In March 2017, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in collaboration with the University of Birmingham hosted an international conference in London on the theme of:
Deliberating Democratisation – Examining Democratic Change and the Role of International Democracy Support.
I was invited to participate in the conference, to share my experiences of the work of the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy. The presentation is attached here:
The meeting brought together leading figures in the field of democracy support from Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and beyond, including a mix of academics, policy makers and practitioners. The conference provided an opportunity to exchange ideas and new ways of working, not simply between researchers and practitioners, but also between the distinct communities of practice that have developed around providing support for legislatures, political parties, civil society and elections.
The conference was motived by a need to translate lessons learnt into concrete strategies for change. While there is broad consensus about where democracy support has gone wrong in the past and how it ought to be done in the future, there has been little interrogation of the factors that stop democracy supporters from doing things differently.
To take one example, it is well established that ‘context matters’, but few have a clear understanding of how we can make context matter in practice. Which specific aspects of context matter most, and what aspects of program design should be changed? Perhaps more importantly, given the abundant, long-standing evidence demonstrating the importance of context, why do so many democracy promoters struggle to accommodate it?
The conference considered a range of constraints faced by those working on democracy support, including the need to mitigate risk, manage uncertainty and respond to the expectations of funders. Panels considered these issues with respect to key institutions – legislatures, political parties and civil society – and on a cross-cutting basis, aiming to identify which of these constraints can be shifted, and how.
The conference also considered the role of research in democracy support. At present, academic research provides policy makers and practitioners with scant guidance on which types of democracy promotion work best, under what conditions, and why. This problem persists because of a gap between research and practice; there is remarkably little interaction between those who conduct research on democracy and those who work to support it.