Why sidelining members of parliament devalues the democratic process

Development Policy16 Oct 2011Jeff Blach

Strengthening Democratic Institutions for development effectiveness

It is not news that oversight of the public purse, including the oversight and scrutiny of aid flows, falls within the remit of every parliamentarian. Despite this, MPs from the North and the South have played only a marginal role in the process of aid reform. Instead of using recipient country fiduciary systems, as is committed in the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action, donors and development partners continue to use and endorse parallel systems of aid delivery and oversight which tend to sideline MPs and the democratic process of accountability.

Parliaments, as the representatives of the people, must legislate national development policies towards common welfare and the well-being of citizens. In the context of aid recipient countries it is essential that parliaments oversee all spending, both from domestic and foreign sources, and ensure its effectiveness and alignment with national priorities. This is easier said than done. Many parliaments are weak.

Increasing the capacity of parliamentary bodies at the regional and national levels is needed to bring MPs up to speed on their potential role in the aid reform process and to facilitate an open dialogue on the way forward within their own institutions. This was recently exemplified during five public consultations which took place in Tanzania at three levels, the District Council (Iringa), Town Council (Njombe) and Village Council (Kifanya, Ilambiloli, Mgama). Bringing the MPs together with District, Town and Village councillors exposed the successes and obstacles of development.

Through this process of public consultations, MPs noted that health is a major concern in a region where HIV prevalence at 15.7% is three times the national average. Maternal and child mortality were also recognised as serious challenges, as is gender-based violence. It also became evident that condom availability is low and usage, estimated at 30%, is discouraged by church leaders. The Kifanya village consultation surfaced typical concerns. Here it was confirmed that there is a need for a health centre and dispensary. Only 25% of the people have access to safe water, there is no electricity despite ample hydroelectric potential, and there are no birthing bays or delivery services, contributing to maternal deaths. Quality of education was also assessed and MPs found a shortage of teachers and teacher housing, which is another example of inter-sectoral disconnect, with infrastructure not well linked to education. It is here that Members of Parliament saw where the problems in development occurred when scarce resources don’t meet people’s needs or priorities.

When it comes to the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness this November there are a few principles which need to be respected to make development more effective. AWEPA, which works closely with regional and national parliaments in Africa, has made the following recommendations:

  1. Recognise the Role of the Legislature as Key Actor in Development Effectiveness: The most significant innovation toward aid and development effectiveness in the context of the new aid architecture should be the elevation of the legislative branch of government to ensure domestic accountability as part of a system of governance which includes clear separation of powers.
  2. Recognise the Legislative Stake in Country Ownership: The legislature is the pre-eminent forum for inclusive political dialogue and national debate. As such, the development agenda can be said to be owned by a country’s legislature. Legislatures can distill citizen preferences and provide a broad assessment of a country’s needs with inputs from political parties and civil society.
  3. Recognise the Role of Legislatures in Accountability: It should be acknowledged that domestically, there needs to be accountability for the use of development revenues, including aid; this encompasses interaction between executive branches, national and decentralised assemblies and CSOs. Internationally, there needs to be mutual accountability for the promises made by governments; this should include interactions between partner country legislatures and donor country legislatures. These feedback loops have the potential to help strengthen the confidence of donor taxpayers in the successes of ODA, including at the regional level, where serious oversight gaps often exist.
  4. Strengthen the Capacity and Authority of Legislatures: Given the reality that most legislatures in developing countries lack basic capacities to execute their mandates fully, or do not have sufficient legal authority to hold governments to account, donors should provide assistance for legislative capacity development, at the local, national, regional and continental levels. This is in recognition of the reality that partner country governments and executive bodies may not always do so with sufficient zeal to enable the change needed to scrutinize all development expenditures, including those of donors via budget support and off-budget donor and CSO channels.

Ultimately, the issue of concern is development effectiveness, of which aid effectiveness is just a part. The real innovation of Busan, if it is realised, would be a paradigm shift to focus attention on strengthening democratic institutions, like parliaments, as a centrepiece of a ‘’beyond aid’’ exit strategy that leaves development decisions in the hands of those elected to protect the citizens’ interests.