The smug Samaritan

If you have even the vaguest interest in war and/or humanitarian intervention, the notion of neutrality is one that you will often be confronted with. Even outside of a conflict situation, as a foreigner coming to “help” a country, you still have to think about how your actions are perceived by whom to benefit whom.

In my case, as an election observer, it’s an absolutely integral consideration of the mission. The key thing, we are told over and over in briefings, is that the observation process should be impartial. The credibility of our entire presence hinges on the perception by all political actors and the voters that we are completely disinterested in the process, that we are somehow removed from it, observing but not participating.

Yet this idea of the observer as outside the process directly contradicts the other purpose of election observation, which is to credibilise the electoral process and to deter electoral fraud (which can fail, of course, in some spectacular ways)*. As observers, we are to be given access to every single stage of the procedure, should we demand it, because any denial would be seen as a sign of something to hide. This is not arrogance on my part, overstating how important we are –national election commissions themselves almost always refer to statements by international observers to demonstrate the transparency and credibility of the process. We don’t officially care who wins but we’re all hoping for a smooth process because, ultimately, all organisations that send observation missions have a greater ambition of supporting credible democratic processes.

So how do we reconcile being a part of something while staying out of it? To what extent do we have any right to be proactive to support a smooth process? There come times when it’s incredibly difficult to just observe…


On the one hand, in many cases we’re dealing in very sensitive and politically-charged contexts.** Here, elections are a part of the fragile peace-building process and we are to operate in an environment of tense rivalry between parties seeking to occupy vacuums of power left by a crisis. What this means for us is that anything we say and do can and will be used against us. Part 2 of briefing, after being told how important impartiality is, is on watching your words and steps to avoid becoming another political tool. A conversation with your observation partner in the car, while the driver listens on; a casual chat in a crowded bar; throwaway comments to a curious voter…The next thing you know your words are on the radio as an official statement from the mission, we are warned. Of course, it rarely happens that way but still, it pays to be wary.*** In politics rumour travels faster than the truth. Political party agents are often present whenever we observe and the mere insinuation that an observer is intervening in a way that is perceived to benefit one party or another is not only bad for you as an observer, but for your entire mission and ultimately the organisation. Bottom line: we’re not the only ones doing the observing.

Here’s where the Good Samaritan dilemma comes in: there are moments where you see people clearly in trouble and you feel compelled to help. I’ll be honest that this comes with a touch of arrogance: coming in as international election observers, you get treated as if you’re some kind of expert (let me refer you to the previous post for the associated complications!). It’s tempting to nurture the fiction that it’s our duty to impart our never-ending wisdom to locals. But we’re also told in training sessions that we’re not here to tell people what to do and if they’re doing it wrong; it’s entirely their process. We note and report their mistakes and hope they learn from them for next time. However, isn’t this in some ways just as sanctimonious as the former premise? We smugly observe as the ignorant fail to do what we know they’re supposed to do. But if our goal is to support a credible democratic process, how can we sit by and allow hundreds, if not thousands, to be disenfranchised because of avoidable human error?

Every time I’ve been on mission (admittedly not very often), election organisers and staff seem eager and genuine –they want everything to go off without a hitch, for no-one to doubt the credibility of it all. But they also lack the experience and the states lack the means and infrastructure necessary to obtain the results their efforts deserve. It’s impossible to get the level of training required for the thousands and thousands of polling staff to be perfectly prepared. We ourselves may only have a few days of briefing in the specific electoral laws and procedures, compared to the weeks of preparation for organisers and staff. However, an election is so much more than simple casting of a ballot on E-day. It’s a part of a long-term process aiming for peace and stability, which relies on certain political and social contexts to succeed. People were simply not as used to the idea of a democratic process as international observers –the importance of transparency, constant checks and balances, etc. Training for them focused on procedures but not on why they were important; the result is that individual members will make mistakes and take shortcuts, which may jeopardise the integrity of the process. In one country I observed in, a polling station worker signed the voter registration roll instead of the voters. It seemed a measure that was clearly done to save time in an overcrowded polling station but would’ve been grounds for disqualification of the results for the station, should either party have pursued the matter. Sending the results from polling stations in unsealed envelopes to the elections administration, leaving ballot boxes unattended to, etc. All things that are unfortunately common, especially as the day drags on and fatigue creeps in (many workers arrive at 5 a.m. and don’t eat a full meal till they leave after counting, long after nightfall). And then there are the simple calculation errors on the records made by polling officers, which are instantly seized upon by political parties to claim fraud.

It’s hard to watch so many mistakes unfolding before your eyes. Yes, there is self-interest in that we work hard and it’s personally frustrating to see things not going to plan. But even more so because you can tell how much people want the process to work and the idea that months of preparation could be compromised by simple error is plain frustrating. So, technically, we’re not supposed to comment on whether proper procedures are being followed, but if the difference between 500 people having their votes count or not is bad maths, do you just keep quiet?

There isn’t a clear-cut yes or no answer to whether we should give help when it seems to be needed, at the risk of putting into doubt our mission and, by proxy, the process itself. But perhaps the question is not even that important. You may have noticed I’ve used the word “credibility” over and over. But I recognise it’s not something that’s objective. It’s bestowed. One of the more important things we’re told in training is that, ultimately, we as observers do not determine the credibility of the process. It’s up to the people of the country to accept their elections as free and fair.****

*Listening to colleagues describe their experiences in a certain large West African nation is tragically hilarious. Not even the actual presence of an ex-US president deterred police officers from carting off ballot boxes in the middle of polling to “check them”…

**Though I had a colleague who observed elections in Switzerland…the perfect match for a mission aiming to be neutral, one might imagine.

***In one case, violence broke out the day before the election and we were told by mission leadership to not wear our observer shirts during our duties, as the opposition considered international observers to be part of a grand conspiracy against them…

****In one election, international observers were unanimous that the first round of elections had been carried out with no fraud but the 2nd-placed party rejected this conclusion and called on its supporters to boycott the second round. As a result, despite our statements commending the nature of the first round, turnout for round 2 dropped by about half

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2 thoughts on “The smug Samaritan

  1. Hmm, difficult question – I imagine you must all have a personal line drawn at some point (even if only unconsciously) as to at what point you would absolutely definitely have to intervene. Presumably if – in the most extreme and hopefully unlikely circumstances – violence started, you might find yourself stepping outside the observer role without even thinking about it, e.g. helping injured people get medical help. So how do you decide where those lines are drawn? Somewhere in the midst of all the grey areas to do with electoral procedure you mentioned above, I imagine…

    I also wondered how ‘observation’ is perceived by locals, when the observers presumably come from various different countries? In your experience, are there some countries whose observers are perceived to be more or less impartial than others by local people? (I can just imagine what might happen if Nigeria sent observers to Ghana, for instance…!) Or are there not observers from every country?

  2. Well, we’re actually told that if there’s serious trouble we should try to extricate ourselves as quickly as possible and not stop to assist, because our intervention might turn out to be more problematic than helpful. That said, they know we’re humans and subject to gut instincts, which might be to aid people in obvious need (not that I know with certainty that my impulse would be stick around and do what I could rather than get very, very far away!)

    As for perception of observers, there are touchy issues with nationality, yes. The only explicit rule is that an international observer cannot be from the country of observation -obvious enough. But then French observers in Cote d’Ivoire might not be a good idea if you want to maintain the perception of neutrality. I heard locals complaining about the ECOWAS mission, saying that it had abandoned impartiality in favour of the incumbent because they were doing an impressive job for the region…it’s definitely a consideration in the composition of the mission team.

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