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Call for Papers

In July 2018, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Center for Advanced Legal Studies of the University of London will host a seminar on Post-Legislative Scrutiny. Academics, parliamentarians, senior parliamentary staff, parliamentary development practitioners, and legal / governance experts are invited to respond to the Call for Papers, which closes on 5 April 2018.

Full details are available here: Call for Papers

Photo: Youth Select Committee Evidence Session 2016, by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor. Used under (CC BY-NC 2.0). Original image here.

Is it time to stop talking about ‘closing space’?

On 26 September 2017, the research collaboration between the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the University of Birmingham launched a new policy paper at the European Endowment for Democracy in Brussels. In the wake of that event, Susan Dodsworth reflects on some of the discussion it provoked.

In the last few years there has been mounting concern about the state of democracy around the world. Experts have expressed fear of global democratic recession, authoritarian leaders have become more savvy in resisting democratisation, and Western democracies have become vulnerable to ‘hollowing out’ as an increasing number of people become disillusioned with, and disengage from, their political systems. While it’s probably a bit too pessimistic to claim (as some have) that ‘democracy is dying’, it is clear that democracy is under mounting pressure.

Policy-makers and practitioners tend to talk about this problem in terms of ‘closing space’, with the relevant ‘space’ defined in terms ranging from civic, to political, to democratic. Indeed, this is the kind of language that Nic Cheeseman and I use in our latest policy paper for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). In that paper, we examine when parliaments protect political space by rejecting (or reforming) restrictive civil society laws.

In the discussions that followed the launch of our policy paper, Richard Youngs (one of the leading experts on democracy support), expressed his dissatisfaction with the language of ‘closing space.’ As he explained – and I found myself agreeing – talking about the repression of opposition political parties, or attempts to constrain the activities to civil society groups, in such terms obscures the fact that these things are not accidents of chance or products of circumstance. Instead, they are the products of deliberate decisions made by political actors.

This made me wonder: is it time to stop talking about ‘closing space’? There is a real risk that this term, though fashionable, is encouraging us to ignore or underestimate the agency of political leaders. This is important because if we ignore agency, we’ll never understand incentives. This matters, because it’s generally incentives that explain why certain interventions (be they diplomatic appeals, or democracy support programmes) work, while others do not.

Understanding the incentives that are driving the phenomenon of ‘closing space’ won’t be easy. They’re likely to vary, not just between countries but also between individuals. As our policy paper highlights, things like the nature of the electoral system can have a significant influence on what motivates legislators to resist – or facilitate – the passage of laws designed to restrict the political influence of civil society. So too can the historical legacies of colonialism, which continue to shape debates about the legitimacy of groups reliant on donor funds and those who defend them.

It may also be hard to find the time and attention required to understand incentives properly. In some parts of the world, political activists face real threats – threats of harassment, imprisonment, and serious physical harm. There are good reasons why the attention (and funding) of many policy makers and practitioners has tended to focus on supporting and protecting these front-line defenders of democracy.

Despite this, it’s critical that we invest time and resources in better understanding the incentives that are driving the closure of political space. If we don’t understand why some political leaders are adopting laws, policies and practices that undermine democracy, we don’t have much hope of helping others to fight against them in a sustainable and successful way.

This blog first appeared in the October newsletter of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, available here

Photo:  In July 2014, government attempts to restrict NGOs’ interactions with journalists triggered protests in Sri Lanka.

Photo credit: Vikalpa/Groundviews/Maatram (used under creative commons license CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.

Are we measuring what matters?

At our recent conference one of the more contentious panels addressed the role of research in democracy support. During that panel, Susan Dodsworth – from the University of Birmingham – discussed how the quality of evidence available to academics shapes the utility of research to practitioners and policy-makers. Today she’s addressing these themes in more detail at the Political Studies Association Annual International Conference in Glasgow.

