Helping Citizens Foster Democracy: A Q&A with Kamissa Camara
Kamissa Camara, a Regional Program Officer for West Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, has spent most of her career working on projects that foster political development in Africa. She spent four and a half years at IFES covering the francophone countries in West Africa. She also worked as a coordinator for the Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections (BRIDGE) program. She talks to us about the importance of empowering citizens to drive democratic change in their countries and the use of educational tools like BRIDGE.
What have you been working on since you left IFES?
About a year ago, I joined the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Washington-based congressionally funded grant-making organization. As their Regional Program Officer for West Africa, I am assisted by two Assistant Program Officers in designing programs for Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Togo, Benin, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia. I also work to establish strategic networks with civil society organizations in these countries and assess their ability to receive and manage NED funds. Finally, I work closely with our core institutes, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, to design country programs in our priority countries in West Africa.
How did you get into this field of work?
Right after receiving my master’s degree in France, I knew the U.S. would offer me great opportunities to work in international development. I moved to the Washington, D.C., area in December 2007 and have not regretted it since. Just a few months later, I was interviewed by IFES and joined as the West Africa Program Associate. I would say I had a natural interest in issues related to international and political development, and IFES fulfilled my eagerness to break into and make a difference in this field.
You were born and raised in France, and your family is from Mali. How has this shaped your view of democracy?
I do not think that my cultural background has played a role in shaping my views of democracy. My frequent trips to the West Africa sub-region with IFES, and now with the NED, have heavily contributed to opening my eyes on issues I was not even aware of when growing up.
Democracy in the West is seen as a panacea to most governance challenges sub-Saharan countries face. When visiting countries such as Guinea, one is quick to realize that “democracy,” in the western sense of the word, is not only an ideal, but one that is heavily dependent on a series of prerequisites that need to be dealt with before we can even talk about democratic institutions. National reconciliation; ethnic rivalries and grievances; education; and low economic development are foundations of any political development, and should not be overlooked.
You have experience in democracy promotion, both as a practitioner and now as a grant officer. What are some of the necessary components for programs in democracy development to be effective?
First of all, I would like to highlight that the NED has an original approach to democracy development. Because we do not have field offices and want our grantees to be the catalysts of development in their respective countries, we let potential grantees define their own priorities. They develop project proposals and budgets on their own; my job is to provide suggestions on how to better describe project activities and draw grantees’ attention on key aspects of program implementation. I believe letting indigenous populations tell donors what they see as priorities is one critical aspect of democratic development.
You were heavily involved in the BRIDGE program. What makes the program so useful and effective?
During my days at IFES, I was heavily involved in BRIDGE and continue to facilitate BRIDGE training as an independent consultant for international organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and the European Union. BRIDGE is a unique methodology and curriculum that brings electoral stakeholders together to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. It also provides them with tools to participate in electoral processes in a constructive, peaceful manner.
What is your fondest memory of your work with IFES?
My work at IFES brought a lot of happy moments in my life. The work, itself, was extremely rewarding and I continue to reap the fruits of my work there. One never truly leaves an organization that has such good people. My former coworkers on the Africa team, which I got to know on a personal level, are more than colleagues. I will never forget the camaraderie, especially when facing challenges in the programs we were implementing – the support we offered one another was so appreciated.