International Party Assistance Strategies by Roel von Meijenfeldt
Executive Director Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) 

My apologies for having missed out on the morning session. This should not be taken to mean that I would not have been interested in the introductions of the much respected international experts on this morning’s panel. Unfortunately, however, a prior scheduled meeting of my Executive Committee required attendance there.

I am quite honoured and pleased to share this panel with Pippa Norris whom I would like to compliment for the production of a very nicely laid-out and accessible handbook on working with political parties, including in post-conflict societies. And with Ivan Doherty, with whom I have just shared a full day meeting of the steering committee of the World Movement for Democracy. We will share another platform next week at the ambassadorial meeting of the OSCE in Vienna.

Before going into the topic of my presentation, it is perhaps important to make one or two contextual observations on the state of democracy today. There is increasing concern internationally about threats to democracy or, as some have argued, about the backlash against democracy. And yes, the international context has become much more complex with the erosion of the international rule of law and the multilateral system. Such erosion generally does not provide for a conducive environment for democracy-building. The intensified militarization of foreign policy in the context of the war against terrorism and the military language that has infested the discourse on democracy is not really compatible either with the values intrinsic to democracy itself. And then, of course, there are the hardcore autocrats in Belarus, Burma, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Ethiopia, etc., who appear to have been good students of all the handbooks democracy promoters have produced during the past 10 years as they turn out to be very adept at blocking attempts to further democratization.

What is clear is that the euphoria of the nineties, the third wave of democracy, is clearly over.

In many regards that was an exceptional period in history, a period in which many chances were missed to improve the multilateral system of governance because everything appeared to move in the right direction and democracy was considered to reach out to all corners of this globe. When we talk about ‘backlash’ today, it may also say something about the innocence with which democracy promotion was approached in the first place. Getting to the core of democratization or democratic reform processes was never going to be easy, since it concerns the sharing of power. Lord Dahrendorf qualified the road to democracy as ‘a voyage through a valley of tears’.

And we know from respected academics such as Tom Carothers, that road is never a straight one. The focus on elections, on civil society, on judicial reform, all important by themselves, was not sufficient to produce political systems that could live up to the expectations of the people and the international commitment to reduce poverty as laid down in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Democracy is not only a set of institutions, but also a set of values that needs to be brought into practice and internalized in a continuous process of interaction and dialogue.

Waking up from the euphoria and facing the complexities of democracy in today’s world implies the courage to be asking ourselves some hard questions:

  1. Can we simply continue to use the methods and templates that have been used so far?
  2. How can we become more effective in countering the more sophisticated obstacles put in the way of furthering democracy?
  3. How can we become more strategic in delivering democracy support?

It also requires the courage to be externally evaluated at regular intervals to account for the strategies we put in place and the results we achieve.

Getting to the core
Getting to the core of democratic development, as Daniel Brumberg defined it in the excellent recent book “Uncharted Journey promoting democracy in the Middle East” (edited by Tom Carothers and Marina Ottaway), involves:

  1. Political parties that speak for organized constituencies;
  2. parliaments that have the constitutional authority to speak on behalf of the electorate;
  3. and constitutions that impose limits on executive authority.

It implies engaging political society, including political parties, which are the pillars within democratic political dispensations and whose leaders hold the keys of peace and conflict. Political society – defined as those strata of political institutions that form the link between citizens and civil society on one hand and the state or executive on the other –  has been the missing link in official international cooperation for too long but is gradually discovered and recognized.

In the Netherlands, the government has recently introduced a separate budget title within its international assistance budget for support to political society next to the much larger budget line for civil society. In the last two years, substantial progress has been made in opening up the policies of the European Union on the subject of political society. I consider this positive and encouraging news.

International Party Assistance Strategies

Overview of strategies

International party assistance strategies can, for example, be distinguished in different cross-sectional categories:

Building party networks and training leadership Institutional development of political parties Development of political party systems Develop nexus political and civil society
Party to party approaches Foundations of Dutch political parties and many other similar foundations in EU
Mixed approaches  WFDNorwegian Center for Democracy Support Norwegian Center for Democracy Support WFD
Multiparty approaches  DEMOSNDINIMD






The strategies of party assistance depend very much on the specific objectives that are pursued by each of the players in this field. I am introducing this chart to encourage a more informed debate about these strategies than you commonly find in many publications on the subject, suggesting that you deal with a simple party-to-party or multi-party support divide, and that both types pursue similar objectives through different means.  The reality is very different.

Furthermore, the approaches differ on whether a limited set of objectives, such as international networking and facilitating training and conferencing delivered through a string of mainly small projects is pursued, or more comprehensive objectives that aim at systemic democratic reforms through longer-term programmatic approaches..

These various approaches are valuable in their own right but they are not the same thing. What they have in common though, is that they both use the legitimacy and the expertise of political parties in established democracies to work with political parties in young and conflict-prone countries.


The multiparty approach
The multiparty approach as exemplified by the IMD, is a joint approach by political parties from across the full political spectrum to engage parties in young democracies in a partnership to

  1. improve the functioning of multiparty political systems;
  2. advance the institutional development of political parties;
  3. strengthen the relation between political parties and civil society.

The three programme areas form a coherent framework for a focused and strategic approach to advancing democracy in the partner countries. This specific focus is part of a wider international agenda to strengthen democracy and governance of which the IMD programme is only a part. A part with a very political core in a high-risk environment.

Today, IMD is implementing longer-term partnership relations with 152 political parties, with 9 new multiparty centres in 17 countries. We also have regional programmes in East and Southern Africa, West Africa and the Andean region.

