Election Observation–Diplomacy or Assistance?

At the suggestion of a Kenyan blogger active in democracy issues whom I have long followed and admired, I am going to raise some discussion here about the funding of election observations, who “pays the piper” and how that may matter in practice from my experience.

This will be an ongoing process and I will appreciate any feedback and discussion. One of the things that makes this difficult for me is that I submitted complaints about how the U.S. Ambassador interacted with the 2007 Kenyan Election Observation and Exit Poll programs that I was managing for IRI with USAID funding to the “hotlines” for the Inspectors General of the State Department and USAID, but no substantive action resulted and much of what I have been concerned about has not seen print anywhere. And the same Ambassador is still running my country’s governmental presence in Kenya. So, given that my reason and intention for going to Kenya and getting involved in these things was to be helpful (to Kenyans) what is helpful to say now, recognizing that the past cannot be undone?

Let me start by fleshing out a distinction between types of observations: “diplomatic” observations and “assistance” observations. The goal of a diplomat of course is to represent his country and advance its interests as determined by policy makers. On the other hand, the immediate goal of “foreign assistance”, including “democracy promotion” or “democracy support” is presumably to help others, even though this may be done for any number of reasons involving self-interest. The fundamental problem we had with the IRI observation for Kenya in 2007 was that the Ambassador viewed the observation as a direct part of his endeavors as the controlling diplomat for the U.S. in Kenya in the lead up to the election, whereas IRI, prior to the election, viewed the effort as within an established practice for observations conducted by non-governmental organizations, with funding provided as a matter of foreign assistance through the U.S. Agency for International Development. IRI, like NDI and the Carter Center, is party to a formal international agreement and accompanying code of conduct governing international election observation missions which is intended to provide for independence and objectivity.

It is important not to underestimate the significance of the reorganization of U.S. foreign assistance during the Clinton and Bush Administration, and now continued under the Obama Administration, which places USAID directly inside the State Department [for budget and planning purposes rather than as a matter of formal structure]. As a matter of bureaucratic and political reality, this may make any clear distinction between diplomacy and assistance impossible, especially in the field where an ambassador has largely unchecked powers. When you are dealing with feeding people, or providing health care or regular security training, for example, there may not be immediate tension once you set priorities in allocating resources, but in the case of an election observation mission, you are either committed to the election process in a neutral and objective way or you are not. So if people in the State Department at the level of Ambassador or higher, have the view that diplomatic interests are served by things other than strict neutrality and objectivity in an election campaign, and the State Department controls foreign assistance programs through USAID that provide election support, then as a practical matter there will be tension unless the Ambassador is truly committed to “playing by the rules”.

In Kenya in 2007 the Ambassador was directly sending out large numbers of U.S. government employees as “observers” of the election. I had been warned by USAID staff that the Ambassador considered the IRI international observation mission to be essentially part of his program, to my surprise. Subsequently he told me this was his view himself on one of his after hours cell calls to me to try to micromanage the selection of election observation delegates. Further to my surprise, I was told that higher levels of management at USAID were not in agreement with IRI on our need for independence.

This leads into discussion of another distinction: “national” versus “international”. IRI is a U.S. organization which gets almost all its funding from a combination of the State Department (including USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and works internationally. Notionally, IRI is a “core institution” established under NED, along with its sister organizations NDI, CIPE (the Center for International Private Enterprise, affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) and the Solidarity Center (affiliated with the AFL-CIO union organization), but the lion’s share of the overall dollars now come from the State Department rather than from NED. For election observations, IRI will normally include non-U.S. delegates. In the case of Kenya in 2007 there were no other NGOs working internationally that had formal election observation missions to my knowledge, but there were a variety of African organizations, and there was an international observation mission from the Commonwealth. The EU is something of a special case. The EU of course is regional and inter-governmental, but operates an election observation program with professional staffing and that is intended to operate independently.

Backing up a bit to give more context, when I arrived in Kenya at the beginning of June 2007, USAID had no plans for an election observation mission for Kenya–likewise, IRI’s Washington office did not have any desire to seek one. The Ambassador told me early on that he wanted one, and had a list of people he had in mind as delegates, but there was still no plan from USAID to fund it until later when USAID said they would “move heaven and earth” to try to meet the Ambassador’s wishes. On the last day of the fiscal year (September 30) a request for proposals was released by USAID to CEPPS, a consortium of IRI, NDI and IFES, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Both NDI and IFES were also already doing USAID work in Kenya for the elections, but the RFP was clearly written in such a way that it was intended for IRI rather than NDI or IFES. A small amount of money had apparently been found for the effort ($270,000) as opposed to several million that the EU spent for their observation. The RFP proposed an international election observation mission with USAID’s involvement to be the approval of the observing organization’s “key personnel”, specified as the chief delegate. Examples of other suggested delegates were given to correspond to the Ambassador’s list, but there was no contractual assertion of a right of government approval except as to the one position.

The Ambassador wanted the lead delegate to be either Connie Newman or Chester Crocker, both former Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs with whom he had worked closely. IRI invited both–Crocker declined due to a conflict and Newman, also an IRI board member, accepted. Nonetheless, it was IRI’s position that it was not appropriate for USAID to claim a contractual approval right over the selection of the head of the observation delegation, as opposed to IRI’s own staff. IRI submitted me and the IRI Vice President from Washington that would be the senior IRI staff person coming for the election instead, but USAID refused to accept this. As of the time of the election this was a standoff that had never been formally resolved.

