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Aid in Elections: How to Make International Aid to Elections Effective 

May 28, 2015

On 13 May, the National Election Commission of Korea hosted the 1stSeoul International Forum on Elections where Andrew Ellis, Interim International IDEA Director for Asia and the Pacific, made a presentation on ‘Making International Aid to Elections Effective’. Andrew talked about aid and democracy, describing its early approach in the 1990s as technocratic. Since the 1990s, democracy and governance issues have gained importance within the aid agenda, but this approach has never been fully accepted within the aid community. More recently, democracy projects within aid programmes have become more established, most often in countries that demonstrate a form of democratic, bureaucratic or institutional foundation to start with.

With regards to aid for elections, Ellis pointed out that this is only one element of democracy and governance aid, alongside institution building, accountability, transparency and others. There are three distinct pillars of electoral support, all mutually linked and all in areas which are essential for legitimate and credible elections: technicalities of elections, management and administration of electoral bodies, and electoral processes. He also emphasized that aid for elections to be successful, it must remain non-prescriptive, only a process of comparing and sharing of experiences.

‘It must not sell a specific model of elections’, Ellis said. ‘It should support the whole electoral cycle, especially through capacity-building. Aid agencies must support a range of actors from electoral management bodies (EMBs), political parties, civil society, and media. The international community must also be knowledgeable of the country’s political context, and act independently of commercial vested interests even though big money can be involved’.

However, issues with government official development assistance (ODA), and other support from the international community also need to be addressed. While vital, funders often tend to ‘cherry pick’ popular countries such as those affected by the Arab Spring and more recently, Myanmar – and also to ‘cherry pick’ high visibility and short term elements of electoral support at the expense of more long term and low profile items. This particular issue generated an intensive discussion at the forum, pointing out that focusing aid on high profile countries means leaving out other important cases; that aid agencies too often can be competitive rather than cooperative; and that pressure from funders for quick results can easily conflict with long term sustainability of electoral processes. It also brought forward a concern on sometimes unwanted effects when aid programmes overburden EMBs, in particular, in newer democracies where capacity is low. It is more important first to get the basics of election management in place. Collaboration between actors at the international field is essential for ensuring that resources go directly to where they are needed, and to monitoring to avoid manipulation of elections.

Aside from the session on ODA and elections, the forum also discussed political parties and political rights of minorities, and the role of political parties in resolving social conflicts.

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