IFES Q&A with former Russia Project Director Christian Nadeau
A Canadian-born attorney, Christian Nadeau has worked in international development and democracy promotion for twelve years in more than thirty countries. As a Division Director in Moscow and Washington, D.C. for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), he analyzed strategic plans and legal frameworks for tribunals, election commissions, and NGOs. An accomplished manager, Nadeau ran on-site, country-wide election support projects in Haiti, El Salvador, Peru and Russia. He has also worked regularly with and the United Nations, the Organization of American States and other governments and organizations
Tell us about your time with the IFES. What is your fondest memory from your work with IFES?
I was privileged to work with IFES from 1993 until 2002 – a period where we witnessed the emergence of democracies worldwide. My fondest memories are tied to the expressions of voters after they cast their ballots – often for the first time, or for the first time in a private or meaningful manner. It was a real pleasure to see the results of the work done with the local authorities transforming lives of people through the ballot box. It was always an inspiration for me to witness the result of years of planning and social changes materialize on Election Day. What fun!
How did you get into election management?
I worked on political campaigns as an election official in Canada, where we have an excellent, nationwide uniform election system. As an attorney with training in comparative law, elections were a great way to work in international law, comparative law, and public sector management. I was drawn to the complexities of building the capacity, credibility, and transparency of an electoral organization within countries that were high on hopes but limited on resources and experience. One of the advantages of working in election management is that you find out very quickly how well you’ve done your job. The stakes are high, which puts pressure on everyone to achieve results. I love dynamic environments.
Since establishing a permanent office in Moscow in 1993, IFES has played an integral role in the development of professional election administrators and in the significant improvement of election laws and procedures in the Russian Federation. Considering your experience in Russia, what groundbreaking program or programs at IFES have resonated most?
IFES was instrumental in the development of comprehensive framework with regards to media and elections in Russia, the development of a legal framework for national elections held in 11 time zones, as well as the development of a local think tank focusing on democracy. IRIS, the local think tank, was the crown jewel of IFES’ work in Russia, as it established a permanent legacy and forum to debate ideas and review regional and national elections in a nonpartisan, technical manner.
As an elections expert, what do you consider to be the greatest challenges for democracy and governance projects?
The main challenge for democracy and governance projects is aligning the expectations of the citizens of a country with the political outcomes of elections. There is too often a disconnect between the aspirations and hopes of people from a democratically-elected government and the realities of the day-to-day in a country. There is no magic formula, but the failure to recognize this challenge may lead to the same people losing faith in their new-found democracy. Everyone loses when a society loses faith in their political system.
What do you consider to be necessary components or best practices for success in helping countries implement credible, transparent and inclusive elections?
First, I’d have to highlight the fact that you now have a cadre of international election management experts worldwide that are able to bring electoral know-how and solutions to nearly every type of environment or political system based on past experiences. The level of sophistication and experiences accumulated worldwide since the 1990s has proved essential for the benefit of elections in war-torn countries in the past decade. It is always a pleasure for me to read about an election where no one mentions issues tied to the technical mechanics. While it will never be perfect, the electoral world seems to be learning faster than Microsoft engineers at taking “bugs” out of an electoral system.
One expects experts to have the know-how to address a particular situation and make the proper recommendations. In my mind, the essential best practices have to do with the intangible qualities required to accomplish a permanent transfer of expertise to other countries – humility, patience, tolerance, and a willingness to embrace the local culture and adapt to its realities. These are the essential ingredients, in addition to expertise, which allow countries to implement valid elections and grow their own electoral management capacity.
What other goals do you have in your career path?
I have been working in the private sector for a decade now, away from public service, focused on the development of a green product. It’s been both a way to ground myself and to be very present through the formative years of my children’s lives. As my children are approaching college, I am looking forward to eventually resuming public service in international affairs.