IFES Alum Brings Decade of International Development to the Classroom

Publication Date: 
19 Feb 2014

Keith Klein, former IFES Director of Programs for Africa and the Middle East, talks with IFES about working on democratic development in the 1990s, and bringing his international experience to teaching.

Tell us about your time with IFES.

I joined IFES in the summer of 1991, soon after I received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. IFES, which had just received a grant for election assistance in Africa, hired me as the first Program Officer for Africa. Our first project was to do a pre-election assessment in Mali, where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1984-1986.

IFES had about 14 employees at that time. Over the next seven years, IFES grew tremendously. When I left at the end of 1998, IFES had more than 100 employees in Washington and was staffing long-term projects around the world. In the early 1990s, Africa was one of IFES' mostly rapidly growing regions of activity, and my title soon changed to Director of Programs for Africa and the Middle East.

By 1998, IFES' Africa and Middle East staff was larger than that of IFES as a whole when I started in 1991.

It was an exciting time to be working in democratic development in Africa and the Middle East. The end of the Cold War had brought on a wave of democratic transitions in those regions. Dozens of countries began to move away from single-party systems, and IFES contributed to the re-writing of constitutions and electoral laws, and the holding of multi-party elections in many of them.

You were involved in many IFES programs. Which resonated with you the most and which of them have been most useful for your work today?

Projects in many countries were exciting and remain memorable. The ones that resonate the most are our projects in Mali, South Africa and with the Palestinians.

The transition in Mali was significant to me because of my Peace Corps connection, but also because it was a largely successful transition. IFES contributed in a multitude of ways as Mali opened up its political system to competitive elections for the first time since its independence. This included helping to write new electoral laws, train election officials and carry out civic education programs.

The South African transition from 1993-1994 was exciting to be part of. It is important to remember that the run-up to the 1994 presidential election was full of uncertainty, to say the least. IFES had a significant regional voter information project that made a small contribution to the eventual peaceful outcome.

With the Palestinian Authority, IFES built a long-term relationship, starting in 1993. Working in the West Bank and Gaza during that period was immensely complicated, but again, IFES was able to play a helpful role in the development of electoral processes.

Many people point to Ghana as a success story for democratic transition. What lessons did you learn from your experience helping promote democracy in Ghana?

I think we learned that two important ingredients in any democracy promotion effort are relationships and time.

IFES works to build institutions, but building those institutions and ensuring long-term sustainability are dependent on the people involved. Joe C. Baxter (and many others) on the IFES side, and Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, Chairman of the Ghanaian Electoral Commission, (and many others) on Ghanaian side, are reminders that successful projects require wise, willing and hard-working implementers on both sides.

IFES had the luxury in Ghana of funding that allowed us to make a long-term commitment to that country; that too was key.

How has your experience with international development played a role in how you approach teaching and involvement with young adults?

I have been teaching high school in Arlington, Va., mostly as an English teacher, since 1999. My experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and as Program Director for IFES has made me aware of the complexities of the role and position of America and Americans in the world. That awareness may not come up every day in my English classes, but I try to find ways to help my students understand the larger world and how they might become a responsible and beneficial part of it.

How has working at IFES helped you as an educator? What is your fondest memory of your work with IFES?

The school where I teach has a very international student body. Many of our students or their parents have arrived here from dozens of countries around the world. I know that my international work with IFES makes me more attuned to these students and where they are coming from. It is nice to be able to say to many of our students from Africa and the Middle East, "I've spent time in your country."

Looking back on my time at IFES from a distance of 15 years, the largest lesson is about the difficulty of social change. Change is hard and it is easy to become frustrated because the set-backs and reversals often seem to obliterate progress. But progress is possible, and working for productive change is no less an obligation because it is slow and difficult. I am glad IFES is still at it.