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IFES Democracy Fellowships: Integral to Research and Organizational Learning


Academic research provides democracy practitioners with valuable perspectives on the effectiveness of their interventions and approaches. As organizations like the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) are working in increasingly complex and dynamic political environments, they are drawing from academia to better understand electoral issues and inform program design. 

IFES’ William and Kathy Hybl Democracy and Charles and Kathleen Manatt Democracy Studies fellowships are administered on an annual basis by IFES’ Center for Applied Research and Learning, and bring graduate students to IFES to research emerging issues in democracy and governance. Scholars working with IFES receive current, primary source data from IFES’ global programs and support from seasoned election professionals. Both awards channel academic talent from two specific regions of the United States. The Manatt Fellowship, founded by the late Charles T. Manatt, a former diplomat and Chairman of the IFES Board of Directors from Iowa, and his wife Kathleen, aims to bring more graduate students from the Midwest to Washington’s democracy assistance community. Similarly, the fellowship program founded by William J. Hybl, a longtime public servant and IFES Board Director, provides awards to promising students of democracy attending universities in the Rocky Mountain region.

The research of Hybl and Manatt fellows has helped shape learning at IFES, as well as in the wider democracy and governance community. While in residence, fellows have fostered valuable discussions in their areas of research with IFES staff. For example, Yury Bosin (Hybl 2008) from the University of New Mexico examined the methodologies and policy implications of measuring the quality of democracy, and led several IFES discussions on the challenges of measurement with existing indices, and approaches for developing an elections index. Fellows’ work has also influenced research of other organizations. For instance, Brett Lacey (Hybl 2004) from the University of Denver examined the voting rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The research paper he produced at IFES has informed publications by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Brookings Institution, and the Election Law Journal

During his fellowship, Nicholas Kerr (Manatt 2009) of Michigan State University focused on the impact of election management body autonomy on citizens’ perceptions of electoral quality in Sub-Saharan Africa. The data that he collected at IFES informed a working paper for AfroBarometer in 2011, and a paper presented at the Electoral Integrity Project’s annual workshop in 2013. Geoffrey Macdonald (Hybl 2012) explored how electoral system design and party rules incentivize ethnic groups to form political associations. The 2014 Hybl Fellow, Megan Hauser, examined elections in non-democratic hybrid regimes, focusing on how the conditions of an election may affect political party and candidate behavior and wrote a paper on her findings. More recently in 2015, Kerr provided input on questionnaire design for IFES’ 2015 Pre-Election Survey in Nigeria.

Fellows have also worked with IFES as specialists to further develop IFES programming in their areas of expertise. For example, Inken Von Borzyskowski (Manatt 2011) from the University of Wisconsin consulted with IFES between 2011 and 2013 on developing the Election Violence Education and Resolution (EVER) program.

While the impact of fellows’ research is evident at IFES and in democracy research, there is a need to more effectively institutionalize these linkages. In 2014, the Center for Applied Research and Learning was founded to address this need. The Center works to combine academic approaches with practitioner perspectives, emphasizing practical applications of research and evaluation to strengthen democracy and governance assistance. Moreover, programs that the Center fosters, like the Hybl and Manatt Fellowships, are beneficial to both IFES and to the academic community. Both fellowships help integrate learning throughout IFES, which can lead to more rigorous and targeted electoral support. Such rigorous, evidence-based programming carries the potential to transform political and electoral processes, and impact the lives of individuals around the world.

Read 2014 Manatt Fellow Gregory Wallsworth’s reflections on his time at IFES:

For most of us, myself included, who have chosen to pursue research in political science or economics, we started doing so because we hoped one day our research may be used to improve lives somewhere in the world. At IFES, for the first time since starting down the path of becoming an academic, I interacted with individuals who could directly put to use the results from my research. My research focuses on political violence and I was drawn to that field of study because of my personal experience while serving in Iraq as a U.S. Marine. Working with individuals at IFES who understand the realities of political violence was an enlightening and enriching experience. Having so many knowledgeable individuals truly interested in your research provided amazing feedback and a great source of motivation.

In addition to that exposure, the staff at IFES has an incredible array of experience that cannot be gained simply by reading academic papers. Having access to their experts on various regions of the world and their connections to other professionals in the field, provided contacts I hope to work with long into my career. Too often practitioners and academics fail to fully leverage the potential of continued collaboration. This is why the project I worked on while at IFES, was intended to bridge the gap between often abstract academic research, and the more traditional style of research put together by foundations, with a focus on advancing techniques employed in the field.

In summary, the knowledge, connections, resources, and experience that IFES brings to the table makes the Manatt fellowship an excellent opportunity for anyone interested in researching topics related to elections. Furthermore, graduate school gives you a glimpse into the academic world but often with little idea what other opportunities exist for the unique skill set obtained while working towards a Ph.D. This fellowship opened my eyes to an amazing community of people struggling to address the issues we study in the real world, and provided an outlet for my research to reach its intended goal, of actually influencing real actions and work towards fixing real problems.