PAI successfully bid and won a contract to conduct an evaluation of the Democracy Programme of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The Democracy Programme ran from 2013 to 2017. This was the first external evaluation of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s democracy work and it was a privilege to contribute to their work by undertaking this analysis. The evaluation was conducted by Rob Watson, an evaluation expert with over thirty years’ experience of evaluating international development projects and programmes.
The purpose of the evaluation was set out in the Terms of Reference, namely to assess the relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability of the support provided by the Commonwealth Secretariat in meeting the needs of its member countries. The study sought to provide an independent opinion on the design, performance and results of the Democracy Programme and make recommendations from both the strategic and operational perspectives to optimise the use of resources in achieving sustainable impact.
Findings and lessons learned
Overall the democratic governance work of the Commonwealth Secretariat is highly appreciated and relevant to the needs of member countries as well as being a high priority of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s donors. The Commonwealth’s values and principles, as set out in its Charter, underline its commitment to democratic governance. The priority to support member countries to improve democratic governance is as relevant now as it will be going forward.
The high quality of staff and consultants has been praised by member countries on the whole, and the Commonwealth Secretariat enjoys a high level of appreciation for their professionalism and commitment. There is broad appreciation of the high level of competence and professionalism of staff and consultants, and the supportive approach applied, the multi-cultural teams and access to regional and international good practice and expertise.
The demand for support for improvements in democratic governance is clear. According to Freedom House, 31 Commonwealth member countries are ranked free, 18 partly free and four not free. In terms of political rights, 14 are ranked higher than the average, leaving over two-thirds of member countries below average. 70% of Commonwealth countries scored lower than the average for respect for the rule of law. 92% were above the average in terms of disappearances, conflict and terrorism; 62.50% were more un-safe than the average, 30% were above average in terms of human freedom and 73% were above average in terms of women’s fear for their safety and security. This research shows a clear need for support to member countries for improved democratic governance.
The need for the promotion of democracy could be improved with a clearer shared concept of democratic governance within the Commonwealth Secretariat, better local analysis of the problems to be addressed in context with a results orientation and ‘joined-up working’ rather than ‘one-off interventions’ to manage political processes with a range of actors.
At the heart of any approach to promoting democratic governance are the values and principles that underpin how government functions (or should function). It is important in the Commonwealth Secretariat’s definition of democratic governance that the values of the Charter and related agreements be brought to the fore, not only what the values are, but what it means to implement them in a country context. How does government become more democratic? What do the concepts of accountability mean for how governments in member countries function?
When revising the Strategic Plan, there is considerable merit in using the key values in the Charter as the ‘yard stick’ for measuring progress – to put up the principles of transparency, accountability, inclusiveness and responsiveness – and to use the approach of requiring staff to compile success stories or good practices to gather and share impact from member countries.
The Commonwealth Secretariat has made many and varied contributions to promoting democracy among member countries. Effectiveness can be seen particularly where there has been a sustained and regular engagement. The Commonwealth Secretariat’s aim for a clearer and more demonstrable impact on democratic governance needs a greater focus on results and better implementation of the strategy through management decision-making and linking staff performance to strategic priorities.
The main added value of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work in the context of other actors is its trusted position and reach and its access to experience and expertise in similar contexts. The Commonwealth Secretariat could build on these to develop its offer and demonstrate the value of its work. It is precisely these facilitating, convening, catalytic information-sharing roles that come to the fore here – as a basis for addressing real problems in context.
Recommendations were made for improvements in the key areas of developing a definition and vision for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work on improving democratic governance as well as internal planning, management, monitoring and demonstrating results at a country context. The evaluation report and its findings and recommendations were accepted by staff with appreciation at a validation meeting prior to the process being finalised.
The evaluation was led by a three-person team at PAI and supported by the Evaluation Section and other staff at the Strategy, Portfolio and Partnerships Division (SPPD) of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
A mixed method evaluation was applied to suit the needs set out in the ToRs, driven by an inclusive approach to promote discussion and ownership of the evaluation findings. Research and data gathering involved primarily qualitative methods, but quantitative data was also gathered through a short online questionnaire that was completed by 47 respondents. Overall a participatory and engaging methodology was used to explore and un-pack concepts and terms and to understand the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work in the light of their context and the needs of member countries.
A document review preceded initial interviews with Commonwealth Secretariat staff in London. A short survey was distributed to member countries and other stakeholders and field visits were undertaken to Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Lesotho as well as Skype interviews totalling 117 interviews in over thirty countries. Data analysis and two validation meetings with staff and leadership at the Commonwealth Secretariat finalised the research process.