The more substantive dispute was over former Ambassador to Kenya Mark Bellamy. When I mentioned Bellamy in one of the Ambassador’s calls to me regarding the delegates, he said Bellamy would be a bad choice because he was perceived as “anti-government” (i.e., critical of the Kibaki administration). Ultimately when Ranneberger got what was intended to be our final delegate list (I faxed it to him at USAID’s request two weeks before the election) he called me and gave me the full “treatment” to get Bellamy dropped, including saying that he would cancel the funding for the observation otherwise. When I passed this along to my office in Washington, IRI’s president called Jendayi Frazer on his way to the airport for a trip to Thailand over Christmas and then called the Ambassador when he got there. I got the message back that it was agreed that we would nix Bellamy but that I was to accept “no more b.s.” from the Ambassador.

In a nutshell, it was my understanding that there was complete agreement between myself and the senior IRI leadership in Washington going into the election that it was essential that we actively resist further intrusion by the Ambassador on our independence–with a common recognition that the Ambassador was attempting to involve us in things that we could not agree to. Unfortunately, once Ms. Newman arrived in Nairobi the weekend before the election she was the ranking person as an IRI board member as well as retired senior diplomat and the plans to make sure she kept her distance from the Ambassador were not effectuated and it was obvious that she was closely collaborating with him.

There was clear recognition within IRI of the need to maintain independence of the election observation function from the Ambassador’s other agenda, and a clearly expressed intention to do what needed to be done–but we failed. On balance, I don’t think we made the situation worse than it would have been if we had not done an observation at all, but we failed to help and thus wasted some money and a lot of hard work, and as Alex Halperin wrote in Slate in the first story published on our exit poll results, missed an opportunity to advance the interests of democracy.

So the lesson learned from the U.S. perspective should be, in my opinion, that U.S. policy makers need to make clear choices about whether to have “assistance” observations or “diplomatic” observations and recognize that allowing an Ambassador to call the shots makes an observation a diplomatic exercise rather than a bona-fide assistance program. There are in fact rules and regulations that are intended not to allow the Ambassador to override the process, but we have the same Ambassador getting into controversy about election assistance two years later in a new administration, so obviously the problem has not been given a high priority.

[Regarding the Slate article, I had been instructed by our press secretary in Washington not to return Mr. Halperin’s call on the exit poll, but he caught me on the cell on January 2 during the post-election violence and I said that I couldn’t confirm or deny the two reports he had regarding the results of the exit poll. He asked why we would do an exit poll and not release it and I explained that the poll included a great deal of information besides the presidential election results that was part of research that would be published so he should not assume we were trying to hide anything. (My superior in Washington later e-mailed that UCSD would not be able to publish the results under the circumstances, but they did go ahead anyway after the expiration of IRI’s six month exclusive right of publicity, as discussed in the NYTimes coverage.) I e-mailed Washington to report the conversation and noted the irony that when the story hit I was the one who was identified in the international media in defense of a decision that I disagreed with in not releasing the preliminary presidential results, or even making any statement at all about what our plans and intentions were in regard to the exit poll. A Kenyan blogger wrote that I should be subpoenaed to force IRI to disclose the results. ]

17 thoughts on “Election Observation–Diplomacy or Assistance?

  1. I am just working through whats at stake vis a vis diplomatic or assistance polling observations…

    I mean, from the point of view of state to state relations with Kenya, seems to me the short term gains of self-interested observation and reporting are far inferior to the long term gains of more objective observation. so why are observations self interested?

    I guess it is not the state to state interests that are governing observations. Rather, it is in the interest of individuals (an ambassador, or a Sr IRI member, or even a NJ politician) to promote a view, back to citizens at home, what issues in the electing country are. for domestic consumption.

    in other words, it’s just another example of an agent principal problem.

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  14. I am constantly in two minds about elections observations and monitors. I am increasingly drawn to countries which are participating in citizen based observation, which I wrote about here :http://global-elections.org/2015/03/05/citizen-based-observation/ and I also think that twitter played such an interesting role in performing a sort of ‘panopticon’ for citizens to observe each other in recent Nigerian elections: http://global-elections.org/2015/04/03/the-dictator-of-my-mothers-youth-is-now-the-democratic-hero-of-my-youth-democratic-gain-and-the-four-big-winners-of-nigeria-2015/ which I write a bit about there.

    At the end of the day I see many reasons why you might need foreign observers, but if you take for example Sudan for which the EU has said it won’t observe this year because the elections won’t be credible, but then what does that even achieve?

    • Thanks! I think ideally there is an important role for both international observation missions and citizen observer groups–if there is transparency in the underlying arrangements relationships and independent observing and reporting. (Big “if’s” in some situations apparently.) In countries where governments have authoritarian tendencies and protections for free speech and assembly are limited–in other words those situations where free elections are at risk–domestic citizen observer groups are inevitably at risk of pressure and interference from the existing authorities. At the same time, international groups are not going to generate the extensive coverage of the electorate that is required without domestic citizen observers. So plenty of space for both!

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