Strengthening African democracies

03 June 2013
Democracy in Africa Research Unit director, Prof Bob Mattes.
Democracy in Africa Research Unit director, Prof Bob Mattes.

Collaborative social science research undertaken by UCT's Democracy in Africa Research Unit (DARU) is helping strengthen African democracies by amplifying the voice of public opinion and building legislative capacity across the continent, according to the unit's director, Professor Bob Mattes.

DARU is housed within UCT's Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR) which comprises several research units dedicated to promoting systematic, evidence-based, interdisciplinary social science research, and building research capacity across Africa. CSSR units operate in several fields of study, most notably in globalisation, industrialisation, development, poverty, public health and, in the case of DARU, democratisation.

DARU is currently involved in two major research undertakings across Africa: the Afrobarometer and the African Legislature Project. The former comprises a broad consortium of members and serves as a barometer of public opinion in 20 African countries, while the latter investigates just how and why African legislatures function as they do, and the factors that enable some to play a significant role in democratic governance.

International donors

The Afrobarometer initiative was started by Mattes, Ghanaian academic E. Gyimah-Boadi, and American-based academic Michael Bratton in 2000, with funding from a variety of international donors. The rationale was to create an independent, non-partisan research project that measures the social, political, and economic atmosphere in Africa.

In the initial phase of operation, Afrobarometer surveys were conducted in 12 partner countries, and this rapidly grew to 20 participating countries. "The surveys are repeated on a regular cycle, and as a standard set of questions is posed, countries can be systematically compared and trends in public attitudes can be tracked over time. In the current phase we have expanded to 35 countries, and we now cover several North African countries as well."

Holding governments to account

Mattes explains that results are shared with decision-makers, policy advocates, civic educators, journalists, researchers, donors and investors, as well as with the general populace. He believes this knowledge is crucial to ensuring that governments have a better understanding of what their citizens want, and that legislatures and civil society are better able to hold governments accountable.

Afrobarometer currently has three core partner organisations actively involved on the continent in conducting Afrobarometer-related studies in different regions. These are the Centre for the Development of Democracy in Ghana, the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi and the Institute for Empirical Research on Political Economy in Benin.

Its two support partners are Michigan State University and UCT's DARU. Michigan State manages the website, data management and archiving, while DARU is responsible for capacity building. In this regard, DARU has been running Afrobarometer Summer Schools for participants from partner countries.

"We offer a very intensive set of courses concerning various aspects of African politics, as well as research design and an introduction to social statistics. We also provide guidance on how to write a research paper, and so on," says Mattes.

With assistance from the VC's Strategic Fund, the school is now called the CSSR / Afrobarometer Summer School and offers fellowships to 'non-Afrobarometer' scholars from social science departments across Southern Africa. The next one is scheduled for January and February 2014.

Adding value

Mattes says the Summer School's target audience can be divided into two main constituencies: "Political scientists, who understand the literature but don't have any quantitative skills, and social scientists who may have excellent quantitative research skills but don't have any experience with the key issues and theories that lie behind the data they collect. However, we also enrol younger academics who need help on both scores."

He believes the CSSR / Afrobarometer Summer School has added value because it also offers substantive courses in special-interest content areas. "Among others, we have offered short courses on democratisation, participation, traditional leadership, legislatures, and the presidency in Africa. Participants have access to Afrobarometer and other data, and use it to answer relevant research questions."

"DARU's objectives here are to build the skills of a new generation of African scholars who can ask meaningful questions about their own societies and then have the skills to make use of the available data to answer them. We want this knowledge to be disseminated across the continent in such a way that it becomes a regular part of political debate, as well as used as a normal part of the political science curricula at universities across the region."

Mattes maintains the Afrobarometer has demonstrated that it is a force in democratic politics. "It both reflects and informs public opinion. More and more leaders are aware of it, and governments now feel they at least have to respond to our results. Ultimately it helps make governments become more accountable."

African Legislatures Project

Based at DARU, the African Legislatures Project (ALP) was modelled on the Afrobarometer project, but involves a wider range of different types of research and is run in collaboration with the Center for Legislative Studies at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, USA.

"We looked back at Afrobarometer and said that while we now know a lot about public opinion in African countries, that is only half the story of democratisation," Mattes says.

"The other half is whether Africa's political institutions have developed capacity and autonomy, or remain ineffective and inefficient. The legislature is probably the most important of these. It is given the unique task of making the laws, representing public opinion, and holding the executive to account through oversight. That is a very tall order, since these tasks often compete with one another."

Gauging performance

In order to understand the key success factors that determine a legislature's efficacy, ALP has developed a range of quantitative and qualitative measures of legislative performance. These enable scholars and watchdog organisations to gauge their legislature's performance, both in relation to other legislatures, and over a significant period.

"We have already found some very interesting differences in those profiles. Some African legislatures are starting to reform and become more effective political players. The hypothesis was that institutional reforms are being driven by a group of younger, more educated MPs, and we've been able to support this hypothesis through surveys of MP attitudes," says Mattes.

The ALP also tracks the legislation and collects evidence about the performance of the key parliamentary committees in each country. "To strengthen democracy, we need to develop more autonomous and effective institutions which counterbalance the executive. In that way they hold the executive to greater standards of oversight. What we're trying to do is to figure out which key factors help to explain why particular legislatures have become more effective and have institutionalised more than others."

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