How can parliaments better hold executive branches of government accountable to their MDG commitments in the run up to 2015? This was a central question discussed at the 3rd World Conference of Speakers of Parliament held by the Inter- Parliamentary Union (IPU) at the United Nations in Geneva from 19-21 July 2010.
In his opening remarks to the Conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized that: “It is up to you to mobilize and prepare your governments for our final push towards the [Millennium Development] Goals. That starts with the MDG summit in New York, two months from now.”
Parliaments’ role in breaking international political deadlocks
During the opening session, the Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa, Max Vuyisile Sisulu, presented an IPU progress report on how parliaments are mobilizing and organizing their work in support of the MDGs. The report notes that: “Parliaments must deal more forcefully and clearly with those questions that the international community is unable to address for political reasons. One example is the question of whether there should be a tax on international financial flows (especially those of a speculative nature), and at what rate, to provide funds for development.”
Better scrutiny of poverty reduction and MDG strategies
Another key issue is the ability of parliaments to be involved in scrutinizing national MDG reporting and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) that governments initiate with development partners. At the moment, parliaments have no single model to base their institutional approach to the MDGs. To help evaluate effectiveness of different approaches, the IPU and the UN Millennium Campaign are undertaking a study of parliaments in seven countries (four in Africa, two in Asia and one in Europe) that will be released at the MDG summit in September 2010.
Initial findings show for example that Nigeria’s lower house has created a committee on the MDGs to enhance the parliament’s oversight role in MDG-related work. In 2007, this committee helped expose the fact that millions of dollars were not being properly invested because of excessive bureaucracy and “other government bottlenecks.” The committee has already sanctioned at least one provincial state for the absence of visible MDG projects on the ground.
Other preliminary findings from the case studies suggest the need for more consolidated reporting mechanisms geared towards formal political accountability, with much more detailed information needed for parliaments to meaningfully play their oversight role.
This last issue was debated extensively at a panel discussion in which many Speakers of Parliament, notably from Africa, voiced their concern that when the executive branches of their governments negotiate loan conditions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, they are not provided with the necessary information “upstream” to play an oversight role. They are then presented with a fait accompli upon which they are expected to only play a “rubber-stamping” role. A representative of the World Bank commented in this respect that: “You should not put the blame on the international financial institutions for keeping you out of the picture, but put pressure on your own finance ministries to keep you informed and better involve you in the process.” He insisted that the World Bank is not accountable to parliaments but to the executive branches of government and its Articles of Agreement prevent it from engaging in domestic political affairs.
In response, former Dutch Minister for Development Eveline Herfkens, who also sat on the Board of the World Bank, noted that “if you advise governments on their budget or on opening their economy to international competition, how much more political can you get?” Ms. Herfkens emphasized that there is still a grave “democratic deficit” in the lack of systematic reporting by government representatives on the Boards of the Bretton Woods institutions to national parliaments.
The challenge of increasing direct budget support
The discussion also emphasized the need for the donor community to overcome its tendency to impose on recipient countries their own conditionalities, reporting requirements and “pet projects,” which not only go against the spirit of “national ownership” but make this proliferation of disjointed and often conflicting donor requirements unmanageable for recipient country governments. The meeting thus added to the many calls for aid to be channelled directly into the recipient government’s general budget.
Speakers of Parliament from donor countries recognized that this was a major problem, but emphasized that their main challenge was the need to justify to their members of parliament that aid money is well spent. “Direct budget support cannot be equated to a blank check. This would not fly with the constituencies back home,” one Speaker noted. Here also strengthening the oversight role of parliaments in recipient countries on how national budgets are set and monitored can help increase political support for direct budget support in donor countries.
Speakers of Parliament pledge to step up their efforts in the next five years
At the close of the three-day meeting, Speakers of the world’s parliaments adopted by consensus a political declaration entitled “Securing global democratic accountability for the common good.” The declaration states that:
“[W]e all stand to gain from building a closer and more powerful relationship between parliaments and the United Nations. The Millennium Goals will not be met without a strong sense of accountability accompanying all efforts….Our parliaments can do more to ensure that development goals are taken into account in our daily work and translated into national programs and laws. Likewise, we encourage our parliaments, when they examine draft budgets and bills, to assess their impact on the fulfilment of the Goals. We pledge to support these efforts, monitor progress closely and do our part in meeting the targets by 2015.”
In terms of future orientations of work for the IPU “to bridge the democracy deficit in international relations,” the declaration encourages “the IPU to promote greater accountability and transparency of the Bretton Woods institutions. The IPU can do this by facilitating more direct interaction between parliaments and the Bretton Woods institutions, and by helping to strengthen the capacities of parliaments to exercise their role in the budget process and economic decision-making in general.”
Further information on the 3rd World Conference of Speakers of Parliament, including reports and the political declaration, can be found on the IPU website.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Millennium Campaign have produced a useful guide entitled Parliamentary Engagement with the Millennium Development Goals: A Manual for Use in Parliaments, 2010. The manual, which was circulated at the Conference, could be a useful tool for civil society organizations interested in working with their national parliaments in strengthening parliamentary engagement with the MDGs. It includes mechanisms and best practices for engaging the MDGs in the legislative process, the oversight function, budget scrutiny and strengthening the leadership role of parliamentarians in promoting better MDG policies and programmes.
The manual is available online.
This article is available in Spanish.