How to Note on Electoral Assistance


This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Sir Stephen O’Brien

Speech by PUSS Stephen O’Brien to launch DFID/FCO “How to Note on Electoral Assistance”

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very glad to be here to launch this joint DFID and Foreign Office ‘How to’ Note on Electoral Assistance.

Democratic Politics and Development

Democratic politics play a vital role in the fight against poverty. It is politics that determine how a society makes choices, how competing interests are mediated and how resources are allocated. That is why the UK puts support to inclusive, democratic politics at the very heart of our development efforts.
Part of the definition of being poor is to have no power -
no power to shape your own life;
no power to make sure government policy meets your needs;
no power to hold your leaders to account for what they do.

Moreover, people want democracy. In a recent poll, for instance, four out of five Nigerians chose democracy over military government or religious system as the best form of government for their country.

But democratic politics help deliver other development objectives too.
The economist Paul Collier has found evidence that regular, free and fair elections lead to better policy and governance. Morten Halperin, in his book the ‘Democracy Advantage’, sets out convincing evidence that citizens of democracies live longer, healthier, and more productive lives than those in autocracies. And Amartya Sen has shown that democracies also tend to have more macroeconomic and political stability and are better able to respond to devastating disasters, such as famines.

Inclusive politics are also vital in post-conflict situations. Lasting peace and stable states cannot be built if the problems of political exclusion and the legitimacy of governments are not considered. 

The parties to a political settlement need to be the right parties. That’s why, after the conflict in Nepal, we put so much effort into broadening the social compact by ensuring that excluded groups had a voice at the table during the peace process and that the percentage of female members of parliament rose from six to thirty-three.

In Sierra Leone we see another example of the vital role that elections can play after conflict. Although the conflict lines still exist, the 2007 elections allowed a peaceful change in the governing party without rending the fabric of society. 

For all these reasons, the UK government is committed to strengthening its work to empower citizens to hold their governments to account through democratic elections.

Governance and development

Support for democratic politics is just one part of our efforts to strengthen governance in our partner countries.

As the Prime Minister said his speech on ‘One World Conservatism’ in July, “Countries are pulled out of poverty by a golden thread that starts with the absence of war and the presence of good governance, property rights and the rule of law, effective public services and strong civil institutions, free and fair trade, and open markets.”

Or as Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel said this year: “Good governance and accountability will determine Africa’s future. The quality of governance is a key determinant in political and social stability, equitable economic growth, and poverty reduction.”

Governance is a complicated concept which is used to mean many things. Let me set out what I mean by governance. First, I mean the critical institutions which help people hold their governments to account and which strengthen the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the people - the parliament and the judiciary, auditors and ombudsmen. Second, I mean the institutions that enable a state to deliver for its people - to provide a stable and predictable environment for the private sector, to deliver health and education whether directly or through non-governmental providers, to provide policing and security for everybody.  Third, I mean the underlying structures and relationships which govern the way citizens interact with the state and with each other and which are so critical to the opportunities they have to lift themselves out of poverty.

Without the development of these governance institutions and underlying structures, we will not see significant wealth creation and we will not see sustainable progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.

The Elections ‘How to’ Note

Now let me return to elections in particular. The ‘How to’ Note we are launching today sets out how the UK will support elections in our partner countries drawing on lessons of experience. I commend it to you. Let me just pick out a few of the key principles that will guide us.

First, understanding of the context - historical, social and political. The UK will never impose any particular model of democratic governance on another country. All we can do is support processes that are already at work within a country. We will seek to work with the grain, helping others to nudge forward change. We need to be pragmatic. In countries where the economy is growing fast without full democracy it makes sense to build on this progress while working to strengthen accountability. Economic development can help democracies to emerge and be sustained.

