News and Updates

All in a Day's Work: Promoting Freedom through the Ballot


As the leader in democracy promotion, IFES experts have worked in every corner of the globe from developing to mature democracies, under challenging conditions and tight deadlines to help people have a voice in the way they are governed. In this field notebook, Gregory Kehailia, senior program manager for the Middle East and North Africa, provides a glimpse into the motivating factors behind this work, the most exciting moments on the job and why it matters so much.

Why do you do election work?

Surprisingly, it is a question I am often asked by former colleagues doing program management in other sectors. I have three replies, and my reason to do election work is probably a combination of all three.

First, I see it as a continuation. As far as I can remember, I always wanted to work with the concept of freedom. This concept has been central in my life. At a very young age I had an intuition that freedom is as much needed by humankind as air, water or food. I have not always worked on elections, but I have always worked on freedom-related issues – essentially supporting civil society and human rights groups.

Secondly, before I started specializing in elections, I did program management and political analysis. I loved political analysis very much, but often felt frustrated that we were writing reports and not giving ourselves the means to implement our recommendations. However, when doing pure program management, I too often felt as if I was not intellectually stimulated enough to really understand the environment in which we were working and the issues we were trying to address. Working on elections gave me the opportunity to do both in the span of a single day.

Third, electoral assistance has to do with humanitarian assistance, in that it is extremely time sensitive – because of the unmovable deadline of Election Day in one case and risk of death of the population in another. Both cases are urgency-driven, and require frequent adaptations and a passion that enables us to spend days and nights on a single initiative.

Most people who work in this field say the best part of this work is Election Day. Is it the same for you and what is Election Day like?

Election Day is definitely full of excitement, concerns, fascination, stress and pride – all at once. Any electoral expert has his or her own way to get through this rush. For me, I tell myself several times along the day that I am awake and that it is indeed happening!

That being said, a lot of my best memories are not from Election Day. Most are related to things we did not believe were doable and eventually accomplished.

This could be things as peculiar as mobilizing the full team during a weekend to correct, by hand, over 10,000 t-shirts, because the printer inversed the name of several provinces on a map that could be perceived as ethnic provocation.

It could also be growing a small project to a size that allows access to areas unreached by any other organization – making a concrete difference in people’s lives. It can be having an illiterate citizen of a remote area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has benefited from our education program identify an irregularity in the way a local voting station is implementing a voting procedure.

Election is our driver, but the job and the related feeling of accomplishment are very much related to daily challenges in program management.

What differences do you see in the quest for democracy between the Middle East and North Africa and Africa?

Not much. I do this job because I think people’s craving for freedom is the same everywhere, even if expressed differently. The best way to address this craving, or the less bad, to paraphrase Churchill, is a democratic model.

Unfortunately, my job too often confirmed that people cry the same way when tortured, regardless of the region. I see the same cry when their loved ones have been kidnapped or killed by a brutal regime. That being said, obviously, any region brings its own specific challenges. We all know the dangers that religious fundamentalism can represent for the young Arab democracies that came out of the Arab Spring. We also know that poverty and lack of education challenge sustainability of democratic regimes in several, but not all, African countries.

There are also common challenges. For example, probably because of the shared history of colonization, the two regions tend to perceive foreign assistance as a new form of soft-colonization and require frequent confirmation of good, honest intentions. In both regions, this suspicion can often turn into a security issue for our staff, unfortunately.

What are the factors that have to be in place for democracy to take root in a country, and how do individuals contribute to those?

It’s a very complex question. Spontaneously, I would say education and rule of law. This is a bit like the egg and the chicken: which comes first, democracy or rule of law? Why would a dictatorship bother promoting a good education system that would lead to citizens who are more aware who could then oust a dictator or fight a corrupt system? Only the sanction of an election can force leaders to promote a strong education system, and only free media, efficient constitutional instruments and effective separation of powers, can help maintain rule of law.

There is a bit of magic in a democratic transition – which is one of the reasons that makes democracy universal in my eyes. History has seen some exceptional individuals emerge and stand against brutality and oppression. These individuals created ripples, which turned into waves, and waves that turned into a democratic tsunami. Spontaneous revolt of the masses against dictatorship is a fascinating process, and the contributing factors are difficult to express, although comparing the history and sociology of different social and political movements enables us to identify recurrent factors for democratic transition. Public awareness of citizens’ rights is definitely one of them, and it is a part of my job to spread it.

How can citizens help foster democracy in their countries?

By sending their children to school; denouncing corruption and refusing to pay bribes; supporting free press and the right of opposition, even when disagreeing with this same opposition, etc.
But this is all very easy to say.

As a Frenchman, I had the chance to grow up in a democracy, and I was able to raise my voice without fear of violence. I do not know if I would have found the courage to resist an authoritarian regime.

I am convinced that democracy is a process, and that even mature democracies always face the risk of authoritarian abuse. Therefore, democracies, no matter their maturity, need to be cherished and protected. Democracy requires a watchful eye at all times, and therefore requires aware citizens.