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5 + 1 questions on measuring the outcomes of democracy support

Interview with our Director of Programmes, Jonna Haapanen.

How do you gather information on the achievements of Demo Finland’s work?

As political parties are major gatekeepers when it comes to democracy, an important part of our work is strengthening the skills and knowledge of those active in political parties, especially their female and young members and persons with disabilities. In developing democracies, our work generally deals with what it is like to be a politician, what democratic practices are, and how decision-making can be developed. In some programmes, participants also include parliamentarians.

For all the trainings we ask for feedback, not only regarding the training itself but also its impact. We ask the participants how they estimate their ability to use what they have learned in the future and whether they have obtained knowledge on how to improve their own performance as politicians and strengthen co-operation with others. When participants engage in reflecting their own progress in an interview or survey, the feedback becomes a part of the learning process for the participants themselves.

In some programmes, it has also been possible to use tests to measure the increase in the knowledge of the participants. However, school-style tests are not always applicable. One of the data collection methods that we use is group discussions where the participants reflect on what they have learned, and in exchange, by following these discussions, we get information about the impact of the training.

When participants engage in reflecting their own progress in an interview or survey, the feedback becomes a part of the learning process for the participants themselves.

Later on, we aim to follow-up on the progress of the participants to follow, for example, their advances within their respective party systems and decision-making. In some contexts, the follow-up is easier than in others, depending on factors such as whether the participants can be reached online.

If the project includes supporting dialogue platforms of political parties, we monitor, among other things, what kinds of joint statements or other initiatives the parties eventually produce in the platforms. A concrete joint statement or legal initiative is preceded by persistent long-term work and is the result of numerous facilitated meetings, building best practices for co-operation and trust-building. However, when this work bears fruit, it is a sign to the whole society that decision-makers are able to negotiate issues instead of arguing.

Moreover, we use a method called outcome harvesting to measure the achievements of our work. With outcome harvesting, we can reflect and look back on the support given and the subsequent changes to review and verify outcomes. From time to time, it also enables us to map out changes that we did not necessarily expect.

All data is collected by our local partners. We always co-operate with a local organisation that is an experienced actor in their sector that understands the political context of the country and the relationships between political actors. In addition, external evaluations are conducted on our programmes regularly.

Democracy support often takes place in challenging contexts. Are the outcomes always measurable?

These joint statements and other initiatives mentioned above are, of course measurable. Similarly, the increased knowledge of the participants can be measured to some extent. However, measuring democracy support is difficult as political situations and the roles and space for political actors varies, for example, depending on election periods. In addition, parties consist of individual politicians whose influence within the party varies.

In monitoring our work, we balance between what is, on the one hand, the individual development of a political party member and what is, on the other hand, the party’s function as an institution. We are often able to redirect the activities when necessary. If, through monitoring, it is noticed, for example, that the knowledge and capacity of female politicians are increased in the training, but the political parties do not take gender equality and women’s participation on the agenda in their institution, we can re-evaluate who are the key actors to bring about change and how to proceed. In many countries, we also work directly with political parties, and assess the policies the parties adopt.

At best, democracy support produces qualitative results, which can be difficult to summarise in statistics or numerical changes. It is often a matter of changing the attitudes of politicians, for example, towards other political groups. When successful, these changes produce more democratically minded decision-makers.

To whom and how often are the results reported?

Accountability to those who put their time and resources into our projects is the most important thing. In terms of the learning, it is essential for participants to understand that they are not the only ones who have learned something new about democracy and for example, their political competitors have received the same information and lessons. That is a good starting point for promoting changes together.

Our funding comes from public sources, such as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. Thus, we are entitled to report annually to our funders in great detail about our programmes in terms of activities, achievements and short- and long-term outcomes in relation to our strategic objectives of strengthening multi-party co-operation and increasing the inclusivity of political parties. Our work contributes to strengthening democracy as a part of Finland’s foreign and development policy.

Of course, we also want to tell the Finnish political parties, the owners of Demo Finland, of the achievements and benefits of democracy support. It also strengthens the Finnish multi-party democracy that through Demo Finland political actors with different approaches and ideologies can work in co-operation to promote international democracy support.

Demo Finland’s annual report lists results from the programme countries. For example, the democratic skills of young politicians have increased and the self-confidence of female politicians has improved. Why are these important results in democracy work?

