IFES Q&A with Robert David Irish, former Field Operations Manager for South Sudan

Publication Date: 
16 Oct 2014

Robert David Irish has analyzed and advised electoral processes in Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East since 2005. Three years of election observation missions with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Haiti, The Carter Center (Ethiopia), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (Sierra Leone) and the International Republican Institute (Pakistan and Bangladesh) were followed by five years of technical assistance missions with IFES (Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan). Specialties include project management; political, legal and operational analysis; reporting program activities and results; and stakeholder relations. Irish’s electoral experience in developing democracies is supported by more than 10 years of corporate and law firm positions in San Francisco that provided the foundation for project and personnel management skills. He holds a B.A. in international relations (cum laude) from San Francisco State University and an M.S. in political science (cum laude) from the Universiteit van Amsterdam.

What are you doing now?

I recently conducted a nine-week election audit observation mission with Creative Associates in Afghanistan. The USAID Office of Transition Initiatives requested a team of 40 international observers to assess the 100 percent audit of nearly eight million ballots from the second round of the 2014 presidential election. As a coordinating observer and the reporting officer, I contributed leadership and analytical skills to project management and evaluation.

What is the most exciting project you worked on during your time at IFES? Can you describe what made it interesting for you?

As the IFES Field Operations Manager in South Sudan, I was honored to contribute to the drafting and passage of the 2012 National Elections Act (NEA). The IFES electoral advisory team prepared the draft act and worked closely with the Ministry of Justice over a period of six months to finalize and prepare the bill for submission to the National Legislature in February 2012. Over the next four months, IFES provided technical guidance and legal counsel to the Legislation and Justice Committee Chairperson. IFES monitored the process and shepherded the elections bill through three legislative readings until its passage in April and enactment into law in July 2012. Playing an integral role in this process was exciting as the Act provides the legal framework for establishing the first national elections commission and conducting all electoral events for Africa’s newest country.

Did you feel that your work at IFES helped you grow professionally? Which IFES experience (technical or other) do you value the most?

Working for IFES for almost five years provided essential expertise that has encouraged my professional development as a democratic governance practitioner. My collective experience in nine countries over eight years enabled the analytical capacity to recently author my first electoral case study called “Mitigating Electoral Violence in South Sudan” in the IFES publication Elections Worth Dying For? A Selection of Case Studies from Africa. IFES missions in Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan provided the managerial, technical and operational skills to understand, analyze and explain the contextual issues impacting the risk of violence during electoral events.

Having worked in IFES South Sudan, what are in your view the greatest challenges for implementing robust systems for democracy and governance projects?

Designing, implementing and sustaining democratic governance structures in any society is difficult, but when seeking to institutionalize the norms and values necessary for success in a post-conflict society, the challenges are even more complicated. In the case of South Sudan, the democratization process following independence in July 2011 failed to identify and resolve the conflicting interests of its top political leadership. The lack of compelling incentives for change and the social constraints preventing compromise and power sharing exploded into violence in December 2013. An initially political contest within the ruling political party elite immediately polarized traditional ethnic rivalries when the violence fractured fault-line communities. The resulting death, destruction, and displacement in villages and cities across the country over the next six months illustrated the danger of not adequately supporting and encouraging democratic governance development that takes into consideration deeper cultural, historical and personal issues. The national leadership has tragically failed in its duty to the people, but the international community was also caught unawares and unprepared to address the political crisis and its potential for generating civil war. In my opinion, the greatest challenge for donors and implementers to promoting democracy and governance is to find the right combination of interests and incentives to mitigate the institutional constraints within the political and economic context of a post-conflict society.