In the IMD approach our partner political parties are invited to engage in strategic planning exercises at the inter-party level and to prepare national reform agenda’s. The process of dialogue and agenda-setting is facilitated by IMD. Activities that result from these joint planning exercises are also supported by IMD but increasingly as well by our partners in the international community, be they multilateral institutions like UNDP, EU and OSCE, bilateral donors or sister organisations such as those gathered around this table.

Issues included in these national agenda’s can cover: constitutional reform, electoral system reform, independence of the electoral administrations and improvements in the electoral process, the legislation on political parties and on political party funding, participation of women and other underrepresented groups in the political process, decentralization, the relationship with the media and the institutional development of political parties.

At the inter-party level, modalities are also negotiated for direct financial support to political parties individually. This joint responsibility for an agreement on a set of modalities results in a form of social control on each of the parties individually to meet the performance criteria for cooperation or else run the risk of being de-selected from the cooperation. This proves an important instrument for parties to invest seriously in their administrative and accounting procedures and in accepting standards of transparency not known before. The intention is that it will help to prepare the way for public funding provisions that are debated and prepared in almost all our partner countries.

Todate, inter-party cooperation has resulted in the establishment of 9 centres for multiparty democracy (with different names in each country). They are mostly foundations of the political parties in which the parties in parliament are the most important ones but in which there are also provisions for parties not represented in parliament. Inclusivity is a major underlying principle of these new centres that function as dialogue platforms for the political elites in the partner countries. In countries where the political leadership not often met, an improvement of the relations can be observed.  It has a tangible effect in depolarizing the political environment and in creating an atmosphere conducive to finding solutions about contentious political reform issues.

For example, chairmen of the political parties in Ghana meet since two years every month to discuss  flash points in their country and to take early pre-emptive action. They also recently reached an agreement with the women organizations to raise their numbers in the next parliament from a dismal 10,5% to 30%.  Also encouraging is the initiative to engage in what has been termed ‘ice-breaker meetings’ with their peers in the neighbouring countries of Togo and Ivory Coast. In Togo this has helped in massaging the political minds in reaching the recent political breakthrough.  In Ivory Coast a lot more ice will need to be broken and this is work in progress.. One of the Ghanaian political leaders recently observed that the most striking thing they have come to learn is to disagree without becoming disagreeable. New is also that the leadership is engaging each other now on television in debates about issues; debates that are also held at district levels. It will hopefully begin to convey the message that politics is about policies to solve problems and not only the struggle for personal power.

At the intra-party level, a similar approach is followed. No ad hoc support, but only support on the basis of a properly processed strategic programme with milestones on how the party plans to move from A to B in becoming less personality driven and more institutionalized. Again, the support is increasingly provided on performance-based criteria. Parties that perform well qualify for additional assistance; parties that under perform disqualify themselves. Since they are all on equal footing in relation to the agreed modalities, there is a healthy competition to ensure value for money. Four years into the operation, I am happy to report that it has not resulted in any political antagonisms among the parties. The secret is that the partnership is rooted in joint responsibility and full transparency. Issues that are paramount on the party agenda’s include internal democracy, party programmes, the party organisation and the capacity to campaign.

The third objective is the improvement of the relations between political parties and civil society. In most countries tremendous animosity exists between the two, often fuelled by sheer greed about the fact that civil society organisations receive all this nice donor funding which political parties do not. It is encouraging to note that in most of the unfolding agenda’s of our partners, links are established with the media, women organizations, churches, and with the business sector. I have recently come back from meetings in Kenya where the Centre for Multiparty Democracy, the platform of all political parties in Kenya, was approached by the business sector looking for cooperation, while an impressive meeting was held between the leaders of the political parties and the leadership of the Interfaith community discussing their concerns about the stagnation of political reforms in Kenya.

The political parties in Guatemala, in a joint operation of the UNDP, IMD and OAS developed their strategic programme into a truly comprehensive Shared National Agenda, covering not only political reform issues but also fiscal and economic reform issues, as well as a new security concept that has formed the basis of the policy programme of the government and legislative programme for the Congress. The political parties in Ghana are currently upgrading their strategic programme into a  Democratic Consolidation Strategy Paper (DSCP) that serves to complement the Ghanaian Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy paper. It will take into account the outcome of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) report and governance programmes produced by international partners. The essence of the initiative is, that this new DCSP will be fully owned by the Ghanaian political parties, both in and out of government.. The draft text will be anchored in the wider society through a series of consultative processes. In Georgia, the political parties held meetings throughout the country in an interactive dialogue and assessment exercise that resulted in a national agenda (titled:  “The Political Landscape of Georgia’’) recently launched in Tiblisi.

The positive effect of this approach is the high local ownership content, the increase in levels of trust among the key political stakeholders, internal peer pressure to move beyond talking about reform towards the implemention of reforms, maximum local institutional capacity with a minimum IMD overhead, and a tremendous amount of positive energy. These local multiparty institutions and national reform agendas also offer excellent opportunities to harmonize the agendas of the donor community, something that is much needed to improve the impact of the combined international efforts.

Lessons learned

  1. Inter-party cooperation is an eye-opener for most of the political parties we meet in conflict-prone societies. The prevailing level of polarization is not very conducive for purposes of nation-building and democratic reform.
  2. Trust and confidence building is urgently needed in the political arena to ensure stability. Joint responsibility of the political parties for the foundations of the political system is a condition sine qua non to avoid the number of failed states increasing.
  3. The restoration of the primacy of politics is an important condition to ensure that the focus on ownership and partnership does not become new tokens of symbolism as is often the case today.
  4. If we are serious about the MDGs, the international system needs to find ways of working with political society and in partnering with the intermediary institutions such as IMD that can facilitate this process; The experience with the OSCE/ODIHR, UNDP is very positive in this regard, while the links with the implementation of the EU development consensus are currently being built.

The Hague

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