking and working politically’.

First, we know that the demand for democracy remains high in every region of the world. A wide range of surveys reflect the immediate demands in a society – for peace and security when there is conflict; for jobs when there is high unemployment and poverty; and for freedom when there is repression. But there is also a strong and consistent desire for the ability to take decisions about our own lives, to prevent the abuse of power by elites, and to have justice systems that treat people fairly and equally.

Those are the building blocks of democracy, and by supporting democracy and good governance we are helping to improve people’s lives.

By helping to create better laws in Myanmar, we are improving the lives of countless citizens and helping them and their MPs overcome 70 years of military rule.

By supporting the Arab League, in creating the first-ever regional commitment to end gender-based violence, we are providing a legal framework to protect women from violent atrocities.

In the Western Balkans, funded by the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, we are improving women’s representation in politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina through our programme ‘More than a quota’. And we are helping organisations in Serbia address the structural factors that contribute to high levels of youth emigration.

This list could continue. But the main point here is that, although governments in democratic countries have a much better track record, we now also know that democracy does not guarantee peace or jobs, and we should not assume that it does or promise that it will. Peace and jobs come as the result of good policy-making, and that is why we help them get their policy-making right.

Building effective institutions

Our other main response is related to the acknowledgement that democracy is always a work in progress. The key ingredients of democracy are effective and accountable institutions, and leadership. We work to support both. Institutions build resilience by embedding norms and standards and bridging periods of weak leadership.

For example, we help to build effective institutions by strengthening the role that parliamentary committees play in holding governments to account by building bridges between UK institutions and our counterparts abroad. An instance of this is when we brought legislators from Armenia to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments for workshops on financial oversight, so they could see how our public spending procedures worked.

Strengthening institutions requires long-term investment and patience, which is why we combine these workshops with ongoing, long-term support.

Why leadership?

The second essential ingredient of democracy is effective leadership. However, democratic institutions such as parliaments and political parties can require even more patience, because their leadership can change frequently, and their role and authority can shift during a political cycle.

When momentum for political change builds, whether during an election, conflict, economic crisis or otherwise, institutions can play their part, but only leadership can determine how that momentum will be used. For example, in response to what is being perceived as the current environmental crisis, our new work on what we call ‘environmental democracy’ will help build institutions’ ability to enact laws to protect the environment that they have already introduced. We have found that many countries need a helping hand in ensuring that they meet the green eco-targets set in international accords such as the Paris Agreement. Helping governments implement this change will have lasting, positive effects on our planet, and is important ahead of the upcoming UN climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow.

Leadership is also critical in addressing what we see as a fundamental objective of democracy, namely inclusion. For too many people in the world, our democratic systems are fine in theory but flawed in practice. In different ways, these people do not have the power to participate in political activities or to influence decisions that affect their lives, whether because they are a woman, not rich, LGBTQ, disabled, young or the ‘wrong ethnicity’. Until this changes, democracies will be both flawed and vulnerable.

That is why inclusion is an increasingly central part of our work and took centre stage last year when we co-organised the Women MPs of the World conference in the House of Commons. This marked the centenary year of women’s suffrage in the UK, bringing together women parliamentarians from 100 countries to discuss how to further empower them to drive change.

Personal reflections

Over the five years since I joined WFD, we have tripled the number of our staff and widened the scope, depth and number of programmes we implement. However, this comes with considerable obstacles, as the organisation’s internal structures must match the rate and scale of external growth. That is why we began an internal change programme to upgrade our systems and processes, better support staff, and increase the trust and confidence of our donors, while investing in better tools to deliver quality programmes.

This period has also been eventful for our domestic politics. However, I have repeatedly heard and seen from partners in other countries that Britain’s democratic culture remains an invaluable resource for them as they seek to strengthen their democratic practices. Only last January (2019), the Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament told us that during Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis in late 2018 they looked to Westminster’s rules of procedure to find a diplomatic solution. It is worth remembering, given the current political climate, that internal divisions can have an impact on how we are viewed overseas, hindering government’s ability to strengthen democracy around the world and making the policy approach less cohesive.

We are a diverse country with all too recent experience of internal and external conflict, rapid economic change and significant political challenges. This is not just about EU Exit but also about climate change, counter-terrorism and our complex constitutional and national structures. With that in mind, perhaps above all for WFD, the task of retaining public confidence in our own political institutions is vital.

Whatever some might have thought in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, democracy is not inevitable, and the demand for support to strengthen democratic systems remains high. I believe the UK is uniquely well-placed to respond to this demand through WFD and many other institutions.

Creating better laws in Myanmar to improve citizens' lives

A delegation from the Parliament of Myanmar on the steps of the National Assembly of South Africa in April 2019
A delegation from the Parliament of Myanmar visiting the National Assembly of South Africa in April 2019 to learn more about post‑Apartheid education policy

Through WFD’s DFID-funded programme, we are helping Myanmar’s Parliament (Hluttaw) create better laws, be more representative, support poverty reduction, conflict resolution and economic growth, and hold the Government to account. The goal is to improve the lives of countless citizens and help them and their MPs overcome 70 years of military rule.

WFD’s support is in its fourth consecutive year, following the 2015 Myanmar general election and the transition to the government led by the National League for Democracy. The transition has been marked by significant challenges, raising questions about the nature of political change in Myanmar and the direction in which it is heading.

Last year, WFD focused on promoting accountability through expanding its committee mentorship programme, which pairs Hluttaw affairs committees with former committee chairs from the UK and the wider region. Committees on education, health and natural resources and the environment were supported to launch inquiries and conduct oversight of the government in key policy areas.

Committees started gathering evidence, conducting fact-finding visits and public hearings, and developing committee reports and recommendations. The public hearings of the education committee in March 2019 were the first of their kind in the Hluttaw – a significant move towards opening its work to citizens.

Our programme is supported by partners the House of Commons and the British Council, and a new programme has been agreed with DFID for 2019 to 2021.

Helping the Arab League tackle violence against women

Jordanian MP Wafaa Bani Mustafa, Chair of the coalition of Women MPs to Combat Violence Against Women in Politics, with Dina Melhem, Director of MENA for WFD
Jordanian MP Wafaa Bani Mustafa (left), Chair of the coalition of Women MPs to Combat Violence Against Women in Politics, with Dina Melhem, Director of MENA for WFD

WFD supports the Arab League in creating an international agreement that will set out ways to combat violence against women and girls in the Arab world.

The Arab Convention to Combat Violence Against Women is the first-ever regional commitment to end gender-based violence. It was developed with the support of a coalition of women MPs from across the Arab world. WFD’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa region, Dr Dina Melhem, has worked closely with the coalition since it was formed.

The convention is progressing rapidly through the Arab League and is being considered by the league’s Women’s Committee. It is likely to be adopted soon.

WFD believes legislatures can play a crucial role in establishing a legal environment that protects women from violence.

Jordanian MP Wafaa Bani Mustafa, Chair of the coalition of Women MPs to Combat Violence Against Women in Politics, echoed this belief in an event WFD organised in the House of Commons for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy in the World, saying: “If we want to be remembered by Arab women, we need to protect their rights.

“We all have responsibilities in Parliament towards women in our society. We need to create a fairer, more just environment, not just in Arab countries but around the world.”

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