There’s both good news and bad news in this area. The good news is that there have been significant advances in how democracy is measured. Thanks to work like that of the Varieties of Democracy Project, we now have much more transparent, more finely grained indicators of democracy. The bad news is that measures of democracy only tell half the story. We also need better measures of democracy support.

This is bad news because our primary source of data on democracy support is the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s (DAC) database on aid flows. For academic researchers, this is the ‘default’ approach to measuring democracy support. Why? Because this is what we can access. Organisations that support democracy are often very reluctant to share their data, in part because it can put those they are trying to help at risk.

Our reliance on OECD data constrains research and limits its usefulness in three ways. First, reducing democracy support to money spent tends to produced recommendations along the lines of ‘spend more on X and less on Y.’ This has some value, but there are limits to its utility. Ultimately, it’s more useful to know how to spend money, rather than how much money to spend.

Second, we are limited by what is – and is not – captured in the coding of these databases. The OECD data only captures the primary purpose of aid. But we know that aid generally, and democracy support in particular, is often multi-purpose. Aid flows have also been reported in a way that creates blind spots. As I pointed out in a recent policy paper, it’s essentially impossible to calculate how much democracy support is invested in civil society – a significant problem given how important civil society is in democratisation.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we might be missing what really matters. When you talk to democracy supporters about their work they will explain that ‘You can’t buy political will,’ or emphasise that ‘It’s not about the money.’ Instead, they (and their strategic documents, like this one) stress the importance of relationships, or of intangible resources like respect and recognition. The difficulty, of course, is that these things are extremely difficult to measure.

If research is to play a constructive role in democracy support, we need to have better measures of it. The challenge is to work out how we can get those better measures. This won’t be an easy task and, unless researchers and practitioners work together, it will probably be an impossible one. That’s why I hope we’ll see more events – like WFD’s conference – that create opportunities for better dialogue and – hopefully – more sustained collaboration between researchers and practitioners.

Susan Dodsworth is a research fellow at the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department.

Photo credit: Jonathan Khoo via Flickr, under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tearing down the fence between democratization research and international democracy support

How can academic researchers and practitioners work together to make democracy support more effective? During a round-table at our conference in March 2017, Jorge Valladares from International IDEA offered some suggestions.

One of the most enlightening debates on international democracy support is turning 15 this coming April. In his 2002 “The End of the Transition Paradigm,”[1] Tom Carothers argued that democracy supporters at that time operated within a framework derived in part from a “superficial transfer of ideas” from scholarly literature on transitions away from authoritarian rule.

Carothers’s concern was that such ‘paradigm’ did not verify in reality, and was “retarding evolution in the field of democratic assistance.” He added: “the scholarly and practitioner halves of the democracy world are noticeably, and probably unfortunately, separate. Democracy promoters occasionally dip into academic writings on democratization but not in any systematic or concerted way […] On the other side of the fence, very few of the main theorists of democratization have delved in any depth into the world of democracy aid or integrated field-based insights from that domain into their work.”

15 years on, questions persist on the role of research in the practice field. How much of that fence is still standing?  The conference ‘Deliberating Democratization: Examining Democratic Change and the Role of the International Democracy Support’ (London, 7-8 March 2017) hosted by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) and the University of Birmingham, examined the guidance research provides policy makers and practitioners, and the quality and intensity of our interactions.

Neither research nor activism alone will spare democracy from its problems, but the right combination of both affords a better shot. It is fair to credit international democracy support with going lengths in efforts to adapt and integrate insights from the scholarly community into its work over the last decade. As a recent report by International IDEA[2] recognizes, democracy support practitioners have now “more insightful understandings of the politics”[3] driving democratization processes. This is thanks to, at least in part, credence gained in the democracy support community by theories of change and change management, political economy analysis and other tools, as well as the growing availability of new democracy-related measurements and data.

The growing diversity of players and methods of democracy support leaves plenty of room for mutual learning notwithstanding. A more regular dialogue and interaction between our communities could most benefit from a focus on assessing the relationship between our support methods and their intended outcomes with the broader and more complex democratization processes we aim to invigorate. Our communities should do more to assess support methods through more innovative learning systems and evaluation methods; as well as to consider institutional setups that are supportive of that interaction.

