As a new graduate, Jamie Tronnes (’03 BA, political science/philosophy) snagged a coveted internship for the (now-defunct) Canadian Alliance Party and launched an unexpected career on Parliament Hill.
It didn’t take long for the political junkie to be promoted to a public relations position in Stephen Harper’s office and then to a role as special assistant to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Monte Solberg.
However, while she liked the work and was good at it, Tronnes began to consider how she could make the biggest impact: “I thought, ‘I want to do something where I’m really involved in helping someone have a better life.’ In government, you have that opportunity, but I wanted something more hands-on, somehow,” she says.
Tronnes then learned about a volunteer position with the International Republican Institution (IRI) — an NGO that promotes democracy around the world — and threw her hat in the ring. A week later, she took a short leave from her job and was en route to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Her assignment? Helping youth develop a jurga (similiar to a parliament) to give them a greater voice in politics. Even though she’d been very involved in various model parliaments, and had mentored plenty of young people over the years, “I really wasn’t prepared,” Tronnes says. “When the youth showed up, I hadn’t understood what they’d had to do to get there.”
It turned out that most of youth had risked their lives for the opportunity to help promote democracy in the country. “One group had been pulled over by the Taliban and their mentors were badly beaten and almost died,” she says.
The experience resonated deeply with Tronnes and as soon as she returned to Canada, she connected with IRI to find another placement. “I tearfully gave up the job in Ottawa that I’d worked so hard to get and moved to Pakistan,” she says.
Since then, she’s worked in 17 countries and four continents, mainly with political parties, candidates, and civil society activists. In 2012 Tronnes received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of her work in the field of democracy promotion and democracy and governance development. This field includes everything from election observation to providing technical assistance to parliaments, as well as training candidates to run in elections.
For example, Tronnes helped train female candidates to run in an upcoming local election in Morocco, where few women tend to run for office. She created a how-to guide for political newcomers called Fatima’s Guide, which was distributed to more than 5,000 candidates. That year, thanks to the work of the IRI and allied groups, the number of women candidates rose from 3,200 to more than 28,000 candidates.
Democracy promotion can have a big impact, but it is also frequently misunderstood. Sometimes it’s assumed that democracy promotion NGOs are looking to overthrow governments or encourage a style of government contrary to a country’s cultural values. As a result, there’s always an element of risk for the staff on the ground.
In 2011, Tronnes was an election observer in Egypt and, two weeks after she’d left the country, the offices of many international NGO groups — such as IRI, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation — had their offices raided and staff arrested. “The government had been cracking down on local NGOs and civil society activists as the protests were ongoing in Tahir,” Tronnes explains. “Many staff were convicted on politically motivated charges and their appeals are ongoing.”
But the broad field of democracy promotion isn’t about imposing Western styles of democracy and Tronnes spends a great deal of time communicating her intentions. “We’re here to help people decide what kind of democracy works in their country and help them build that,” she says. “The bottom line is that if you try to build something that isn’t acceptable, it won’t stick around. It won’t be sustainable.”