Michelle Bekkering and Gretchen Birkle 

Parliamentary strengthening in Somaliland transformed its legislature from a ‘rubber stamp’ for the executive to a transparent law-making group that incorporates citizen input into decision making.

It is fitting to discuss the challenges to parliamentary strengthening projects near the June anniversary date of President Ronald Reagan’s Westminster Speech. During this speech, delivered 33 years ago to a gathering of British MPs and other invited guests at Westminster in London, President Reagan laid out his vision on how to support the institutions of democracy in developing nations.


This vision, buttressed with previous efforts of Democratic congressman Dante Fascell, planned for support to political parties, chambers of commerce, and trade unions in nations in transit. Over time, work with parliaments was included and has become a key component of the democracy promotion quiver. Now, more than three decades later, with democracy promotion a field of study in its own right, work with legislators is often front and center in the types of activities undertaken to shore up the democratic process of a country.

The International Republican Institute (IRI) was one of the institutions created in the United States to address President Reagan’s vision. IRI has worked over the past decades with parliaments in dozens of countries around the world, in projects ranging from training newly elected members of national assemblies and their staff to working work with citizens on how to engage their elected representatives. This work is not without its challenges, and two key principles have underscored IRI’s approach to parliamentary strengthening programs.

The first principle is the need to address work with legislatures from the perspective of how democratic governments should work, i.e. that they should represent the will of the people. From this perspective, it is necessary to consider parliaments as only one part of the process, with citizen input a key additional factor. The second principle is the important need to look at obstacles to parliamentary strengthening programs from the specific country context.

In her recent article ‘How to navigate trade-offs to parliamentary strengthening’, Susan Dodsworth uses ‘adaptation to political context as a guiding principle’.  She goes on to look at the age of legislatures and the nature and extent of social cleavages in the relevant political landscape as other factors that influence the efficacy of parliamentary strengthening programs. These additional factors are important in influencing program success, but for IRI, her guiding principle of context is paramount in program design. This paper will review a case study in which political context was duly considered and reflected in program design and implementation.

When considering that democratic governments are meant inherently to represent the will of the people, the legislative branch is at the heart of this responsibility. To ensure legislatures are appropriately addressing their responsibility, IRI looks at what it calls the feedback loop, where government officials and institutions are accountable, responsive and transparent to citizens, and citizens have a say in decision-making.  Programs – and more importantly, legislation – will be stronger if they include components of constituent engagement.

At the core of any work to strengthen democratic governance must be a component to ensure that legislators understand their role as representatives of citizens. The most effective parliamentary strengthening projects will include citizen input into the legislative process, a loop that is essential in ensuring citizens participate meaningfully in decision-making. In its work around the world, IRI addresses each of its parliamentary strengthening programs as a unique program, and one that is distinctly tailored to meet the specific country context. This approach, together with the ability to adjust course on the ground to meet program partner needs, helps to alleviate challenges to country political context and to ensure the efficacy of parliamentary strengthening programs.

A case study in Somaliland underscores the importance of not approaching parliamentary strengthening programs with preconceived notions. In Somaliland, where IRI worked for more than a decade, the funding agency wanted to ‘enhance the ability of Somaliland’s parliament to develop effective and informed policies that address top national issues’. The challenge was that the national assembly of Somaliland at the time could be characterized as a ‘rubber stamp’ for legislation drafted and promoted by the executive branch.  Members of and structures within the lower house had little to no capacity for legislative research, drafting or debate, and members lacked the ability to coalesce around policy issues. The lack of independent debate was part of the culture of parliament and there was little understanding of how to formulate legislation, and although parliamentary committees did have authority to initiate legislation, it had never been done before.

To address this challenge, in 2011, IRI held exploratory meetings with members of parliament to consider the possibility of introducing multi-partisan, issue-based caucuses in the Somaliland House of Representatives as a vehicle for issue-based policy development by the legislature. Multi-partisan caucuses are often an effective solution when partisan identities prove a distraction to policy development, such as when parties exhibit a weak ideology or underdeveloped policy agenda. This was the case in Somaliland at the time. Two key components of the success of this program was ensuring that MPs would determine the themes to be addressed by the caucuses and that caucus formation did not compete with committee work. By the end of the year, MPs officially launched the ‘Green Caucus’ and ‘Health Caucus’ as the first multi-partisan, issue-based caucuses ever formed in Somaliland.

Over time, as the caucuses met regularly, MPs began to review and input feedback from citizens and topical experts into debate on pending legislation. Soon, caucus members were engaging in field visits, listening to the needs of their constituents and caucus members moved to the forefront of developing new ideas to address real issues of citizen concern. They were engaging in the all-important feedback loop, being responsive, transparent and accountable to citizens. This process played out in 2013 with caucus member input into numerous pieces of legislation. For example, the Health Caucus agreed to advocate for the successful passage of the National Health Professionals Act, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Committee. Some members of the Environmental Committee were also members of the Health Caucus and worked to promote passage of this legislation by lobbying other members, a first for caucus activity in the Somaliland House of Representatives.

MPs did not stop with caucus development and went on to form joint civil society-parliamentary working groups. Eventually, six legislative drafting working groups were established in cooperation and in conjunction with citizens. In 2014, three of the six working groups had submitted legislation, legislation which for the very first time originated from collaboration between citizens and the legislative branch, not the executive branch. Caucuses, field hearings and working groups have introduced the concept of citizen input into the decision making process. The program adapted to the context, but also worked slowly to change the context, bringing a new professionalism to the Somaliland House of Representatives.

Context continues to be the guiding principle for IRI’s parliamentary strengthening programs in other regions of the world as well. In Peru, for example, development of parliamentary caucuses provided entree for IRI to work with members of parliament to advance gender and other issues within their legislature. IRI now shares these best practices with legislators from around the world via the House Democracy Partnership, an exchange program that brings representatives of regional legislatures together to meet with their counterparts from other countries and learn from one another. While the political context in the represented countries varies widely, what is common is the understanding of the importance of the feedback loop of citizen engagement and responsive elected officials.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

About the authors

Michelle Bekkering is Director of Global Initiatives at the International Republican Institute

Gretchen Birkle is director of Generation Democracy at the International Republican Institute.

Source: Open Democracy

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