This project examined how inclusive parliamentary public engagement can strengthen representative democracy in the Ethiopian context. They looked at how the mechanisms through which trust can be repaired and built anew, including through improved engagement with women and marginalised ethnic groups. Public engagement is said to be essential to healthy democracy, as it ensures greater participation, increases public understanding of Parliament and its work, broadens the range of voices heard by Parliament, and potentially enhances legitimacy and trust. As trust in politics has fallen in representative democracy, public engagement has become a standard theme of modern democracy and a central activity for parliament (Leston-Bandeira, 2016). Low levels of interest in Parliament have been attributed to distrust and disenchantment with the wider political and governmental processes. Inclusive public engagement is considered critical to strengthening representative democracy.
The team collected primary data in the form of surveys amongst residents of two Addis Ababa constituencies, interviews with MPs, and focus group discussions with civil society organisations, private sector leaders, and the media. They triangulated these findings and synthesised them in a report, which was then shared with key stakeholders at a validation workshop. As lead investigator Defferew Kebebe notes, “We did not want to simply write and publish a report based on our comprehensive research. The process of strengthening political-public engagement has to be deeply consultative. So we opened our report findings and recommendations to people from across Ethiopian civil society to reflect, comment, debate, and help modify.”
In addition to developing some key recommendations about how to strengthen political relationships in Addis specifically, and Ethiopia more generally, and launching this as a written report, the team experimented with integrating an arts and humanities approach. Partly, they had already done this by taking a mixed-methods research approach that included working with qualitative data. But they felt a more robust artistic dimension could really add value and impact to their project, and so collaborated with the Ethiopian artist Wondesan (Chair of the Ethiopian Visual Artists Association). “It was important for me to be able to participate in the research team’s focus group discussions with stakeholders, so I could get a deeper sense of what people are thinking and feeling. And I felt strongly that I wanted to design a set of posters that deepens people’s understanding of democracy – art must be relatable to society, to people”, explained Wondeson.
The artwork became a key component of the team’s communication and dissemination activities, helping capture some of their most significant research findings, such as the limited status of political-public engagement; and people’s aspirations for deeper dialogue, representation, and trust in their politicians.