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Cultivating a culture of evidence champions in Parliament

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Legislating can be a complex, arduous undertaking, but new research shows that laws passed based on evidence are more impactful and could accelerate development in Africa. Writes Mariama Keita- Thiero

Earlier this year, Farmers’ Union of Malawi members gathered outside the Parliament building in the capital city, Lilongwe, to present a petition for addressing illegal seed supply to farmers in the country.

The Bill eventually passed, having been stalled since 2019.

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“We had to show evidence and build trust with the government,” says Derrick Kapolo, head of the agribusiness at FUM.

It took years of advocacy with the government and other non-state actors, including the Association of Business Journalists-ABJ, and using data on fake seed supply, to pass the Bill.

Agriculture is Malawi’s key driver of economic growth. It represents 38 per cent of its GDP and employs 80 per cent of the labour force; therefore, the law’s passage will significantly affect the well-being of a large segment of the population.

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Evidence is important for parliamentarians to make sound laws. It enables MPs to effectively represent the rights of citizens, ensure good governance, and foster democracy and the rule of law.

Malawi is one of several countries in Africa whose parliaments have established a track record of relying on strong evidence before making laws.

Other African countries include Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana, according to the newly released book, African Parliaments Volume 2: Systems of Evidence in Practice edited by Linda Khumalo; Caitlin Blaser Mapitsa; Candice Morkel; Steven Masvaure; and Matshidiso Kgothatso Semela.

Evidence is important for parliamentarians to make sound laws. It enables MPs to effectively represent the rights of citizens, ensure good governance, and foster democracy and the rule of law.

Too often, however, evidence is inaccessible because of tangible barriers such as paywalled databases and websites, as well as intangible ones such as when data is presented in opaque and difficult-to-examine ways.

A Nigeria-based organization BudgIT has very good examples of simplifying complex budget data, making it accessible to the general public.

In 2021, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) piloted research in African countries to explore how elected representatives and their staff source and utilize evidence to make policies.

Titled Assessment, Analysis, and Development of Tools to Strengthen the Use of Evidence in Policies and Legislation (TSUE), the research recommended cultivating “Evidence Champions’’ to foster accountability and greater development outcomes.

Too often, however, evidence is inaccessible because of tangible barriers such as paywalled databases and websites, as well as intangible ones such as when data is presented in opaque and difficult-to-examine ways.

Countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Malawi are doing just that and could be models for others.

Six good practices are essential for cultivating the use of evidence champions.

Identifying and develop evidence champions

Parliaments need to establish open forums to understand the profiles of parliamentarians and research assistants, and to discuss the barriers that inhibit evidence use. They also need to clarify expectations and intended policy outcomes. Identifying evidence producers, strengthening their understanding of their responsibilities, and supporting evidence champions in promoting good practices will improve legislative decision-making.

Parliamentary committees are in the best position to raise widespread awareness of evidence champions. The Malawi government’s swift passage of the seed Bill is a good example of how evidence champions within parliament can support the legislative process.

Establishing a parliamentary caucus on evidence-informed oversight and decision-making

Political will is needed to ensure evidence use in decision-making within parliament. A Parliamentary Caucus on Evidence- Informed Oversight and Decision-Making (PC-EIDM) promotes effective relationships with civil society and other groups.

The Kenyan parliament established a first-of-its-kind PC-EIDM in 2015. In 2017 the caucus hosted a policy café on achieving Universal Health Coverage, which helped push forward the emergency services provisions in the Health Act 2017.

Including evidence-informed decision-making training in the induction of new MPs

African Parliamentarians’ Network on Development Evaluation (APNODE), Center for Learning on Evaluation and Results (CLEAR), African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) and African Center for Parliamentary Affairs (ACEPA) provide opportunities for MPs to strengthen their ability to value, source, evaluate, and synthesize evidence.

These opportunities may be in the form of formal or informal training courses, peer-to-peer learning events, and dedicated research weeks.

Making use of innovation

The Covid-19 pandemic underscored the need for MPs and their staff to embrace modern technology. Evidence champions must move from the traditional practice of using libraries as repositories of information to sourcing information digitally. Digital information presents insights in real-time.

The Malawi Parliament, for example, transitioned to garnering evidence responsively and interactively from digital outlets.

However, Africa needs more parliamentary staff who can leverage digital technologies and use social media, in addition to traditional public communication outlets such as radio and television, to connect with audiences.

Overall, cultivating a culture of evidence champions in African parliaments is critical, but it takes time, and calls for patience. The USAID research found that because of individual country contexts, even in the most progressive parliaments with hallmark success stories across Africa, strategies implemented take time and effort to bear fruit.— Africa Renewal

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