After 22 Years of Service, Anthony Bowyer Remains Committed to the IFES Mission
After obtaining a master’s degree from the University of Miami’s Graduate School for International Studies in December 1994, Anthony Bowyer, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) senior program manager for the Caucasus and Central Asia, traveled home to Minnesota and soon after loaded up his 1987 Plymouth Reliant and moved to Washington, D.C. in search of a job. While in graduate school, Bowyer focused on the development of independent countries in post-Soviet Central Asia and, particularly, on security and conflict studies. A friend had mentioned IFES and while Bowyer knew relatively little in those days about U.S. foreign assistance in the realm of democracy and governance, and information was not so easy to find in the pre-internet days, IFES was one of the organizations he cold-called.
“I got a bit lucky as IFES was searching for a program officer to work on the Central Asia portfolio. After four interviews, I was fortunate enough to be offered the position, a life-changing event for which I remain grateful to this day,” says Bowyer. Twenty-two years later, Bowyer is IFES’ longest-serving employee.
Just 14 months after joining IFES, Bowyer traveled to Kazakhstan as chief of party in Central Asia. He describes it as an enormous opportunity, transformational for his young career, and the year he had in the field was one of the most rewarding of his life. During that time, he had the opportunity to help IFES establish its public opinion survey work in the region; lead the “Strategies for Citizen Involvement” trainings for civil society, media and local government; support legal and systemic election development; and help plant the roots for what would become the organization’s initial foray into youth civic education as a new type of intervention.
“Over the years my responsibilities have broadened as I have taken on new roles within the organization, and I have had the opportunity to work for IFES in places such as Albania and Iraq, but I have retained my connection to the country projects and daily assistance activities, which I find exceptionally fulfilling,” he explains. “I find myself in the role of a mentor to junior staff now, and I meet younger people in their 20s who are just beginning their careers post-college, much as I did in 1995.”
During Bowyer’s more than two decades at IFES, the organization has become much more diverse. “Initially IFES was all about legal and procedural reform, working to analyze and suggest recommendations to improve election and constitutional law, conducting training of election management bodies, helping to strengthen electoral institutions. That is the core work that IFES still undertakes around the world. But we have diversified to meet needs that were not being fulfilled, and in doing so seized the space to become a leading authority in areas such as women’s empowerment, enfranchisement of persons with disabilities, support for youth civic engagement and civic education, and key technical areas such as election dispute resolution and money and politics, developing new and innovative tools along the way,” Bowyer explains.
Central Asia was a changing place, he says, new to the world stage, but also a region in which Soviet attitudes and mistrust would dominate the landscape for years to come. “While on the surface it can appear little has changed in the style of leadership 26 years after independence in Central Asia, Russia and the south Caucasus, as the ‘old ways’ of doing things continue to be pervasive among the mindset of elites in many countries (above all, staying in power), and corruption continues to plague people’s everyday lives, I believe change is happening,” he says. “A new generation populated by new leaders is emerging that gives hope for the future, a generation less burdened by the totalitarianism of the past and more open to progressive ideas. At the same time, we are also seeing the emergence of traditional values in a way that was equally contained by the Soviet system, which is often in conflict with modernization of the political system and the social order,” he concludes.
Bowyer believes the best IFES can do as implementer of democracy assistance, is to help provide the means and information to allow people to make their own choices and be sure that their voices are counted and being heard.
He likes to tell a story that occurred early in his IFES tenure, in 1997, when he got to accompany the heads of all five Central Election Commissions (CECs) from Central Asia to a conference in Stockholm. “By that time, I had met and worked with four of the five chairs, the exception being the CEC chair of Turkmenistan, and the six of us had our photo taken in the Great Hall, where the Nobel ceremony takes place,” he recalls. In addition, he was asked by the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe to make a presentation to a joint session of the Majlisi Oli, the parliament of Tajikistan. “I was nervous as heck. I spoke to these parliamentarians on the importance of inclusive and transparent elections, and while most sat and listened politely, one deputy looked me straight in the eye and pointed to his watch. I couldn’t shake the image.”
When asked about mentors, Bowyer gives a long list of names, acknowledging Gwen Hofmann, IFES’ first regional chief of party in Central Asia, for giving him a “crash course in project management as a young program officer with no experience.” He also mentions Linda Edgeworth as a person who has taught him about elections and international standards and with whom he had the pleasure of learning from during his earliest years with IFES, and again in 2012-2013 when they worked together in Armenia. Katherine Müller, IFES’ chief of party in Tajikistan from 2004-2006, is someone Bowyer says he will never forget. “Her direct style of management was unique and inspiring,” he says.
Dmitry Shevkun, who worked for IFES in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the U.S., is “a friend and mentor who showed what is possible when you dedicate yourself to working with young persons – what a talented guy he is, who has been through a lot.” Perhaps most of all, it was two mentors in his earliest days that had a profound impact, the first IFES President Richard Soudriette and former Europe and Asia Director Dr. Juliana Pilon. “Both inspired me with their keen intellect, enthusiasm, and encouragement. I owe them both a lot.”
"I have personally seen lives transformed by participation in an IFES civic education course, a project supporting persons with disabilities, and a girls/women empowerment seminar. I have met brave people risking physical harm in places like Iraq and Tajikistan to help implement IFES initiatives because of their dedication and belief in what they were doing for their countries."
After 22 years with IFES, Bowyer still firmly believes that the work of IFES matters. “Sometimes it takes a field visit or two to see how IFES’ work impacts societies, but I have personally seen lives transformed by participation in an IFES civic education course, a project supporting persons with disabilities, and a girls/women empowerment seminar. I have met brave people risking physical harm in places like Iraq and Tajikistan to help implement IFES initiatives because of their dedication and belief in what they were doing for their countries. It’s difficult to observe such commitment and not feel changed by it. I would ask younger colleagues to not be daunted by what they are hearing in the news; our work is important and needed, not only in emerging democracies, but here at home as well. Be open-minded, don’t be discouraged, have faith,” he says.
Bowyer believes IFES offers the best of both worlds: well-focused programming that meets a clear and present need of our global partners, and the intellectual freedom and encouragement to pursue new and under-developed themes in pursuit of democracy, human rights, and making a positive difference in people’s lives.
“I’m sure people wonder why I’m still around. Simply put, I love the job I do. I’m still growing as a professional, still learning. I have never got out of bed in the morning and dreaded coming into work. I may at times loathe the commute, but I have never gotten tired or feel as if the job has become routine,” says Bowyer. “Now I have a 15-year old daughter and an 11-year old son, and my daughter is counting the days until she will be able to vote for the first time, which will be for the 2020 U.S. presidential election,” says a proud Bowyer.