While funding for research could double down on setting incentives for a closer interaction with the practice community, academic centers could do their part by giving interaction with practitioners the same currency for career progression that teaching and peer-reviewed divulgation have. Donors and international democracy support organizations could help set equally effective incentives for practitioners to engage in knowledge transfer and learning. The association between WFD and Birmingham, and more informal groupings such as the Political Party Peer Network, or the Core Group of Experts with Impact,[4] attest to the value of setting right incentives.

A second goal should be moving both communities to closer collaboration in systematically assessing the relevance and effectiveness of traditional methods of delivery and adapting it to our better understanding of the politics driving democratization. An example given at the conference was the pressing questions as to how support to political parties and civil society could tackle emerging forms of individual or collective political action that are reshaping representation and participation. Although our tools for developing problem and context analysis, needs assessment and change theory are getting better and better, they all too often rely on scant, weak, or unsystematic data or analysis that make difficult articulate feasible innovative strategies and choose courses of action better suited or more likely to produce the desired impact. For instance, our most traditional tool in the kit, capacity development, relies too often on a simplistic template consisting of training complemented with exposure (often international) and other activities, generally involving actors already empowered or irrelevant within their institutions or systems. We need to be open to learn more about our existing and new delivery methods, and research could do more to help us in renewing our repertoire.

A third and central area of interaction is the institutional systems that facilitate a culture and practice of learning and evaluation. Appetite for establishing more permanent learning systems is growing in democracy support organizations. But such systems are expensive and institutional adaptation is time consuming. This should not prevent both communities from trying some measure of boldness and push for more ambitious while cost-efficient methods, such as meta-studies and collaborative or joint evaluations (bringing together several implementers, programmes, and donors).[5] These have been tried in other areas of development cooperation with some success, and the democratization research community could bring into the discussion a fresher voice by more actively engaging donors and implementers in a frank conversation about improving the standards of evaluation today. Regarding this, at the conference we discussed how to mitigate risks of losing the necessary distance between research and practice if academics become mere evaluation consultants of democracy support.

This leads to a fourth priority area: the necessary conditions that facilitate mutual absorption between both communities avoiding confusion on our roles. Pundits on both sides of the fence often complain about the lack of skills, systems, and available time to successfully integrate research into practice or other way round. ‘Practitioners don’t read’, ‘papers are too academic’ are oversimplifications: practitioners are supposed to act, and academics are supposed to be academic! Cross fertilization between communities could be facilitated in building more conducive organizational set-ups for institutional learning systems, that are user-friendly, and do not increase overheads beyond a reasonable, cost-efficient effort. All of this requires more incentives, less blaming and more creativity from both communities.

[1] Carothers, T. (2002) ‘The End of the Transition Paradigm’, Journal of Democracy (13) 1, pp. 5-21; ‘A Reply to My Critics’,Journal of Democracy (13) 3, pp. 33-38.

[2] International IDEA engaged as early as in 2007 in the effort to improve the impact of democracy support through learning. Together with Sida compiled Burnell, P (ed) (2007) Evaluating Democracy Support: Methods and Experiences, Stockholm: Sida, International IDEA, 255pp. Ever since, it has actively brought together practitioners in the area. Most recently, it has revisited the topic in  Bjuremalm, H. and W. Sjöstedt (2016), ‘Flexibility, learning and ownership: new trends in democracy assistance, results management and evaluation’ Stockholm, International IDEA Discussion Paper 19/2016,

[3] Bjuremalm, H. and W. Sjöstedt (2016), op. cit. p. 9

[4] The Core Group of Experts with Impact is actively encouraged by Fernando Casal Bertoa, Susan Dondsworth, Nic Cheeseman, Lise Storm and others. The group has set to foster dialogue and cross-fertilization between academics and practitioners.

[5] See for instance OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC)’s decade-long work promoting these types of evaluations here.


