Good governance

Tricky benchmarking

Germany’s major parties are associated with political foundations that pursue ambitious goals such as the promotion of democracy and the rule of law in developing countries. It is difficult to measure the impact of their work – but significant progress has been made in recent years on improving evaluation standards.

By Berthold M. Kuhn

last contributed to D+C/E+Z in summer of 2022. He is a political scientist and adjunct professor at Freie Universität Berlin. As a consultant, he advises international organisations and think tanks.

There are six political foundations with close ties to political parties in Germany – the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Social Democrats), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (Christian Democrats), the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (Free Democrats), the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Greens), the Hanns Seidel Foundation (Bavarian Christian Democrats) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Leftists). In recent years the foundations have been considering evaluation and the tools and systems needed to facilitate it.

This year, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) introduced a uniform format for applications and reports for the po­litical foundations. Accordingly, their applications for BMZ funding must now spell out how abstract goals translate into concrete, achievable, verifiable targets and define impact hypotheses as well as performance indicators.

Programmes that are funded by the government and run by political foundations are a special trait of German development cooperation. A European Network of Political Foundations (ENOP) was set up a few years ago, and it is largely dominated by Germany’s political foundations because of their capacities and experience.

The foundations receive the lion’s share of their funds for foreign activities from the BMZ. They are not agencies subordinate to the Federal Government, though they op­erate with its approval and financial support. In some cases, the foundations have also managed to obtain EU funding for projects through the EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights). Many donors envy Germany its political foundations since these institutions address sensitive issues and promote German development policy in contacts with policymakers in foreign countries without affecting diplomatic relations.

The political foundations strive to promote democracy and human rights in lots of countries and regions. They engage in political dialogue with parties and parliaments and provide support for civil society partners and networks. Due to protests and democracy movements in the Arab world, the foundations’ work outside Germany has recently gained more attention. For instance, representatives of various foundations have commented on these events in recent issues of D+C/E+Z. In this edition, Andreas Jacobs of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Cairo office assesses recent events in Egypt (see p. 302).

Abroad, the work of the political foundations is not marked by party rivalry. Ra­ther, their efforts are broadly geared to working with different partners and addressing complementing issues. In many countries, the foundations’ offices have good contacts and can gain deep insights into political dynamics. Therefore, their advice is valued by embassies and international organisations. The foundations’ budgets, however, are spread thinly over a large number of countries. Their offices have only few staff – especially in comparison with the budgets and capacities of Germany’s agencies for bilateral development cooperation.

Critical voices

While the foundations have not been pioneers of transparency in relation to their own work so far, they have begun to pay more attention to evaluation because of the introduction of new administration rules for federal budgeting. The BMZ started systematically scrutinising the political foundations’ performance in 2007. This was in line with the international debate on aid effectiveness, including the Paris Declaration (2005) and the Accra Action Plan (2008). The foundations always had some goals and used some indicators of course, but there is more emphasis on causal relations that are spelled out in impact hypotheses today (see box).

In the meantime, the foundations have set up units to address the issue of evaluation. Evaluations concern country programmes, specific issues, sectoral projects, methods, instruments and procedures. Ongoing project evaluation is the norm; ex-post evaluations are the exception.

Not everyone welcomes the new interest in evaluation. Some still argue that the results of political education and consultancy are impossible – or almost impossible – to measure. Some fear that goal-driven projects will reduce the scope for staff’s discretion and flexibility. Critics even claim that some evaluations are not worth the money they cost and that there are too few evaluators with an in-depth understanding of what the foundations are doing.

It is indeed a challenging task to evaluate process-oriented programmes run by political foundations. The interactions are complex. Germany’s political foundations are driven by political convictions, depend on being in touch with policymakers and reach out to vast networks. They pursue their goals at various levels, which are ­valued according to the changes of the political weather. The foundations cooperate with established elites as well as rising ones. They host seminars and confe­rences, organise visits from German policymakers, advise and assist partner organi­sations such as think tanks, civil society associations or the media. Naturally, they also cooperate with various development agencies. All of the foundations link their partners to international networks. Some of their work results in reports, studies and articles for in-house magazines and professional journals.

International criteria

Evaluation must be based on the internationally accepted criteria of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee: relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, sustain­ability and impact. Some institutions add visibility as a sixth criterion. What specifically needs to be considered in the case of political foundations are the different ­levels at which they work:
– the political/statutory level (for measures geared to promoting and enshrining the rule of law, human rights, environmental standards or principles of public participation in individual countries as well as regional organisations),
– the partner organisation level (especially in regard to developing those organisations’ capacities in the long run) and
– the target group level (specific needs, expectations and potential in relation to local-level activities like seminars, conferences or visitor programmes).

One of the key features of political foundations’ work is continuity. For good reasons, most foundations rely on long-term cooperation and contacts. That is one of their specific strengths. However, there have also been cases of partner organisations or even individuals becoming dependent on the foundations. In recent years, the foundations have begun to consider more carefully their cooperation with certain partners – including political parties. They found that the interest of some cooperation partners reflected personal career ambitions rather than a profound interest in programmatic work.

The relevance of the foundations for promoting democracy has recently become strikingly evident in North Africa and the Middle East. Events there should encourage the foundations to explore more possibilities for cooperation with civil society and newly legitimised political actors.

In order for recommendations to be implemented, it is crucially important that a foundation’s management at various levels support evaluations, and that evaluators hold long talks with the foundation representatives in the countries concerned. The latter have a great deal of discretion and they must coordinate their programmes with other actors, forging links and establishing partnerships. This matters very much, particularly since the number of international and donor agencies on the ground is growing, including traditional bilateral donors, the EU, multilateral donors, US charities and “new” bilateral donors such as China and Brazil.

Compared with other organisations, the foundations often have good political contacts and a great deal of expertise. Their funding, however, is comparatively limited. To make good use of their resources, the in-country representatives of the foundations need to come to terms with very complex political situations, a large number of actors and potential partners and new tools for assessing effectiveness.

Another challenge the foundations face is who to select as external consultants and evaluators. The emphasis must be on professional, regional and methodological qualifications rather than on ties to the foundation or the political party it is associated with. Professional, independent evaluations will help the foundations to communicate the effectiveness of their work more clearly and to a wider audience in Germany, the European Union and beyond. It will also contribute to forging new development alliances and develop resources.

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