Dan Banik speaks with Ken Ochieng' Opalo on legislative capacity and legislative development in Africa.
Studying the role of institutions and their evolution often helps us better understand political and economic development in countries all over the world. And one such key institution is the legislature, which plays a critical role in democratic consolidation by providing a stable system of horizontal accountability. Legislatures craft legislation, pass laws, exercise oversight of the executive branch and thereby provide the institutional mechanism which allows societies to perform representative governance on a daily basis. Individual legislators articulate competing interests and try to influence the policymaking process. They also perform an important function – that of constituency service, i.e. they may regularly visit their constituencies and meet their constituents and address local needs and may even be involved in providing various types of public goods to their constituents through development projects.
The extent of legislative capacity and power, of course, varies greatly from country to country. In some countries, the legislature remains relatively weak despite multiparty politics, regular elections and even when ruling parties lose elections. But in other countries, the legislature has functioned effectively as a check on the executive branch of government as well as provided important contributions to the policymaking and policy implementation processes.
But legislatures and legislative capacity in developing countries have not received the kind of scholarly attention that they deserve. This is indeed surprising.
In his brilliant book, Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies, published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press, Ken explores how the adaptation of inherited colonial legislative institutional forms and practices continue to structure and influence contemporary politics and policy outcomes in Africa. He contrasts the records of legislative performance and discusses why the legislatures in some emerging democracies have enhanced their capacity and power while those in others have not. Ken finds that the introduction of competitive multiparty electoral institutions strengthened the Kenyan legislature but not the Zambian one. He also examines how and under what conditions democratic legislatures emerge in countries that have had strong autocratic foundations. Ken’s book thus makes a strong case for strengthening legislatures in emerging democracies. He argues that attempts to strengthen legislatures in emerging democracies should not just be limited to technical assistance and organizational capacity building but also include the political empowerment of legislators.
Ken Ochieng’ Opalo is an Assistant Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His research interests include legislative politics, subnational administration and local government, electoral politics, and the political economy of development in Africa. Ken’s current research projects include studies of the politics of service provision and accountability under devolved government in Kenya, education sector reforms in Tanzania, inter-state relations in Africa, and executive-legislative relations in Kenya. His works have been published in the British Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Democracy, the Journal of Eastern African Studies, and Governance. He is a member of EGAP (Evidence in Governance and Politics), gui2de (Georgetown University Initiative on Innovation, Development, and Evaluation) and a non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development. His research has been funded by the Luminate Group, the Susan Ford Dorsey Fellowship, and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID). Ken earned his BA from Yale University and PhD from Stanford University.