Politics in Practice

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Deepening Democracy in a new Multipolar World?

Dr. A.H. Monjurul Kabir, currently a Senior Rule of Law, and Justice Policy  Adviser, was Chief of Section, Asia-and the Pacific, and Programme Adviser with UN Women HQ in New York. Previously, he served UNDP as its Governance Team Leader and Human Rights and Rule of Law Adviser for Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

His latest book for Palgrave, Development Aid in Stable Democracies and Fragile States, examines the effectiveness of aid in both stable democracies, and fragile and transition countries.

Is democracy an institution or a set of values?

If it is the former, can we deepen it through institutional strengthening? For example, through developing capacities in making parliament truly representative, efficient, and, effective?

If it is the latter, can we embrace the values to make democracy and rule of law work for all people?

Or it is the both? Should we try to adopt a holistic approach then?

In a new multipolar world where democracy is increasingly challenged by shrinking democratic space, authoritarianism, populism, and, perhaps, more importantly, distinct types of exclusions and intersectionality, how can we make democracy both relevant, meaningful, and, inclusive?

From an institutional perspective, parliament is an important entry point for the work of strengthening democracy and consolidating democratic governance. As the central institution of democracy, parliaments and other representative bodies, in theory, embody the will of the people in government, and carry all their expectations that democracy will be truly responsive to their needs and help solve the most pressing problems that confront them in their daily lives. With more countries preferring democracy over other systems of government, legislative assemblies and elected representative bodies have become increasingly pertinent.  In Development Aid in Stable Democracies and Fragile States, I reiterated that achieving democratic governance, therefore, requires the existence of a strong, effective parliament backed by inclusive political process.

It is important, however, to highlight the specific challenges parliaments face in performing such crucial role, particularly fulfilling its oversight mandate. This becomes more daunting where legislative bodies are not considered credible or trustworthy institutions, or do not enjoy the support from executives.

Many parliaments and the like are chronically under-staffed and ill-informed. Often, they are sorely under-resourced and vital research, legislative drafting, and other capacities are often in short supply. That is why parliaments in most emerging democracies look to the international community for support, as do civil society organisations. Support to democratic institutions including parliaments is a relatively new, but rapidly growing area of development aid provided by different development partners, and international organisations to representative institutions. 

Shifting Paradigms in an inter-connected world

Globally, parliaments and other governance institutions are attempting to find space in an increasingly competitive public sphere, where citizens have multiple routes to influence policy or challenge governmental decisions. This trend has been further accelerated by the growth of social media and technologies in recent decades. Whereas the parliaments of the mid-20th century might have been able to assume a certain authority within the public sphere when they were the principal route for representation, this is no longer guaranteed. The traditional roles of these institutions have evolved and developed over time.

Barring some exceptions, a more educated, informed and demanding citizens and voters is placing new expectations on their representative institutions. The challenge for the development of parliaments around the world is to understand the nature of these changes, determine what they mean for parliamentary representation, participatory law making, and oversight, and, identify ways of adapting to what seems to be the ever-quickening pace of change. It leads to greater civic engagements with parliaments and exposes them to public scrutiny as well.

Understanding such demand-driven bottom-up process is important to appreciate fully the real impact of parliamentary development work. The critical roles played by both the parliaments and the parliamentarians draw considerable interest among development partners. In fact, in a complex and fast-moving environment, many rule of law institutions and parliaments must change the way they perform to retain their legitimacy and relevance.

Promoting Inclusion, Confronting Exclusions

As a process, democracy is not automatically inclusive. Many groups – typically, women, minorities, persons with disabilities, Indigenous people, LGBTI communities, some special social groups, and the less wealthy – are systematically disadvantaged from access to political power and political institutions, as shown by many measures and assessments.  Making parliaments and other democratic institutions more accessible require targeted interventions along with clear political will. Only technical fixes, cosmetic reforms, and short-term capacity development training will not work: they may enhance personal knowledge of political leaders and staff but will not change the status quo.

Democratic political regimes cannot be built by targeting the political system in isolation of the social and economic context. Parliaments do not exist in isolation: like any other organization they live in a wider institutional environment, which is where many of their most fundamental problems can originate. To focus narrowly on the internal workings of parliament while ignoring the wider picture can be, ineffective, if not counterproductive. For example, if a non-democratic executive maintains power by manipulating the electoral system to produce a “rubber stamp” parliament, providing this parliament with a veneer of greater efficiency and increased activity will not make it more useful; it will just help to perpetuate a flawed system by making it look more respectable with a false sense of legitimacy.

Can We Measure Impact?

Efforts to assess the impact of the parliamentary development activities of these organisations have been very limited. There is little reliable evidence about the effectiveness of donor support to parliamentary strengthening work, with obvious implications for policy makers and those tasked with designing programmes of support to parliamentary strengthening. This makes the task of identifying what works, what does not, and learning lessons, in parliamentary development through external assistance extremely problematic.

Encouraging innovation, inclusive approaches, and new ways of thinking might help us understand the communities and people we work with better. However, this is not enough to ensure inclusion, freedom, voice, and agency. We must all challenge the way we think and the way we work to create an inclusive environment in which we can all perform being mindful of differentiated abilities, feel valued, respected and motivated.

What do you think? You can join me in the conversation in Twitter: @mkabir2011 and @AcademicMind.

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