Despite past errors, the tides are turning internationally in favour of resurrecting support to political parties. This makes the timing of DIPD’s opening almost perfect, says the Director of the Danish Institute for Political Parties and Democracy, Bjørn Førde in this interview.
“There is growing recognition internationally, that support to political parties is the missing link in development assistance. It is, however, also the weakest link and perhaps the most important link in the development of a democratic society”, says Bjørn Førde.
Against this backdrop – and coupled with the recent developments in the Middle East – Førde suggests that DIPD couldn’t have seen the light of day at a better time.
“We should learn from past mistakes and build on them. If ambitions are matched with a realistic sense of what is possible, the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy has the potential to become a trusted partner of a relevant scale”, says the Director of DIPD.
All aid is in fact politically motivated
Bjørn Førde brings in a lifetime of experience in the field of development assistance. Coming to DIPD from a position as director of UNDP Governance Centre in Oslo, he has also served as the country representative for UNDP in Botswana, and before that he held the position as Secretary General of the Danish NGO MS/Danish Association for International Cooperation (today: ActionAid Denmark).
Building on these experiences, Førde explains that he has come to realize that, at the end of the day, development assistance is fundamentally political in nature. Politics matters! Is what many of us have come to realize. Recalling experiences from his time in UNDP and MS, he explains:
“When MS sent people out to help locals build a school or teach pupils, we didn’t call it support to democratic development, but in fact that’s what it was. We depended on finding counterparts that shared our democratic aspirations of how societies should be shaped”, otherwise we failed.
Leveling the playing field
Considered extremely difficult and sensitive, support to political parties was for years virtually non-existing in the overseas development assistance agenda on a global scale. Even in recent years, those who have tried have often failed; either because activities were too short-lived or suffered from the lack of proper assessments that often follows ideologically based support. Adding to this, Førde goes on:
“In UNDP, we tried to promote the concept of creating a level playing field, but we often hit a brick wall. Governments would not allow support to political parties on a multiparty basis, because they feared that this would strengthen the opposition”, explains Førde.
2010, however, marked a significant mood swing internationally in terms of support to parties and OECD set up guidelines for such support, which forms the basis for DIPD.
Bjørn Førde’s mission is to support the development of a level playing field for all political actors in a given community, and to find and support the drivers for change in a given country.
“It is up to the Danish parties to find their partners. But the institute can help screen and assess the context around potential candidates”, he says.
A centre of excellence
Despite the complexity of the task and with all the pitfalls in mind, Bjørn Førde’s vision is for DIPD to become the hub for Danish support to political parties:
“I would like to see DIPD developing into a hub, through which Danish expertise in this field may be channelled”, he says.
Stressing the importance of engaging Danish political parties, Førde points put that small parties need not turn into small NGOs themselves to engage. Rather, it is Bjørn Førde’s vision that DIPD should serve as a centre of excellence and secretarial function when political parties engage.
Similarly, he points to the fact that other Danish and international actors with relevant expertise should be included in a joint effort to develop realistic and yet result-oriented models for support. The call should also include international actors in this field, he says:
“DIPD can play a crucial role in coordinating Danish efforts with similar initiatives funded and carried out by other actors. This will be key, or else we risk duplicating efforts, and worse yet, we risk jeopardizing efforts to engrain local ownership and leadership in all activities.”
Pitfalls – and how to avoid them
The Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD) builds on a wealth of experience – among others hard-earned lessons learnt in other countries.
In Norway, the Norwegian set up for support to parties has been nicknamed ‘the ‘travel agency for MPs’. Asked how he anticipates avoiding this from happening in Denmark, Bjørn Førde leans forward and says:
“All my professional expertise is built on the concept of meeting people and creating collaboration across cultures all over the world. In my experience you cannot exchange views and share experiences among people without moving around. So travel is good in my view – provided it serves a purpose.”
Looking for that purpose in each and every activity will be up to Bjørn Førde and his team at DIPD and the board of DIPD who approves activities for funding. In the first phase of DIPD’s existence, this will undoubtedly become the ultimate test any project proposal will have to pass in order to get the approval of the board of DIPD.
On a grander scale, the ultimate test for DIPD will be – in the words of Bjørn Førde:
“I hope we may prove that support to political parties and multiparty efforts has a natural place in the Danish toolbox for support to democratic development. I also hope that we may prove the Norwegians wrong and show that what didn’t work in Norway will work in Denmark.”