Are Parliaments International Development Orphans?

Sue Griffiths, former Executive Director at GPG and current Managing Director at Social Development Direct wrote this piece for GPG. She comes back to the 2019 Wroxton Workshop of Parliamentarians and Parliamentary Scholars. The yearly event brings together academics and parliamentarians from across the globe who question the practical consequences of research insights and how can they be translated into new approaches within parliaments.  

Are parliaments unfairly neglected in international development? This was the question posed during the opening session of the 2019 Wroxton Workshop of Parliamentarians and Parliamentary Scholars, and it sparked a lively discussion. Most participants agreed that, despite increasing acceptance of the need to better understand and integrate politics into international development programmes in order for them to be effective, large donor organisations such as UNDP and the World Bank have generally reduced their support for parliaments as institutions over the last decade, with only the recent EU INTER PARES programme bucking this trend. A lot of international support is still given to the holding of elections and persuading people to vote, but comparatively little to the operation of the institution after polling day.

The Workshop, now in its fourteenth iteration, brings together academics and parliamentarians from across the globe, including this year from Afghanistan, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Greece, Australia, Israel, China, Namibia, Argentina, Bahrain and Oman, amongst others, at Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire. The Workshop is unique in stimulating discussions between academics and parliamentary practitioners to test scholarly research against the crucial question, ‘so what’? What are the practical consequences of research insights and how can they be translated into new approaches within parliaments?

As the sessions continued over the two days, we discussed issues such as parliamentary monitoring of the sustainable development goals, setting MPs’ pay, using post-legislative scrutiny, and the provision of scientific advice to parliaments. Throughout the weekend, in both formal and informal sessions, we returned to the challenge of explaining what parliaments do and why international development agencies should be interested in supporting them.

Possible explanations for the decline in international development support for parliaments put forward during the workshop included a dislike of parliament by those government departments who control the funds, and who may previously have been on the receiving end of criticism by parliamentarians, or a simple misunderstanding of their role. There is also the issue of reputation. As a previous GPG blog explored, nobody trusts politicians, but in general, people still strongly support democracy as a system of government and have a higher opinion of their own MP, particularly if they have had direct contact with them. It seems that we want representation, but we don’t trust our representatives or their institutions.

The final session of the workshop discussed the recent IPU report on sexism and harassment of MPs, which found alarming levels of violence, threats and abuse of women MPs and parliamentary staff, both online and offline. The rise in incidents of public abuse seems to be linked to a wider context in which public criticism of parliamentarians is becoming both more frequent and more extreme, but evidence collected from analysis of social media platforms suggests that women MPs are disproportionately targeted for abuse.

Parliaments are facing ever greater challenges in explaining and defending their role as an organ of representative democracy. To do this, they will need to develop better ways of demonstrating and communicating their value to the public who elected them, but also to those international agencies who may support them in meeting this challenge.

Papers presented at the Wroxton workshop will be made available here.