IRI Co-Hosts Conference on Strengthening Democracy: Analyzing the Role of Influentials

IRI and the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet (IPDI) at the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University (GWU) co-hosted a conference “Strengthening Democracy: Analyzing the Role of Influentials,” on May 1, 2007.

Building on the work of Jon Barry and Ed Keller, two public opinion researchers with the Roper Organization, who published a book on the concept of influentials in 2003, the conference considered how the concept of influentials (or opinion makers) operates in developing democracies and what international assistance can do to help strengthen the skills of pro-democratic voices around the world.

During the conference, participants heard welcoming remarks from Christopher Arterton, Dean of the Graduate School of Political Management, GWU and Lorne Craner, President of IRI. They also heard presentations from two panels.

The first, moderated by Henry Farrell, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at GWU featured presentations by Gretchen Birkle, Director of IRI’s Women’s Democracy Network (WDN), and Juljia Belej Bakovic, Director of Iraq Program at IRI.  The discussion looked at two perspectives to democratic development – one in which influentials drive the process and play a critical role in building democratic institutions and the more conventional or academic perspective which emphasizes a top-down institutional aspect of political transitions.  Birkle and Belej Bakovic also discussed the social, economic, educational and institutional barriers to political participation faced by women and youth who are eagerly seeking creative solutions to overcome these obstacles

The second panel, moderated by Gina M.S. Lambright, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at GWU, featured presentations by Tom Garrett, Director of Middle East and North Africa programs at IRI, and Dara Francis a Program Officer at IRI.  Through a discussion of IRI’s work in Indonesia and Mali, panelists dispelled the notion that the U.S. is trying to export its form of democracy to other countries.  Through its work with Muslim political parties and traditional community leaders, IRI is helping influentials in Indonesia and Mali work through their national and local institutions to strengthen democracy in their countries.

The luncheon keynote address, by pollster David Williams of David Williams and Associates, highlighted the value of public opinion research in identifying and addressing issues of concern to an electorate. Williams also discussed the role polls play in helping political leaders increase responsiveness to public demands and improve governance.

The conference was part of a series of activities aimed at using IRI’s work to enrich scholarship and research.

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