IFES Q&A with Former Senior Program Manager Raquel Darnolf
Raquel Darnolf is an institutional strengthening specialist with over 15 years of experience managing and implementing donor-funded development programs. Her work with civil society organizations includes organizational development, citizen engagement, and advocacy initiatives. She has a strong background in democracy and governance and familiarity with other development sectors including economic growth and the environment. Darnolf has experience working in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia. She served as Senior Program Manager for the East and Southern Africa portfolio at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and as Project Manager for the Asia and Africa Regions at Chemonics International. She possesses an international relations degree from the University of South Florida and is a native Spanish speaker.
Tell us about your experience managing programs in East and Southern Africa while at IFES. What common challenges do the countries in the region face as they plan for peaceful and credible elections?
One of the most common challenges facing countries in this region is the lack of citizens’ trust in the institutions responsible for conducting free and fair elections. Even with the influx of election technology and regulatory reforms to address transparency issues, citizens still question the credibility of these countries’ election processes. This lack of trust can be attributed to the region’s characteristic polarizing political environment and restrictive civic space, which largely contributes to higher incidences of violence around elections.
From your experience managing programs in Africa, what role can the media – both traditional and social – play in mitigating electoral violence?
Unfortunately, the media has often been a catalyst for electoral violence. Both traditional and social media have contributed to electoral violence through inflammatory language and extremely biased reporting. Because of the media’s influence throughout the electoral process, it is imperative they are properly trained on how to report on election-related issues and remain independent. Only when held accountable for adhering to a code of conduct can media be effective at mitigating electoral violence.
Ahead of general elections in Uganda in 2011, IFES worked with Uganda’s Election Commission to improve its voter register. What role did technology play in this process?
The use of a SMS platform allowed for voters in Uganda to verify the information on the voter registry and contribute to the overall integrity of the voters’ roll. The use of this technology provided for many Ugandans without mainstream access to information and communications technology infrastructure to play an active role in ensuring the credibility of the election process. This increased access to the registry enhanced the trust of voters in the ability of Uganda’s Election Commission to conduct transparent elections. Although social media was not utilized to formally promote the use of the SMS platform, civil society representatives did use social media to spread the word and encourage voters with access to the Internet to use the online voter registration feature of the SMS platform. Civil society representatives also used the online national voter registry to conduct data verification queries by polling station, further increasing the active scrutiny of the voters’ roll and its ultimate improvement.
What was your most memorable moment while working at IFES?
Working side by side with leaders from election commissions like Chairman Ahmed Hassan of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and Director Priscilla Isaac of the Electoral Commission of Zambia were truly humbling experiences.
Can you tell us about the organization you founded and the work you’re doing in Africa today?
Along with Elizabeth Reiter Dettmer, a former IFES Program Manager for the Middle East and North Africa, I started a women-owned small business called MainSpring International aimed at assisting civil society organizations in aligning their strategic goals with their operational capacities. MainSpring helps these organizations, particularly at the grassroots level, achieve the necessary independence and professionalism to realize their missions and become drivers of change within their own countries. The company does this by identifying short- and long-term goals to ensure sustainability and reduce reliance on external assistance, which are pervasive challenges for civil society organizations in Africa. Overall, MainSpring provides capacity development for these organizations to structure their operations effectively, resource themselves sufficiently, and focus on accomplishing their missions. For more information, see www.mainspringinternational.com.
For young professionals entering the field of democracy and governance, what recommendations would you share about gaining experience and making an impact?
The field of democracy and governance can be both challenging and rewarding. There are aspects of democracy and governance integrated into every other development field, hence it is important to understand how this influences the work. Although it is not always easy to measure democracy and governance work’s long-term impact, there is extreme satisfaction in knowing that this field can lead to considerable improvement in people’s lives through the promotion of citizens’ basic human rights and equal access to services.