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Empowering Citizens: Elections, Civil Society and Peacebuilding

21-22 May 2009

Political scientists and practitioners from Lebanon and abroad gathered on the Lebanese American University’s Beirut campus on May 21 and 22 for the launching of a joint LAU- Université de Montréal project – titled “Empowering Citizens: Elections, Civil Society and Peacebuilding” – co-directed by Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh (LAU) and Dr. Marie-Joelle Zahar (U de Montréal) and generously funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Ottawa, Canada.

LAU workshop

The three-year-long project examines the role of external democracy assistance in crafting electoral institutions and re-invigorating civil society in Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq and the Sudan. Its purpose is to evaluate democracy assistance efforts in post-conflict societies, identify reasons for the failure or limited successes of such international efforts, and formulate policy recommendations to improve the efficacy of foreign democracy promotion programs in general and those implemented in the Middle East in particular.

The objective of the two-day inception workshop was to exchange opinions on a number of methodological issues related to the research design and how to best test the causal linkages suggested in the project. After brief opening remarks by Dr. Salloukh and Dr. Zahar, Dr. Rex Brynen of McGill University and Dr. Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) led the first session of the workshop dealing with the problem of identifying and evaluating democracy promotion programs. Some of the questions addressed were: what programs count as democracy promotion, what characteristics do these programs share, and how does one sort them out from other programs common in peace building.

Dr. Zahar and Dr. Salloukh led the second session focusing on the problem of defining and measuring success and empowerment. Issues addressed were the question of what indicators to privilege in measuring success and failure and why, as well as the value of developing time- and context- sensitive measures that take into account often diverging starting points and long-term impacts. The third session was led by Dr. F. Gregory Gause, III of the University of Vermont, Dr. Sylva Hamieh of UNDP-Lebanon, and Mr. Ziad Abdel Samad of LADE and the Arab NGO Network for Development. The three lead discussants examined how best to identify relevant actors in peace-building processes and democracy-promotion programs, addressing the question of whether there is a way to sort out the important players from among a multitude of actors.

The second day of the workshop comprised two sessions both of which were focused on methodological issues. The first session, dealing with quantitative methodologies, was led by Dr. Zahar who addressed the issue of data-collection and underscored the importance of avoiding biased data. The open discussion centered around the measurement of empowerment in different contexts and on different levels (micro and macro). The second session revolved around qualitative methodologies and was led by Dr. Janine Clark who highlighted a number of methodological challenges in conducting research and pinpointed a host of problems such as the definition and measurement of empowerment, the absence of immediate evidence of success, issues of trust between researcher and interviewees, and comparing NGOs in contexts where there is a dearth thereof.

The final session of the workshop was dedicated to an open discussion by the participants. It was led by Dr. Makram Ouaiss who identified factors that need to be focused on and provided valuable suggestions and recommendations on how best to deal with some of the issues brought up in previous sessions. The participants agreed that the importance of the project in terms of its implications outweighs the challenges of conducting the research and the difficulties of asserting causal linkages.