Election Observation and Democracy Assistance: what is CEPPS?

CEPPS stands for the the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening; the members are the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES).

Although CEPPS has been functioning as a USAID master funding mechanism for Cooperative Agreements for Democracy Assistance since the early post-Cold War era in 1995, it is only more recently that it has started to take on a more public face as an entity as opposed to the three constituent organizations. (See the explanation from their branding strategists here [with the colorful image of a Masaii woman voting])

While I have no idea why this has evolved in recent times, I will note that building up CEPPS as an “entity” with its own brand could be seen from outside as a way to establish an alternative structure directly tied to USAID in competition with funding for democracy assistance through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

IRI and NDI are two of four core NED institutions. IRI and NDI were incorporated by the leaders of the Republican and Democratic National Committees respectively, pursuant to the legislation establishing the National Endowment for Democracy as private organization, with a bipartisan board and Congressionally-appropriated funding and subject to the Freedom of Information Act. (The other two NED core institutions are the Center for International Private Enterprise [CIPE] affiliated with the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Solidarity Center affiliated with the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations or AFL-CIO.)

IFES, on the other hand, which the branding material describes as a “core institution” of CEPPS, borrowing the NED terminology for the consortium members, is a more explicitly “private” entity created in 1987, four years later in than NED, during the second Reagan Administration, at the instance of then-USAID Director Peter McPherson as he describes in a 2017 interview on the IFES website. McPherson went to a American political campaign manager with a “bipartisan tone,” Cliff White (known publicly primarily for his role as Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign manager) to found the nonprofit because among the contractors USAID used there was a lack of technical expertise on the mechanics of organizing and holding elections. USAID provided an initial grant but IFES is not part of the Congressional mandate and annual budget appropriation process of NED and its four “core institutions” including IRI and NDI.

Readers will remember that IFES is a nonprofit corporation (like IRI and NDI) and was registered as such with the Kenyan government when President Kenyatta and his party leaders and government officials attacked IFES for not being registered as an “NGO” in late 2016 and early 2017 and allegedly being too cooperative with the opposition while managing the USAID election assistance and supporting the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. Of course since IFES had been working on the same basis in essentially the same role with ECK since 2001 under Samuel Kivuitu’s Chairmanship and the IIEC and then IEBC under Issack Hassan, I saw this as pre-election “muscle flexing” by the incumbent President Kenyatta and his coalition directed at both the new Chebukati-led Independent Commission taking office in January to replace Hassan’s group after opposition protests and at IFES. The democracy donor diplomatic group led by US Ambassador Godec pushed back but Kenyatta’s Administration used its control of Immigration to force out the IFES Country Director and another key IFES employee. An outside replacement Country Director was “parachuted in” mid-March for the August 8 election.

See also “USAID is using a model for Kenya election assistance contracting that creates unnecessary conflicts of interest between organizations supporting election observation, voter education and embedded support to the Election Commission“.

Here is a discussion of USAID use of CEPPs from a review conducted by the Office of Inspector General for USAID focused on Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East released November 26, 2019, titled “Additional Actions Are Needed to Improve USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Programs”:

CEPPS was founded in 1995 by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and holds a global Leader with Associate assistance award with the DRG Center to implement a variety of DRG activities, including political party assistance programs.

According to USAID officials, CEPPS received a series of global assistance awards from USAID for 1995 through 2020, which helped CEPPS partners develop a capacity to deliver political party assistance programming and establish a global footprint with a presence in every region in which USAID operates. The current global assistance mechanism was awarded in 2015 (a cooperative agreement) and provides missions the option to offer funding opportunities directly to CEPPS rather than develop a notice of funding opportunity locally.

Agency mission and headquarters personnel reported that, overall, CEPPS partners have excellent technical leadership and organizational experience to work collaboratively with host-country political leaders. CEPPS partners have developed strong work relationships with local stakeholders in many countries and are acknowledged as global leaders in the DRG sector. For example, in Ukraine, mission officials praised the NDI, IRI, and IFES Chiefs of Party as outstanding leaders who are highly accomplished and respected in their areas of expertise. They noted that the technical skills and positive reputations of these individuals are an asset for the mission and its DRG portfolio.

However, Agency officials also noted that missions often default to working with CEPPS partners through USAID’s global assistance award with the DRG Center—instead of pursuing opportunities to partner with other organizations that can provide similar services. Relying on CEPPS gives significant influence to a small group of partners to implement political party assistance programs and increases USAID’s reputational risk. Specific concerns reported to us by USAID officials include:

• NDI, IRI, and IFES have significant political connections and powerful benefactors on their boards of directors, including sitting Members of the U.S. Congress, former Ambassadors, and other political appointees. NDI and IRI in particular could be perceived as extensions of the U.S. Democratic and Republican Parties, respectively, by host-country stakeholders. For example, NDI’s website acknowledges that it has a “loose affiliation” with the U.S. Democratic Party and IRI’s current Chairman is a U.S. Senator in the Republican Party.

• In Georgia, CEPPS attempted to exclude a host-country democratic political party. In a 2017 letter to USAID/Georgia written on behalf of NDI and IRI, CEPPS stated that it would temporarily suspend assistance to a Georgian political party because of media reports of derogatory remarks made by party leaders about CEPPS partner staff, along with CEPPS’s disagreement with the party’s political platform and rhetoric. The mission responded to CEPPS’s letter by directing NDI and IRI to continue delivering assistance to the Georgian political party in compliance with USAID’s Political Party Assistance Policy.

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