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Election Time: Lessons from Young Leaders
February 28, 2016

This is the first article in a series titled, “Election Time: Lessons from Young Leaders”

Citizens in Burkina Faso standing in line to vote (© AP Images)
Voters in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, line up to cast their ballots on November 29, 2015. (© AP Images)

Lex Paulson is an attorney, professor, writer, and consultant in international governance. He’s worked as a facilitator and trainer for NGOs in Uganda, Burundi, Niger, Ghana, Congo-Brazzaville, Benin, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire, on issues related to democratic engagement and accountable government.

The election was going to be too close to call. The mood at campaign headquarters — “headquarters” being too grand a word; it was just a simple apartment — was anxious. Our candidate, energetic and eloquent, may have been more anxious than any of us. We knew he hadn’t slept for three nights before Election Day. We had worked so hard and earned the support of so many voters — but what if they stayed home, or changed their minds? What would we do if our opponent, that career politician with the “trust me” grin, won the election? Would all our work go to waste?

This was the story of my first campaign, but it could be your story too. Elections are a time when a community makes big decisions, and these decisions can bring out the best and the worst in us. I’ve helped train young activists in Benin and Egypt, worked with political journalists in Uganda and small-business owners in Côte d’Ivoire, and led a national evaluation of election monitors in Guinea. As different as these countries are from one another, at election time I recognize the exact same emotions — nervousness, hopefulness, excitement, doubt — that I felt as a 19-year-old on that city-council campaign in New Haven, Connecticut.

As a professor now at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (called “Sciences Po” for short), my students and I have the privilege of teaming up with the Young African Leaders Initiative Network in 2016 to explore the challenges that face us during election season. How can young people help ensure that elections are fair and peaceful? How can they bring their own ideas — even surprising and new ones — into the political debate? How can we mobilize our communities to get educated about politics and show up on Election Day? How do we ready ourselves for the work after Election Day, win or lose?

Elections can be full of anxiety and frustration, but so too can they bring out our better angels. Campaigns get us out into the community to meet new people, learn about their lives, and debate together how we can make change. We form teams, work hard and find new skills we didn’t know we had before. And in the process, new leaders can come out of the most unexpected places. You may be one of them.

In the months ahead, we at Sciences Po will be sharing stories and lessons from all over the world as we engage with you on these powerful questions in a series titled, “Election Time: Lessons from Young Leaders.” We look forward to discussing and debating them with the entire YALI community. Together I think we can bring the promise of democracy — with all its frustrations and faults — another step closer to reality.

Want to read more articles from the, “Election Time: Lessons from Young Leaders” series? Please find them here:

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