Second, we will take an electoral cycle approach, providing long-term support to democratic processes not just for short-term election events. And, as Jeremy Browne has stressed, we will work with a broad range of partners - parliaments, political parties and civil society groups, as well as electoral management bodies. We also recognize that democratic practice takes a long time to develop. In the UK it’s taken us some 800 years to get where we are today - and we are still learning - about coalition government for example!

Third, we will take what Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State, has described as an “integrated approach”. We will work across government to make the best use of our development and diplomatic resources. That is why DFID and the Foreign Office produced this ‘How to’ Note jointly and that is why Jeremy and I are up here together. But the integrated approach is also about working in broader partnerships: with governmental and non-governmental actors, with other development agencies, and with important bodies such as the African Union.
Fourth, we will put greater emphasis on identifying the potential risks around elections and working to mitigate them. The Kenyan Finance Minister estimated that the violence around the 2007 elections cost his country’s economy about one billion dollars. And the direct human cost was also huge with over 1,000 deaths and more than 300,000 people displaced from their homes. So, for example, in Nigeria we are working with national and regional authorities to identify potential hotspots of violence in the vital upcoming elections.

And fifth, the Note emphasises a theme that now runs through all of our development efforts - demonstrating value for money. Let us not pretend that this is straightforward - building a democracy is not the same as building a road. But we owe it to the British taxpayer to improve the way we demonstrate the efficiency and the effectiveness of our support to elections.

We are making progress already
Let me assure you that we are already making progress. Over the past four years, DFID has provided support to elections in 25 countries with a combined electorate of over 600 million.  And we have seen the benefits: in increased voter registration and election turnouts; greater acceptance of results; and a trend towards wider public support for democracy. For example, in the ten years since the first round of Afrobarometer surveys in 1999, the level of engagement in political discussions has increased 11%, the number of citizens who know who is their MP has increased 21%, and the number of people attending community meetings has increased by 17%.

Let me give you some examples of the different types of support that the UK has provided, support that has made a real difference to the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.

In some cases, we provide support for democratic processes themselves. In Bangladesh, for example, DFID was part of a major international community effort to support the 2008 elections. DFID support focused on improving voter registration and we directly helped around 14 million people to get the chance to vote. Voter turnout was around 85% in a free, fair and credible process.

In many countries we also provide support for democratic institutions. In Uganda we are pioneering a Deepening Democracy Programme which is an example of the electoral cycle approach in action. Working with other donors, we provide support to:
• the Electoral Commission, to improve competence and greater independence;
• parliament, to strengthen it as an institution, enabling it to hold the executive properly to account;
• political parties, to build capacity and improve internal democracy;
• and the media, encouraging balanced and fair reporting.

Finally, we are increasingly helping citizens to engage in public life. Take Ghana, for example. Here, we funded a project in advance of the 2008 elections to raise the profile of gender issues with political parties. A televised meeting of party leaders discussing their gender policies galvanised widespread media coverage and public interest. Several hundred women leaders were trained to campaign on gender issues. This project supported a movement which led to some impressive results. For the first time a women was elected Speaker of the national parliament. Of 32 ministerial portfolios, 8 are now headed by women. And crucially, the benefits are already evident with a stronger government focus on maternal mortality and girls.

Going forward

Guided by this Electoral Assistance ‘How to’ Note we will strengthen our efforts to improve democratic governance in our partner countries. We want our practice to continue to evolve. We have posted this Note on our external websites and we would welcome your comments and suggestions. We are also working with other donors in the OECD to try to improve the impact of the overall international efforts to support elections and democracy.

Before closing, let me echo Jeremy’s thanks to you all for being here today and to ERIS for sponsoring the launch of the How to Note. This agenda lies right at the heart of the coalition’s commitment to help citizens in the developing world take control of their own lives.

I am honoured to be part of this effort to which DFID, the Foreign Office and many of you in this room are dedicated. This is a difficult, complicated agenda but the rewards of success will be great - a better life for millions of people and a safer, more prosperous world for Britain.

Updates to this page

Published 14 December 2010