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How to support democracy abroad

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Who

Joel Marion, 26
BA Honours, University of Winnipeg – Winnipeg, MB

What

In the summer of 2006 I participated as an international election observer in the Democratic Republic of Congo's first democratic elections. My task was to observe the election process and report on how it followed the electoral laws and constitution, with an eye towards fairness and transparency.

On election day I visited a busy school where 33 polling stations had been set up in classrooms. Over the course of the day I observed voting at the majority of the stations, focusing my attention on one polling station. I took notes on everything from the voters' flow through the polling station, to the voting officers' understanding and application of the electoral law.

Throughout the process I was required to remain completely objective, and was strictly forbidden from any kind of intervention. This meant that when I saw a violation of electoral law all I could do was note it and include it in my final report. While this may seem counter-intuitive to the electoral observation process, the intent was not to ensure a perfect vote, but to identify and report on any problems or discrepancies so that recurrent or systemic problems could be identified and compared to the experience in other areas.

After witnessing the entire day of voting, and the long night of counting, my report to the electoral commission joined the hundreds of other international observers' reports in the determination of the fairness of the vote. Information from observers' reports was then used to improve the voting process in the presidential runoff in October of 2006, and future elections.

Why

When I began studying the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo I couldn't understand why the rest of the world didn't know (and apparently didn't care) about what was happening in that country. In a territory the size of Western Europe, a conflict spanning over a decade had claimed more than five million lives — more than any other conflict since World War Two. Millions more were suffering the impact of war, the scars of a generation of conflict.

In 2005 I met a Congolese man who had just escaped the horrors of the eastern Congo two months before. He had been a teacher, trying to convince people that violence was not the way to resolve their conflicts. The Militias wanted him dead. Afraid for his life, he fled his home and his family, and came to Canada to start a new life.

This man was the face of the pain I was trying to understand. In his stories, and his hope I started to realize that the Congo was not really that far away, and that maybe there was something I could do to help.

How

I became involved in a yearly event called the 24 Hour Exile where high school youth are given the opportunity to experience what a refugee might experience over a 24-hour period. I also joined a group of like-minded students in the Rights and Democracy Network at the University of Winnipeg, becoming the group's Deputy-Chair.

I volunteered for a fundraiser for awareness of the situation in the Congo, put on workshops and an international Human Rights conference with the Rights and Democracy group, and started focusing my studies on issues of human rights, post-conflict reconstruction, and democratic development.

In the Spring of 2006 I learned of a group of election observers going to the Congo, and I approached the group's organizer to ask if I could join. As their fundraising had already taken place they could not afford to cover my costs, so I decided to raise my own funds. Through a few generous donors and a substantial personal debt I was able to fund my own way.

If you're interested in becoming an election observer, the following organizations often send volunteers abroad:

CANADEM

The Carter Centre

Transparency International

International IDEA

ACE Electoral Knowledge Network

International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)

The Results

Due largely to intense international scrutiny, the 2006 Democratic Republic of Congo Presidential and Parliamentary elections were a success. While the process was far from perfect, the country emerged from years of conflict to form its first democratically elected government.

My personal experience exposed me to the realities and complexity of working and living in a post-conflict environment. I have gained a new appreciation of the process of democratic development, and the slow, often painstaking pace of progress.

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