I am no newcomer to New York City but I certainly felt like a rookie when I first arrived to the Midtown hustle bustle that is the UN Headquarters.
This summer I had the privilege of working with the United Nations Development Programme’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support (BPPS). Within this cluster, I worked with a team working on electoral assistance and capacity-building.
As part of my work, I focused on improving an important electoral project of the UNDP called the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network. ACE is an online knowledge repository that offers comprehensive information and customized advice on electoral processes. It functions as a workplace and platform to connect electoral practitioners around the world, who can share with one another best practices and materials for managing, observing and evaluating elections. With millions of visits each year to ACE, UNDP is just one of eight organizations that manages the project–others include the Carter Center, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE), and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).
I never imagined that a multi-institutional megaproject with partners spread out across five continents could work so effectively and competently–but I saw up close how this team did just that. I am delighted I had the opportunity to learn not only through working with UNDP, but also through these other organizations working on democratization and elections.
I was tasked specifically with developing a strategy to reinvigorate the Arabic component of the ACE project, which, due to staff capacity and shrinking funding across the board, had been in a lull for a bit of time. Through this role, I worked on making the ACE project more user-friendly and appealing to Arabic-speaking electoral practitioners.
In my work at UNDP, I saw everyday how the site of elections at the local, regional and national level, even under competitive authoritarian governments, are important. Such sites serve as potential pockets of democratizing mechanisms, even if slow, incremental, and nonlinear.
Often, when I would tell people asking about my summer that I work on electoral capacity-building in Arab states, they would raise an eyebrow so as to say, “Oh, elections are a thing there?”
Why, yes, they are. In fact, in between the armed onslaught in Syria and widespread repression in Egypt, it is a very eventful time for electoral activity in Arab states, and we should be paying attention with some cautious optimism.
Lebanon held its municipal elections in May 2016, where local elections (especially in Beirut) were competitive for the first time in decades and posed a serious challenge to the ruling elite. Meanwhile, elections are coming up for Jordan next month, where a new electoral law has shaken things up including the reorganization of voting districts, the use of open-list systems for the first time, the participation of a number of groups who previously boycotted elections, and the improved effectiveness of the country’s Independent Electoral Commission, which will preside over the vote. Morocco, riding on the momentum of the 2015 municipal elections where a large voter turnout voted directly for their local representatives for the first time, is gearing for parliamentary elections this fall as well. Algeria recently passed a bill to compose a High Independent Body for Election monitoring in an effort to also make its election management more professional and impartial. Although it has not yet announced a date, Tunisia is gearing for its municipal elections in the near future as well.
While working on the ACE project, I set out to connect with regional stakeholders working on electoral assistance. This meant reaching out and establishing connections with civil society organizations, election observers, lawyer syndicates, academicians, and most importantly, electoral management bodies (EMBs). There’s a lot of buzz right now at UNDP about EMBs. Two years ago, the UNDP supported the inception of an initiative known as the Organization for Arab EMBS. This brought together recently created independent national institutions in the region that are tasked with managing elections. Indeed, the initiative is a step in the right direction toward creating more neutral, professional and competently administered elections, rather than being administered by blatantly biased ministries of interior as has often been the case. I connected with practitioners working at these EMBs to help publicize and circulate information on voter education, registration, and observation, while introducing them to the election-assistance services that ACE has to offer.
While in all cases there is reason to be cautious and skeptical of the credibility and meaningfulness of elections, one thing remains certain: elections do matter. We know from the rigorous work of scholars that it is no longer sufficient to view elections in Southwest Asia and North Africa (or the “Arab world” as it is often reduced) as patronage competitions, especially after the uprisings that sent shockwaves across the region beginning in late 2010. Rather, a more capacious and nuanced analysis helps us grasp how elections, voter turnout, and the effort governments put into elections all say a great deal about public perception and government performance.
I am very grateful for the past three months working at UNDP, and I am looking forward to applying this experience to my academic interests and research back in New Haven on critical development studies and the limits of global governance.