The U.K. Department for International Development should increase its use of British specialists for projects on strengthening parliaments in developing countries.
That’s according to a recent report from the U.K. House of Commons International Development Committee. In it, the committee stated it was “surprised” to discover the extent to which DfID used large organizations headquartered in the United States to deliver parliamentary strengthening work. Several members of Parliament have also criticized the use of such U.S. global development implementers, claiming U.S.-style presidential systems were “less accountable” than parliamentary systems.
The committee’s investigations revealed that of 37 current DfID projects focused on delivering parliamentary strengthening work, seven had been commissioned to U.S. managing agents. Further, the report noted the U.K. aid agency commissions more than 55 percent of its expenditure on parliamentary strengthening projects from U.S.-based organizations.
This practice, it asserted, “risks using U.K. taxpayer money to promote U.S. models of democracy in [the] Commonwealth countries.”
“We recommend that DfID support the development of world-class suppliers in the U.K., and over a five-year period substantially increase its use of U.K. suppliers where there is a clear demand for them,” the report concluded.
Qualifications, experience more important
The comments were emphasized by IDC Chair Sir Malcolm Bruce, who said there was demand for expertise from the “Westminster Brand.”
“Funds are funneled through large providers in other countries rather than smaller expert organizations,” he said. “More thought should be given to the supply-side and how to build U.K. institutions into world-class providers.”
Overseas Development Institute research fellows and governance experts Tam O’Neil and Alina Rocha Menocal rejected the comments, however. For them, the qualifications and experience of the implementer were more important than the country of origin.
“There is no basis for saying that U.S. organizations will advocate for presidential systems or that they do not have the expertise to work in parliamentary systems — any more than there would be for saying U.K.-based organizations lack expertise to work with parliaments in other types of political systems,” O’Neil told Devex. “This is strange assertion in any case given that most of DfID’s priority countries are already presidential systems — only three are parliamentary.”
Menocal said the assertion “smacks of cultural relativism.”
“More fundamentally,” she added, “while the debate about the relative merits of parliamentary or presidential systems is a long-standing one — there is no conclusive evidence that either is more or less accountable, stable or susceptible to corruption, for example.”
What role for traditional implementers?
The researchers told Devex that if DfID did follow the recommendations to contract more work to Westminster-based delivery organizations, this would not mean traditional implementers would be pushed out of the market.
“Democracy and parliamentary strengthening entails a range of activities, including working with voters, media, civil society organizations, etc. — areas that are more within the traditional remit of development organizations,” O’Neil said. “There are not so many specialist parliamentary organizations, in Westminster or elsewhere and, in any case, U.K. parliamentarians and parliamentary staff are only able to offer small amounts of time to support overseas because they have their own jobs to do too.”
But she recommended that development professionals develop the skills needed to deliver parliamentary strengthening work if this was to become a greater focus at DfID.
“The main issue is that more effective delivery of parliamentary strengthening work calls for a focus not only on technical aspects of parliament, such as training parliamentarians on different aspects of how parliaments formally work, changing or simplifying formal rules of procedure, but also engaging with the more political nature of the way in which parliament works in practice,” O’Neil noted.
She said these needs would require staff to become more politically astute, feel comfortable with the more political nature of the work, develop the ability to build relationships based on trust and be comfortable with uncertainty.
“Building effective parliaments is a long-term endeavor that is rarely linear, so they need to be more accepting of uncertainty and setbacks, and be more open to taking risks,” O’Neil stressed.
In response, DfID noted it selected partner organizations based on experience and knowledge of specific countries, and their ability to deliver value for money.
“We work with country experts and partners to deliver effective governance based upon a country’s individual needs,” a spokeswoman for the U.K. aid agency shared with Devex. “The U.K. has designed and implemented more than 37 programs to strengthen parliaments in 21 countries across the world, helping governments to be more accountable and effective in tackling poverty.”
Should DfID heed IDC’s recommendations and contract more British specialists for its parliamentary strengthening work? Have your say by leaving a comment below.
Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.