Jorge Valladares is Senior Programme Manager at International IDEA, where his focus is on the generation of comparative knowledge, policy analysis and practical tools on issues of democratic representation and participation, particularly political parties. His work aims to support party members, parliamentarians and public officials fulfil their democratic representation roles.IDEA logo

This blog was previously published at International IDEA.

Photo credit: Vesna Middelkoop (via Flickr under license CC BY 2.0)

What holds a democracy together – political parties, or the party system itself?

Political parties and party systems are generally regarded as essential in a democracy. But is it political parties, or the political party system, that holds democracy together? At our conference in March 2017, Fernando Casal Bértoa, from the University of Nottingham, argued that the party system is the critical factor – a finding with significant implications for practice and policy in democracy promotion.

Who hasn’t heard that democracy is in crisis? Election after election, we see people participate less and extremist political parties on the rise. The most recent example is in Georgia, where during this month’s legislative elections half of the country’s electorate decide to stay at home and a far-right pro-Russian Eurosceptic party (The Alliance of Patriots of Georgia) managed to gain its first seats in parliament.

Meanwhile, traditionally stable party systems are collapsing. Traditional parties are challenged and in many cases displaced by totally new political formations, making the polity more fragmented, volatility and unstable. Spain and Greece constitute, perhaps, the clearest examples. And political parties themselves are in crisis. It is not only that parties have lost members and voters, but – more importantly – they are considered to be among the most corrupt and untrustworthy institutions.

Given this state of political turmoil, we need to reignite the debate about what helps democracies to survive and, in particular, to what extent political parties and/or party systems have helped to avoid the collapse of democratic regimes.

Why is the party system good for democracy?

Traditionally, both academics and practitioners have considered the institutionalisation of both political parties and party systems as a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a solid democracy. This institutionalisation is said to contribute to democratic survival by making states more governable, accountable and representative, as well as enhancing their legitimacy. It allows for “regulated” conflict resolution. Last, but not least, it keeps demagogy and populism at bay.

Furthermore, scholars believe the institutionalisation of political parties themselves makes a democracy more responsive and provides for a better link between citizens and the state. When it does not take place (as in post-communist Europe) or a process of de-institutionalisation takes place (as in Western Europe), citizens may become increasingly frustrated with the (democratic) system, leading not only to high levels of social dissatisfaction (such as mass demonstrations) and political disengagement (low turnout), but also to the growth of populist parties and demagogic leaders who threaten the survival of the regime. For all these reasons, and as Elmer Eric Schattschneider put it 75 years ago – summarising what became the consensus on the topic – “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties”.

Is it about parties, party systems or both?

Despite the unanimous agreement on the importance of both party and party system institutionalisation for the survival of democracy, it was only very recently put to the test. In an article for West European Politics, I examined the relationship between institutionalisation and democracy in 64 European political regimes since 1848. What I found is that it is not the institutionalisation of political parties but the institutionalisation of party systems as a whole that has had a positive effect on a democracy’s prospects of survival. In particular, and contrary to what most scholars and practitioners take for granted, I found no relationship between a weaker institutionalisation of parties and democratic collapse. Not only there have been countries where democracy collapsed despite highly institutionalised parties (e.g. inter-war Finland, as well as the Hellenic and First Austrian Republics), in most post-communist countries democracy has survived despite the presence of very weakly institutionalised political parties (mainly in Georgia, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia).

Conversely, looking at the degree of systemic institutionalisation in countries where democracy survived and in countries where it collapsed clearly shows that institutionalised party systems are even more important for democracy that was traditionally thought. Indeed, an institutionalised party system can be considered sufficient for the survival of its democratic regime – since with only one exception in the history of democratic Europe (the First Austrian Republic, 1920-1932), democracy never collapsed in countries where party systems achieved a certain “minimum” degree of institutionalisation.

