Yifan Powers is a first-year student in the International Development program at SAIS and an editor for SAIS Perspectives.

Yifan Powers is a first-year student in the International Development program at SAIS and an editor for SAIS Perspectives.

The Development Roundtable hosted Dr. Daniel Twining, President of the International Republican Institute, and Ambassador Derek Mitchell, President of the National Democratic Institute, for a discussion on the work of democracy promotion around the world. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Christopher Sands, Director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Below, SAIS Perspectives highlights some key takeaways from the discussion.

In his seminal speech to the British Parliament 37 years ago at Westminster, President Ronald Reagan proposed a new objective, “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.[1]” Out of this pledge was born the field of democracy assistance, which Congress formalized through the National Endowment for Democracy. The endowment helped fund the creation of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), two key NGOs in the democracy assistance field. Both organizations have the same mission: to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizens’ participation, openness and accountability of government. They have a loose affiliation with the political parties in their nomenclature, but their work is independent of these parties and nonpartisan.

The IRI and NDI focus on democratic institution building through the development of strong civil society and political parties, as well as the insurance of election integrity. Their role is especially important as broaching these subjects through formal government diplomacy channels has proven increasingly difficult in the contemporary political climate. 

One example of their recent work was the IRI’s observation of the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections. There were three main candidates in this election, one of whom was a comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who had played a President onscreen. The issues at stake in this election, as IRI President Dr. Daniel Twining described, concerned the ongoing military conflict with Russia as well as the troubled economy and government corruption. In this context, it was not a given that the election would occur without incident. Thus, Ukraine invited the IRI to deploy around 2,000 observers throughout the country to monitor the election; ultimately, 64% of eligible citizens went to the polls that day and the election was deemed credible.

Both the IRI and NDI conduct election monitoring throughout the world, including a recent joint observation of the 2019 Nigerian general elections. Dr. Twining and NDI President Ambassador Derek Mitchell emphasized the intergenerational divide within the country, noting that all of the candidates were over 70 years old and some had run as many as nine previous times. They also raised the issue that 94% of parliamentary positions are currently held by men. But they predict that in the near future, Nigeria’s growing youth population will challenge the status quo and champion issues such as women’s empowerment. The advent of social media has equipped the developing world with the tool of digital connection – the question, however, is how countries will channel the excitement of digital participation into real institutional change towards democracy.

[1] Reagan, Ronald. A Time for Choosing : the Speeches of Ronald Reagan, 1961-1982. Chicago :Regnery Gateway in cooperation with Americans for the Reagan Agenda, 1983.

After the IRI/NDI Development Roundtable talk, SAIS Perspectives sat down with IRI President, Daniel Twining, to learn more about IRI’s work in democracy promotion.

Perspectives: Was there a defining moment personally, academically, or professionally that pushed you to pursue this type of work?

DT: The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the drama around that of seeing the East Germans wanting to be part of the West. And, in that same year, witnessing the Tiananmen Square Massacre where you saw ordinary Chinese citizens protesting for their own version of democracy.   

Perspectives: Is there a specific IRI/NDI program that you are especially excited about?

DT: Our work in the digital democracy sphere. For example, we’re currently advising nations in the South Pacific on how to build secure and resilient internet infrastructure. We also have an increasing focus on the cyber environment around elections, so things like combatting “fake news” and other cyberattacks on the integrity of an election.

Perspectives: How do you view the role of new media (social media, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc.) in democracy promotion, especially as we consider the fact many more people will be coming online in the next decade?

DT: From what I’ve seen so far, social media has been net loss for democracy because it has amplified the most extreme and polarizing voices and exacerbated radicalization online. However, this need not be permanently true. Technology should favor openness and pluralism in the long-run and that possibility still exists. Remember the Arab spring where young people in the region rose up because they saw through their connection to the rest of the world that people in different countries have very different lives.

Perspectives: Bringing it back home, is there an aspect of the American democratic system that you think we should pay particular attention to?

DT: It’s not yet a crisis, but I would say political polarization and political apathy, which feed on each other. Politics are polarized because only true believers participate in party conferences and organizations. This results in a lack of centrist candidates, which alienates many Americans who feel they don’t want to get their hands dirty in the polarized political realm. This then increases political apathy. As we discussed, in the recent Ukrainian election, 64% of the population turned out to vote. In the United States, we would be lucky if we got half that number in a major election.

PHOTO CREDIT: Nigerian Election Day, from Okeile, licensed under CCA-SA 4.0