What do we know about how – and how well – the international community supports parliaments? This study finds that a clear and consistent set of principles and recommendations has emerged in the literature. Perhaps the most important of these is the need to understand the political economy of parliaments in incipient democracies. However, there appears to be resistance to putting some types of lessons into practice – and difficulties with applying them consistently. Constraints to more politically informed and demand-led programming include: knowledge gaps, tensions between different lessons and objectives, perverse incentives in the aid system, and insufficient attention to variation within the diverse and complex PDA sector. Discrete and tailored evaluation and research exercises could be used to fill knowledge gaps.
Parliaments have never been more important. Most countries are now a democracy of some sort and the demands placed on parliamentarians have never been greater. Yet parliaments remain one of the least trusted institutions in the eyes of the population. And, while support to parliaments has steadily grown since the late 1980s, parliamentary development assistance is widely seen as one of the least effective areas of democracy assistance – a reputation that has become ever more problematic in the current results-based climate.
The study involved an extensive literature review and wide consultation with parliamentary experts and the organisations that support parliaments, as well as with a small group of parliamentarians. It finds a consensus in the literature, reinforced in the interviews carried out as part of the study, that PD organisations and programmes are more likely to be effective if they:
- Develop a deep understanding of the political economy of the parliaments they work with and use political economy analysis to ensure that programmes are appropriate to context
- Are driven from within – either by parliamentarians/parliamentary staff or parliamentary reformers within civil society – with interventions tailored according to needs and demand
- Develop an approach that provides needed technical support but is also politically savvy
- Treat parliaments as part of the broader political system and integrate support with other areas of assistance
- Build assistance around specific policy issues rather than generic activities
- Encourage south-south learning
- Base assistance on long-term commitments to partners
- Are realistic about what can be achieved
- Improve programme management, including better coordination, programme design and monitoring and evaluation (M&E), more tolerance of risk and more appropriate staff skills and incentives.
The study finds some important examples of innovation in the field. However, change remains on the margins, with many organisations unable or unwilling to apply lessons consistently or at all. It also notes that:
- PDA is an under-evaluated area of development assistance – but a broad thematic evaluation of such a diverse field is likely only to reaffirm widely accepted principles and will not provide much-needed operational guidance.
- To move forward, the parliamentary development assistance community needs to undertake targeted research and evaluation to fill knowledge gaps and better understand constraints on absorbing and acting on learning in the field.
- For many organisations, the principal constraint on progress may come from perverse incentives in the aid architecture of PDA.
Priority areas include:
- Comparative evaluations of similar organisations or approaches – in particular, parliamentary associations, political party foundations, issues-based support and integrated democracy programmes.
- Substantive research on the (a) political economy of PD assistance; and (b) the interests, needs and preferences of MPs in different contexts.