Neil Nevitte works to bring free and fair elections to post-conflict nations in hopes of helping make the transition to democracy possible
BY HAILEY EISEN
Professor Neil Nevitte was on leave from his teaching position at Harvard University and had been spending some time on his home-turf in the United Kingdom, when he decided that he was tired of the bad weather and needed a break. “I walked into a travel agency and said I wanted to go somewhere warm that wasn’t touristy,” he recalls. “I was told that a European-style hotel had just opened up in Gambia, West Africa and that there was one flight there per week.” Nevitte booked a two-week vacation and found himself checking-in to this hotel a few days later.
“I had just arrived and was standing by the hotel bar when a guy approached and tapped me on the shoulder,” he says. “It was a fellow who had worked three-offices down from me at Harvard and he was working for the United Nations on a municipal elections project in neighbouring Senegal.”
That was in 1984. “I was given the opportunity to help out on his project and found myself quite critical of the way things were being done,” Nevitte says. A number of years passed before the same colleague approached Nevitte again and said, “If you’re so smart, come figure out how to do things better in Guyana.”
This began Nevitte’s involvement in transitional elections, an experience which spans more than two decades. To date, Nevitte has been involved in 38 elections around the globe—from Kenya to Cambodia to Ecuador and El Salvador—providing technical advice to international organizations and domestic NGOs on the prevention and detection of election fraud and on the conditions for free and fair elections.
He was initially critical of the methodologies being used in international election observation strategies and started to think about how these problems could be fixed. “The conclusion I came to was that election observation in transitional democracies is best conducted by non-partisan, domestic groups, rather than international observers,” he explains.
Nevitte’s team helps show local groups how to conduct election observations. “When we get on the plane and go home, these domestic groups are still there, so it’s important that they know how to conduct this process,” he says. “These groups often set up collaborations and become more involved in projects that aim to move democracy forward.” Nevitte’s job is to provide a bridge between international donors supporting these projects and the domestic groups carrying them out. His team writes the software needed to analyze data as it comes in, and shows domestic groups how to set up databases and recruit and train observers.
Upcoming election projects in Columbia and Malawi will involve enhancing the participation of marginalized groups—indigenous peoples, women and youth—in the political mainstream.
One of his most positive election experiences was in El Salvador in 2008 and 2009, where his team knew the result of the election two-and-a-half hours after the polling stations were closed and were within 0.01% of the official vote. “In that county we were fortunate to be working with a strong organization with a good reputation based out of the University of Central America in San Salvador,” he says. The collaborative relationship with this Catholic Church-supported organization made recruiting domestic observers much easier. It also helped that El Salvador is a small country and the communications logistics were relatively straightforward.
Other elections have been more challenging. “Often, you have a combination of political unrest, physical barriers, and a lack of communications resources, coupled with intense corruption, all working against you,” he says. “It can be discouraging.”
For example, in Indonesia, where Nevitte worked on elections in 1999 and 2004, there are 17,000 islands, five time zones, multiple languages, and regions so remote that they have no cell phone infrastructure and require satellite telephones and radio networks belonging to mining companies for communication.
When he’s not working on the ground in post-conflict regions, Nevitte works as co-investigator of the Canadian Federal Election Study, currently looking at successive minority governments and citizens’ response to them.
He brings his research and fieldwork experience to the classroom where he loves engaging with his “bright, energetic students.” Nevitte says he often comes across real- life examples in his work that challenge traditional assumptions. “I often bring these examples into my Research Methods class to help ground my discussions in world events.”
Through his work as Principal Investigator of the World Values Survey, Nevitte also examines how Canadian’s priorities have shifted over the past 25 years and the consequences of this for the political world. He works as an advisor to a number of PhD students who are studying Canada’s widening generational gap and its effects on the political system.
His passion (aside from academia) is ocean sailing. At sea for two weeks at a time, often once per season, Nevitte finds the opportunity to truly unwind. “One time we were sailing through the Caribbean and had just come through a squall when we found ourselves surrounded by dolphins,” he recalls. “It was incredible.”
First published on the University of Toronto: Department of Political Science website