Strengthening Democracy in Afghanistan: A Q&A with Belma Ejupovic
Belma Ejupovic has devoted a large part of her career to improving the electoral process in Afghanistan. As an IFES Senior Program Manager, she oversaw assistance to Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) during two sets of elections after the fall of the Taliban – the 2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentary elections. She now continues to work on strengthening Afghanistan’s democratic institutions through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
How did you get into this field?
Being Bosnian-American, the experiences I lived through, from 1992 to early 2000s when I graduated college, shaped my decision to focus on international development – specifically the democracy and governance field. I am the type of person who likes a challenge; believes things can and should be done better; and likes to see the results of team effort. Being in development allows me to see what interventions are working and what can and should be improved.
The biggest reward is seeing team members come together to address challenges, and local counterparts gain the ability to carry out work previously done with international support on their own, and on their own terms.
What is your focus in your current role?
At the moment, I serve as the Senior Elections and Political Process Advisor for USAID in Afghanistan. Most of my time is spent working with different counterparts from the IEC, overseeing USAID support to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) basket fund put in place to support the IEC, and working closely with our colleagues from the field on elections planning, focusing on the south and southwest of the country.
How did your experience working at IFES prepare you for your work in Afghanistan?
I have been working on Afghanistan in several different capacities off and on for several years. My primary role during my tenure with IFES was focused on management, oversight, compliance and troubleshooting issues at the field level. This allowed me to learn a lot about election-specific programming from leading experts in this field. I had a great opportunity and honor to work with and learn firsthand from experts like Mike Clegg, Staffan Darnolf, Grant Kippen, Connie Kaplan and Judge Johann Kriegler, to name a few. Also with IFES, I had the opportunity to go back to Kosovo and assist with parliamentary elections, which helped me learn about the different ways election management bodies (EMBs) can be supported.
Electoral fraud has been the focal point of election stories coming out of Afghanistan since 2009. Although fraud will continue to be the predominant issue in Afghan elections, how does the IFES integrity approach – looking at the process holistically and differentiating systemic manipulation and malpractice from fraud – help refocus this narrative on the specific and varying complexities that the IEC faces?
The assessment done by the IFES team, which was funded and supported by USAID at the request of the IEC, is another important tool that, if used correctly, can help the IEC in its planning for presidential and provincial elections scheduled for April 2014. The IEC, and any future electoral complaints body, have a long list of tasks to accomplish between now and next year. Any assessment that puts forward practical recommendations and steps that could be taken to address some of the bottlenecks experienced in past is something any responsible EMB should keep in mind as they move forward with their planning. Afghanistan is a country that has experienced a lot over the past 12 years, and any tools that can be provided to the IEC to help them plan are always more than welcome.
How does emphasizing distinctions between systemic manipulation and malpractice and fraud help to increase the credibility of the upcoming elections?
Defining the differences between the three, and more importantly linking them to the specific actors in the electoral process, if used properly, is a very valuable tool that can inform and influence planning moving forward. In addition, differentiating between different forms of “mismanagement” or “misuse of power” makes it easier to map out and determine who should be doing what and why. However, as with everything else, the final value of the report will actually be determined by security realities on the ground as we get closer to Election Day. Security will, to a large degree, shape and determine what can be implemented by the IEC and all other stakeholders such as political parties, observer groups, the Afghan National Security Forces and other parts of the Government of Afghanistan.
If the IEC and the UNDP’s ELECT project seek to implement the recommendations suggested by the IFES assessment, will USAID continue to monitor progress made by the IEC in these areas?
The objective of USAID support was to provide an additional layer of backing to the IEC and ELECT teams in their efforts to design and put in place a robust operational plan for the 2014 elections.
A lot of information contained in the IFES report was known and available through different channels already, but the IFES report – for the first time – compiled all those snippets of information into one well-written document. The USAID package of support for the IEC, any future complaints body and civil society is rather comprehensive, and we will continue to closely monitor and report back to our capitol on the process and challenges encountered across all these different efforts.
What is an example of a good international investment that has shown results in the development of Afghanistan’s democracy and governing institutions?
I would have to say that positive investment went into building Afghanistan as a new democracy over the past 12 years. We are looking at large capital investments across many sectors including education, health, economy, infrastructure, governance and security forces. The challenge that we encountered back in 2001 was that Afghanistan’s starting point was so low, even in comparison to many of the least-developed countries. The biggest test of Afghan democracy and governing institutions will be next year’s presidential and Provincial Council elections.
What is your favorite memory of your work with IFES?
I would have to say that some of my favorite memories of my work with IFES are linked to people I had the opportunity to work with. First and foremost, I would have to say that my team at HQ will always have a special place in my heart. We worked well together, and now, when I look back and see everything that each one of them has accomplished since then, it is amazing to see how far each one has gone. We always had great interactions with our colleagues from the field and, of course, the leadership and support that IFES HQ senior management offered throughout my entire tenure with the organization is something I will never forget.
Who are some of the individuals or experiences you have had through your work that encourage you to keep doing what you are doing?
One of my biggest supporters is my family. They are always there for me and while, understandably, they worry a lot about the work and career path I chose for myself, they have never second-guessed any of my decisions. On the other hand, I truly enjoy and love what I do and that makes it that much easier to focus on what needs to be done with special emphasis on how it gets done. Each country I worked in – Bosnia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sudan, to name a few – taught me a lot, and at the same time, gave me energy, enthusiasm and passion for my next assignment.