Parliaments: Fit for Purpose for Sustainable Human Development?

18 Feb 2016

The United Nations Development Programme works to strengthen parliaments in around 70 countries.  This is done in association with our support for Inclusive Political Processes: civic engagement, constitution-making, the elections cycle, political party development, and women’s political participation and leadership.  Agenda 2030 brings a new focus to ensuring that these processes, and the institutions to which they give rise – above all parliaments - are “fit for purpose” to ensure that people see the benefit of the sustainable development goals.

Within the general rules set by the law and the constitution, all parliaments should now be considering the adequacy of their rules and procedures. The responsibility for this task rests with all parliamentarians, all political parties and other groups from which members are drawn, and with the senior members of the parliamentary administration.  It requires them to consider a number of questions, including the following:

* Is parliament able to play a role in resolving conflict and promoting national dialogue and inclusiveness?

* Can parliament defend the public interest and pursue the common good above all else?  For example, can it ensure that individual interests do not exercise excessive influence in its deliberations?  Do members disclose as a matter of course their financial interests and those of their families, and is the institution required to act generally in a way that is transparent to voters?

* Has thought been given to ways in which to overcome the silo mentality which often arises in parliamentary – and other portfolio-based administrations, so as to properly reflect the inter-sectoral nature of the new development goals?  Are the goals institutionalized in the terms of reference of all committees so that they may be pursued coherently?  Is sufficient time set aside in each parliament for MPs to discuss and understand the goals and the crucial role that they must play in monitoring their achievement?

* Is there a mechanism for parliament to build national ownership of the goals, including by requiring the government to present for debate and discussion a national sustainable plan, crafted in an inclusive and participatory manner, including through public hearings with civil society, and in line with the international human rights framework?

* Does parliament have a way to ensure that laws and budgetary provisions promote national sustainable development planning?  Does it have procedures and powers that require the government to report at least annually to it on the implementation of the plan?  Does it have effective ways to gather reliable feedback from constituents to help assess progress on the ground, where it matters most?

* Does the work of parliament sufficiently and systematically incorporate inputs from civil society so that MPs do not become isolated or captive only to official sources of information?

* Does parliament adequately represent, and foster the participation of, women, and does the electoral law sufficiently provide ways in which equal representation of men and women in parliament can be achieved?

* Can parliament do more than look to national averages when it considers progress toward the goals?  Does it have effective ways to look at how the most vulnerable, excluded, and disadvantaged in society are faring?  Can it analyse budgets at a sufficient level of detail to ensure that there exist strong national capacities for data collection and disaggregation, including by gender, age, and minority group and health status?

* Can parliament fully discharge its roles as the custodian of the national budget – including the contribution that comes from development assistance - and as the lawmaker for all matters, including financial conduct?  How can it work to increase national resources, including by combating corruption, revenue leakage, and illicit financial flows that sap the country’s ability to make development progress?  Is it equipped to strengthen the environment for private sector investment, and to examine the quality of international agreements – trade-related and otherwise - reached by the government?

The traditional MP role includes, as we all know, law-making; representation; and oversight.  But Agenda 2030 requires a development organisation such as ours to ensure that we strengthen those roles not in an abstract sense but by clear reference to development outcomes.  And it calls for supporting MPs to become champions of peaceful and sustainable human development, promoting inclusive, effective, accountable governance that respects human rights and the rule of law.  

They can do this in their various parliamentary roles, including:

* internal discussions about policy and procedure within political parties or other groups

* speeches, questions, votes in the plenary

* interactions with the media, including new and social media;

* alliances with civil society organisations to collaborate on issues of interest and to broaden MPs’ information base

* opportunities taken by MPs to promote dialogue and resolve conflict on matters of national, local, or policy concern; and

* speeches outside parliament, in MPs’ role as civic leaders in whose opinions people take a special interest.

UNDP is proud to be working with the Hluttaw in Myanmar and in parliaments around the world to address the important challenge of helping parliaments become fit for purpose as development actors.

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