Party Politics and Democracy: A Cross-Road between Academics and Practitioners? (Academic Panel)

International donors spend more than US$10 billion on democracy promotion each year. Yet, many democracy promotion programmes are ineffective. One reason for this is that they rely on a limited evidence base: academic research provides policy makers and practitioners with scant guidance on which types of democracy promotion work best, under what conditions, and why. This problem persists because of a gap between research and practice. There is remarkably little interaction between those who conduct research on democracy and those who work to promote it. Democracy promotion is a sensitive area, so organizations that engage in it are wary of opening up to researchers that they do not know. Meanwhile, academic researchers tend to gravitate towards analysis of democratization, rather than democracy promotion. This conflates the challenges of democracy promotion with the challenges of democratization, moving the focus away from the strategies and options available to aid agencies and other organizations active in this area.

This panel examines how researchers, policy-makers and practitioners can work together to overcome this gap. In doing so, it includes perspectives from academics and practitioners, and most notably those working on the ground (rather than at a desk at ‘HQ’). The emphasis is on party assistance, one of the cornerstones of democracy promotion given the importance of parties and party system institutionalization for the survival of Democracy.


Susan Dodsworth, Research Fellow, International Development Department, University of Birmingham
Ten challenges in democracy support – and how to overcome them
(co-authored with Nic Cheeseman)
Democracy supporters face tough times. To better understand why supporting democracy overseas is so hard – and getting harder – we identify ten challenges in this field. These are the challenges of: (i) difficult cases; (ii) authoritarian backlash; (iii) adapting to context; (iv) confronting politics; (v) managing uncertainty; (vi) unintended side-effects; (vii) a tight funding environment; (viii) defining and demonstrating success; (ix) competing priorities; and – exacerbating all the rest, (x) a limited evidence base. We identify several strategies that policy makers and practitioners can use to overcome these challenges. All require better bridges between research, policy and practice, so we offer concrete suggestions about how such bridges might be built.

Pilar Domingo, Senior Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute
Revisiting international support to democratisation: Breaking down thematic and analytical silos in international policy and practice
Drawing on applied political economy and ‘adaptive and politically informed’ approaches, this paper reflects on the need to revisit support to democratisation and to different component parts of the political system, with a view to advancing more inclusive politics. Critically, there is a need to break through some of the thematic and analytic silos that have characterised international support to democracy in the past, and more recent thinking on post-conflict political transition processes. This includes barriers between political party assistance and parliamentary strengthening, as well as those between democracy assistance and support for the rule of law.

Emil Atanasovski, Country Representative – Western Balkans, Westminster Foundation for Democracy
Competing goals in party support: Winning elections or improving democratic governance? Experiences from the Western Balkans
The ultimate purpose of political parties is to win elections, but they are also an essential part of any well-functioning democracy. This is reflected in the assistance provided by democracy supporters. Much of the support provided to political parties is designed to assist them in winning elections. This paper examines This paper examines how that shapes the impact of party support, which often achieves short term impacts but fails to deliver in the longer term.  Could more explicit support for improving governance, transparency and inclusiveness prove better for long term democracy promotion? Could a different approach in assessing and providing support to political parties inform better practise?

Chair: Graeme Ramshaw, Research Director, Westminster Foundation for Democracy

Organizer: Dr Lise Storm, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, United Kingdom