However – and contrary to the established wisdom – this is not to say that a democracy cannot survive without an institutionalised party system. In fact, up to ten post-communist democracies (e.g. Latvia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland) have not collapsed despite having weaker institutionalised party systems (PSI).

What scholars, politicians, and practitioners should bear in mind, though, is that a continuous lack of PSI puts democracy in peril. In fact, the party systems of 18 of the 19 countries where democracy collapsed were very weakly institutionalised.

The carrot and stick of democracy promotion

Although we should be cautious about generalising on the basis of these results, which apply only to Europe, these findings have important implications in terms of how democracy should be promoted. The whole concept of ‘democratic assistance’ should be approached with a view to favouring party systems rather than merely parties, as has usually been the case. In particular, any “carrot” offered to political parties by international organisations, governments or party foundations should be conditional on the “stick” of improving their relationships with other parties within the country. As Kurt Sontheimer noted almost 30 years ago, “the stability of the party system [rather than the parties] is the really decisive factor for the stability of the whole system in all democratic systems”.

Fernando Casal Bértoa is Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham and Director of the Party Systems and Governments Observatory (PSGo). 

Who Governs Europe

This blog was previously published at Democracy Audit UK.

Photo credit: Protest by Podemos party in Madrid. Photo by Barcex (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.


In early March, WFD hosted a high-profile conference – Deliberating democratisation – that examined democratic change and the role of international democracy support. That conference was motivated by a need to translate lessons learnt so far into concrete strategies for change. It 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 – with respect to key institutions: legislatures, political parties and civil society. The aim was to identify which constraints can be shifted, and how.

Panels and round-tables provoked some spirited discussion. Among the highlights on day one:

  • Professor Nic Cheeseman, from the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department, discussed the importance of institutions in democracy support. He noted the need to be realistic: we can’t fix everything, and what we can fix, won’t be fixed fast. This means that international actors need to focus on incremental improvements that “create opportunities for people to push their democracy forward.”
  • Richard Youngs, from Carnegie Europe, examined the short-comings of the international response to the closure of civil society space. He observed that most democracy supporters only looked at part of the problem – the danger to frontline civil society activists. This is important, he argued, but organisations like WFD also need to “get ahead of the curve,” by thinking strategically and addressing the structural drivers of shrinking of political space.
  • Victoria Hasson, from WFD, triggered heated debate with her presentation examining the role of theory in context analysis. She questioned whether context analysis had become a “theory-free zone,” and if it had, whether this was a good or bad thing.
  • Marina Ottaway, from the Woodrow Wilson Center, gave a key-note lecture that challenged democracy supporters to think more critically about the work they do. She warned, “the international community has been hiding behind the fiction that it is possible to promote democracy in an apolitical way.”

On day two, the debates continued:

  • Professor E. Gyimah-Boadi, from the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, emphasised the domestic dimensions of democratisation, calling on democracy supporters to be modest in attributing the success of local institutions to their interventions. He also highlighted the changing context in which democracy support is being delivered; as African economies strengthen, more governments – including Ghana’s – can say ‘no’ to the political reforms pushed by external actors.
  • Augustine Magolowondo, from the Netherlands Institute for Multi-party Democracy, identified several areas where new research could help to make party assistance more effective. He emphasized the need for a better understanding of how different types of party system affect democracy support (how should practitioners respond to a dominant party system?) and stressed the need for a stronger evidence base on how changing technology is affecting the nature of political parties around the world.
  • Armine Ishkanian, from LSE’s Department of Social Policy, argued that the growing backlash against NGOs is not simply the fault of governments. She stressed that civil society has some agency in the matter; its relationship to donors plays an important role in shaping government attitudes and public perceptions of their legitimacy.
  • Lise Storm, from the University of Exeter’s Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, called for greater collaboration between researchers working on democratisation, and practitioners working on democracy support. She argued (with my support!) that while democracy promoters have legitimate concerns about sharing information – it could undermine their relationships with beneficiaries or, worse, put those beneficiaries at risk – universities’ ethics review boards have established procedures for dealing with these concerns.