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NDI: Delivering on Democracy: Economic Development and Youth Engagement

Date: 
Saturday, February 20, 2016 to Sunday, March 27, 2016

Photos from this program are available on IRG's Flickr account.

From February 20 to 27, 2016, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in partnership with the Institute for Representative Government (IRG), and with funding from the U.S. Department of State (DoS), Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), organized an exchange program for six members of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People of the Republic of Tunisia. The delegation totaled eight participants, including a senior advisor to the president of Tunisia and an accompanying NDI staff member. A narrative summary of the delegation’s meetings and activities follows.

The peaceful conduct of parliamentary and presidential elections in Tunisia in October 2014 has contributed to the widespread impression of the country as the lone success of the Arab Spring. While the efforts of Tunisia’s national dialogue quartet were recognized by the Nobel Committee for its efforts to develop a national roadmap to steer the country forward, citizen expectations of the new parliament for socio-economic development and democratic programs remain exceptionally high relative to existing economic, security and political challenges. Strong political leadership will be needed to ensure that democracy is delivering for all Tunisians, in particular the country’s youth, who suffer from a lack of economic opportunities and political engagement. During the exchange program, delegates had the opportunity to explore the pressing economic and security issues that matter most to Tunisian citizens through dialogue with members of the U.S. Congress, Congressional staff, state legislators, policy experts and civil society leaders in Washington, D.C., and Annapolis, Maryland. Members of the delegation were accompanied by NDI staff, and language interpreters provided by the State Department.

In Washington, the program commenced with an opening session at NDI, in which senior representatives from the State Department and NDI welcomed the delegates to the United States and discussed key themes of the ensuing program. In the course of the week in Washington and Annapolis, the delegation had opportunities to meet and interact with U.S. government officials, Congressional and state representatives, civil society leaders, and change-makers.

While in Washington, the delegates participated in high-level meetings with U.S. government representatives, including Eric Pelofsky, senior director for North Africa and Yemen at the National Security Council (NSC), and Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at DoS. The participants also had the opportunity to pay visits to the offices of U.S. Congressional members. Rep. Peter Roskam, Chair of the House Democracy Partnership (HDP), met with the group to discuss Tunisia’s important role to consolidate their democracy on the global forum, and emphasized HDP’s commitment to help strengthen legislative institutions worldwide, including the parliament of Tunisia, which currently holds observer status within HDP. Rep. Diane Black, a member of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues (CCWI), spoke on the importance of women’s leadership in the U.S. Congress. She heard from the group about the strides that the Tunisian government has made towards achieving greater gender balance in its polity, as well as challenges in this area. Rep. David Price, Ranking Democratic Member and Co-Chair of HDP, shared with the participants his perspectives on the value of parliamentary exchanges, and stressed that – as a partnership of peers – through HDP, the U.S. legislature stands to benefit by learning from the democratic experience of other participating parliaments, and can strengthen its bilateral relationships with foreign governments.

In NDI’s experience organizing more than 20 IRG exchanges, among the most valuable aspects of the programs are the opportunities to share and compare experiences with fellow delegates and with office holders at multiple levels within the United States. The program included opportunities for informal engagement with the delegates’ U.S. Congressional counterparts.

A luncheon reception brought together participants and nine IRG board members and leading former members of Congress, including Peter M. Weichlein, Hon. Phil English, Hon. Blanche Lincoln, Hon. Connie Morella, Hon. Tim Petri, Hon. Jim Slattery, and Hon. John Tanner. The informal meeting granted opportunities to the group to ask questions of their counterparts regarding the core functions of legislators in the U.S., while providing an opportunity for the IRG board members to learn about the current political challenges facing members of the delegation. A program dinner was also hosted by His Excellency Ambassador Fayçal Gouia of the Republic of Tunisia at his residence. Attended by the delegation and IRG board members, the dinner helped to foster further informal engagement and exchange.

 In Annapolis, the delegation met with Maryland State Senator Rep. James Rosapepe. The group also visited the constituency office of Sen. Barbara Mikulski. In both meetings, delegates heard about the importance of constituent services and strategies for citizen outreach, as well as the effective use of technology as a critical tool to reach younger constituents. The delegation’s visit to Sen. Mikulski’s local constituent office in particular helped to situate the lessons learned and information exchanged in a more practical, relevant way as the work of state and local-level governments are often more analogous to the legislative work performed in other smaller democracies.

To complement the group’s visits to legislative offices, the delegation was exposed to specific tools and resources they could use to support their home legislatures. The group attended a Congressional hearing on appropriations for U.S. Homeland Security and to situate their firsthand observations of hearings, the participants heard from experts, including a senior Congressional staff, about the strategic use of hearings by representatives to achieve political ends. On the critical topic of Congressional communications and political messaging, senior communications directors for U.S. Congressional representatives Congressman David Price and Congressman Jim McDermott shared their expertise and led a communications workshop with exchange members, speaking on how legislators can strategically leverage media and communications channels to advance party platforms, and project an image of party unity and cohesion. The delegates also met with senior officials from the State Department - Moira Whelan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy at the State Department, and Frank Finver, Senior Advisor in DoS, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs - to discuss the transformative power that social media has had on government-citizens relations, and the profound implications that developments in information and communications technologies (ICTs) have for democracy and parliaments worldwide.

As civil society can play a valuable role to provide research support for policy development, communicating and amplifying party messages, and lending credibility to the legislature -  especially during times of limited capacity - the delegation met with leading civil society representatives and experts from the Sunlight Foundation, Global Integrity, and the Open Government Partnership, who shared their firsthand experiences of how strategic collaboration with civil society can bolster legislative goals. The delegation also gathered with members of the Tunisian American Young Professionals (TAYP), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization with the aim to increase the effectiveness of economic relationships and investments between the U.S. and Tunisia.

To culminate the program, in collaboration with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), NDI organized a public panel discussion focused on the evolution of Tunisian politics, and the current challenges and opportunities faced in trying to meet citizen expectations and address issues of youth employment and engagement. Select delegation members, Hon. Nozha Bayaoui, MP of Afek Tounes, and Hon. Haiekel Belgacem, MP of Popular Front, served on the panel to share their perspectives on these issues, and engage with the audience in a robust question and answer session. The event was attended by 50 people, with representation by the State Department, USAID, The Atlantic Council, the Middle East Institute, Brookings Institution, the U.S. Army, International Republican Institute, Open Society Foundations, Eurasia Foundation, Solidarity Center, the Institute for Inclusive Security, the National Center for State Courts, IREX, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins SAIS, American University, and Syracuse University Maxwell School.