By Julia Munemo
There are only a handful of organizations the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development call on when they want to help an emerging democracy develop. Democracy International (DI), headed by Eric Bjornlund ’80, has joined those ranks—monitoring elections, helping build accountable institutions, and developing citizen participation in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Egypt.
But when USAID asked for proposals to conduct a $75-million, five-year project supporting democracy building in the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan, no one thought DI was in the running. Bjornlund’s firm was considered too new to the business. “But we had some good ideas,” he says, modestly.
The DI team landed in South Sudan in the fall of 2013 with several goals: To advise the newly-created election and constitutional commissions, to support emerging political parties, and to promote the engagement of civil society organizations. When political violence spiked a few months later, they had to evacuate.
Geographically speaking, South Sudan was almost a return to Bjornlund’s democracy and governance roots. He majored in economics at Williams, went on to Columbia Law School, and first traveled to Africa for a pro bono case with the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray. He was part of a litigation team helping support Namibia’s struggle for independence from South Africa. One project in Namibia led to another, and eventually he was advising a mission to the emerging country led by Robert Kennedy’s son Michael. “I decided this type of work was what excited me,” he says.
Pretty soon, Bjornlund was working for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), which was “trying to figure out how to promote democracy at a practical level,” he says. He went back to Namibia with NDI in 1989 and wrote a book-length report about how the U.N. can help with nation-building; it was the start of an 11-year career with the organization.
When Bjornlund and fellow founding DI partner Glenn Cowan left their jobs at NDI in 2000, they wanted to start an organization that could evaluate and assess democracy and governance work. “There is an absence of serious academic work about the effectiveness of democracy and governance programs,” Bjornlund says. “We wanted to provide a more analytical perspective on how the programs were working and balance that with an understanding of what works and what doesn’t and why.” Today DI evaluates and assesses projects conducted by NDI, the Carter Center, and others and they run projects of their own.
Like the one in South Sudan, where the team returned in 2014. “We now have an increased focus on supporting the peace process,” Bjornlund says. “Our team is working to promote a peaceful democratic transition as South Sudan prepares to hold its first national elections.” DI also led the international effort to oversee the high-profile vote recount in Afghanistan last year, and with the European Union has led international observerations of a series of elections in Egypt through 2014 and 2015.
Bjornlund is enthusiastic about his work. And during the financial crisis, when Williams reached out to alumni asking about job opportunities for recent graduates, he decided to share that enthusiasm with his fellow Ephs. While folks with their master’s degrees typically fill entry-level positions at Democracy International, Bjornlund and his partner agreed they would give a couple of recent Williams alumni a chance—and they weren’t disappointed. “They performed fantastically,” says Bjornlund. “We decided to hire more Williams alumni, and they have all been incredible contributors.”
To learn more about Democracy International, visit the organization’s website.