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Parliaments: the missing link in democratising national policy making

5 April 2004


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Across sub-saharan Africa, good governance efforts depend on the strengthening of parliamentary democracy. In sharp contrast country relations with IFIs reveal weak parliamentary engagement.

Rick Stapenhurst of the World Bank Institute asserts: “Legislative oversight of government policies and the budget process in particular, are of vital importance in ensuring governments carry out their duties efficiently, democratically, and in a fiscally responsible manner”. The IMF’s code on fiscal transparency calls for regular government reporting to the legislature. But the same report concedes: “unfortunately, such fiscal oversight is often lacking in practice”.

Parliaments often lack legitimacy and are hampered by the politics of patronage. The systematic decline of parliamentary sovereignty and the ineffectiveness of legislatures in policy-making can be understood on two levels. Firstly, around weak internal governance structures and secondly owing to external influence.

Parliament was informed of important aspects of the PRSP after it had been adopted by the government

Parliament’s role is weakened by constitutional and legislative frameworks which give primacy to the executive. In many countries the executive is a domineering structure wielding discretionary power and rendering parliaments subservient. Parliaments’ prerogative over legislation is minimally exercised.

Parliaments are bypassed in policy-making processes and confined to rubber-stamping deals. Through self-censorship, parliaments know better than to offer alternatives. They are deliberately excluded or their involvement is restricted, with ad hoc consultations of individual MPs substituting for institutional engagement. UNCTAD warns: “this substitution of conventional institutions of representative democracy by ad hoc mechanisms could undermine the fledgling institutions of representative democracy taking root in African societies”.

Reasserting parliamentary sovereignty

Parliamentary scrutiny should be integrated within policy formulation, implementation and monitoring. Strengthening of parliamentary committee work would assist in this. The German development agency (GTZ) found that in Tanzania, parliamentary committees incorporated sessions for the public to consider new laws. At the start of 2003, the executive withdrew draft legislation on privatising a small-loans bank after strong public protest during such sessions.

Participation in public expenditure management can be exercised through budget votes, member questions, and public hearings. While these often exert minimal influence, they can ensure a level of accountability. The scope of parliament’s budgetary powers and the link between PRS processes and the national budget are critical. Constitutional provisions constrain the scope of amendments possible to the budget as presented by the executive.

Institutional participation by parliament in formulating poverty reduction strategies is rare. GTZ notes a very small number of examples. In Guinea Bissau, the vice-president of the parliament collaborated ex-officio on the national PRS committee. In Chad, two parliamentarians are members of the PRSP drafting steering committee. In Malawi there is cooperation between parliamentary committees and PRS working groups while in Sierra Leone, an ad hoc committee supports PRS implementation.

The same report confirms that only four countries have had formal parliamentary votes on the PRSP-Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Senegal. Only in Niger was this representative of substantive participation. Involvement by individual parliamentarians in local and regional consultations in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya, Lesotho and Senegal were used by the executive to claim that parliamentarians participated in PRSPs. “Parliament was informed of important aspects of the document after it had been adopted by the government and accepted by the IMF and the World Bank in Benin and Zambia. Most parliamentarians are hardly aware of the PRS process, and do not use opportunities to participate”.

Some countries have legal provisions which should ensure a proper role for parliaments. Ethiopia’s constitution requires parliamentary approval of the national development strategy, but this was ignored in the case of the PRSP. Courtesy of its budget act 2001, the Ugandan legislature has significant influence over the budget. The executive has to submit a provisional draft three months ahead of the final deadline for approval. A Parliamentary Budget Office provides parliament with analytical capability. Complemented by active CSO engagement, the scope for accountability has considerably expanded.

Kenya’s national budget debates are improving, supported by CSO expertise. Legislation is being drafted to create a Parliamentary Budget Office. Stronger collaboration between parliaments and CSOs is envisaged. Enactment of freedom of information legislation in more countries is needed to improve timely access to relevant information.

Parliamentary monitoring

Ghana has a parliamentary monitoring committee and a monthly report to parliament by the executive. In Mauritania, parliament will be involved in monitoring and Gambia’s members of parliament are represented in the Stakeholder Monitoring Group. In Guinea, parliamentary committees participate in monitoring and in Malawi, members of relevant committees are represented on the Technical Working Committee for monitoring. There is also provision for ministerial reports to parliament. Finally, Mozambique’s PRSP provides for monitoring as part of the executive’s regular reporting to parliament. Nevertheless as the GTZ review notes: “such recognition of the role of parliament in PRS monitoring is an important component, but inadequate unless viable institutional procedures are created”.

IFIs claim to be paying attention to the role of legislatures. The Parliamentarians Handbook published in April 2001 recommended parliamentary scrutiny of PRSPs. The Parliamentary Network on the World Bank (PNoWB) is another opportunity. Network members recently demanded parliamentary approval of PRSPs. But for parliaments to gain real power, international financial institutions and the executive branches of government will have to concede it. Ultimately parliaments will have to lead in asserting their sovereignty.