It all comes down to a very human question of whether aspiring young politicians or female politicians trust that they can become good political decision-makers, whether they dare to contribute and take initiatives within their own party and promote, for example, gender equality or participation of young people in decision-making. It requires knowledge and understanding of how political decision-making works in one’s country, how the parties co-operate, what inclusive democracy means and how the country’s political and governance system works. This know-how and understanding create prerequisites to political participation and working towards political goals such as inclusion of underrepresented groups.

Finland has a well-established and state-supported political party system, where it is possible for parties to develop the skills of their members. In many other countries this is not the case as no public funding for political parties is available. Impartial and transparent public support is therefore a relevant element of functioning democracy. Nevertheless, political actors here too need to trust in their own competences and networks in order to obtain knowledge and skills required to bring about change.

Competent politicians do not fall from the sky into political parties and decision-making positions.

Democracy needs democrats, but competent politicians do not fall from the sky into political parties and decision-making positions. Politicians are often ordinary people who have decided to get involved and change their societies. Therefore, their own skills and knowledge are the most important asset they have. In this regard, the development of self-confidence, competence and ability to co-operate is essential.

The political parties’ joint statements and other initiatives are small signs that in countries where parties may not have had any contact with each other before it has been possible to create a spirit of co-operation and promote democracy and peace. If we think about the political history of countries like Ethiopia, Myanmar or Zambia, peaceful co-operation between those with different political views does not necessarily have a long tradition. In such contexts, getting political parties around the same table might already be a significant result.

In some countries where Demo Finland and its partners implement programmes, the state of democracy has deteriorated in recent years. Doesn’t democracy support have the desired impact after all?

That’s a good question. Of course, it must be taken into consideration that we and our partners are not able to focus on the development of the entire political system of a country and we cannot reach all actors in it. Demo Finland operates with relatively small resources, and usually a specific area has been selected for the projects: for example, political parties at the municipal level in a certain area or a specific group, such as persons with disabilities, or a specific topic, such as parliamentary oversight of the extractive industry.

For example, in Myanmar, the army carried out a brutal military coup a couple of years ago. Before the coup, more than three hundred state- and region-level politicians had participated in the democracy school courses organised by Demo Finland and its partners on a multi-party basis, in a rather challenging fragile democracy. The knowledge and skills the participants gained at a time is something that remains despite the changed circumstances. The day the military rule is over, democracy needs to be restored and rebuilt and it is important that when the time comes, skilled individuals are available to promote democratic change.

A change in attitudes in favour of democratic ways of working is a long-term investment, the impact of which can be examined only later on.

It is worth noting another perspective to the state of democracy. Nowadays, many international research and democracy indices and rankings are published, and these play an important role when developing and targeting democracy support. However, it would also be good to pay attention to the data collection methods behind the various metrics.

Each individual indicator may be based on the assessments of one individual researcher or journalist. Despite their relevant experience, the individual assessors may not be active in politics or parties themselves, or have an understanding of, for example, the views of all underrepresented groups. For many reasons, sometimes even for security reasons, it is also not known who these assessors and producers of country-specific data are. Thus, from time to time, it can be difficult to assess how versatile, detailed or diversified the report data is.

It is true, that quite often, international reports on the overall state of democracy in a country look different than, the data collected from the participants of Demo Finland’s programmes. The results of our programme may be relatively positive even in countries that are in general terms undergoing rather undemocratic development. Our activities mostly target small groups of actors, sometimes just aspiring politicians, and therefore a change in attitudes in favour of democratic ways of working is a long-term investment, the impact of which can be examined only later on. However, with a relatively small amount of money, an actor like Demo Finland is able to cost-effectively influence people’s thinking about the importance and benefits of multi-party democracy in the longer term.

What result of Demo Finland’s work are you particularly proud of?

In many countries we have achieved permanent co-operation between political parties, and it is no longer something new. In Zambia, for example, it is now taken for granted that political women’s organisations co-operate across party lines, regardless of the relationship between the government and the opposition.

In addition, the active participation, programmatic development of guidelines and framework as well as smooth co-operation of political parties in the sphere of disability inclusion and inclusive decision-making in Kenya, is truly something to be proud of. Even during intense election campaigning, political parties were able to co-operate constructively around these topics. It gives hope for better quality, more democratic and inclusive political parties in the future.

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