On the first stop of our Day 3 tour, we visited Freedom House, a think tank renowned for its efforts to document the state of human rights, democratic change, and civil liberties around the world. Our conversation centered around current threats to the promotion of freedom and civic engagement in regions at risk of democratic backsliding, particularly with regard to the promotion of government accountability and transparency, media freedom, and the strengthening of civil society.
For Freedom House, advocacy is more important than research. As a grantmaking institution, they support activists and help mobilize support for pro-democratic movements around the world. Some questions we had leaving Freedom House include: what does it mean to promote democracy, and what definitions are most useful? How do we evaluate the success of these projects? How does funding from the State Department affect the type of work they do?
Finally, we discussed career trajectories and theories of change. Drawing on her past experience as an Admissions Officer, Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, the Executive Vice President at Freedom House, advised us to consider our passion, gifts, and the work culture in which we thrive when making career decisions.
We next visited the Brookings Institution, where we spoke with three leading analysts who study the inner workings of Congress, American tax policy, and youth voter mobilization. Getting to hear about the specific mechanisms through which Brookings impacts the U.S. policymaking process was insightful and inspiring.
The panelists also helped us to understand the key tradeoffs between conducting research in university environments and entering the think tank or corporate space, particularly around one’s freedom to dictate research topics, funding sources, speed of publication, and mode of public communication.
For our final stop on our Day 3 tour, we visited the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a leading think tank centered around advancing free and fair elections around the world. IFES partners with civil society organizations, public institutions, and private entities to investigate threats to effective and open electoral processes, supporting the development of multi-sectoral strategies to promote civic engagement.
We discussed the challenges facing elections in the 21st century, including social media and artificial intelligence, particularly in emerging democracies. Matt Bailey, a senior global advisor for cyber and information Integrity at IFES, also discussed how a high degree of human error and logistical challenges can exacerbate distrust in institutions, pointing to delays at polling stations in Nigeria.
Visiting Brookings, IFES, and Freedom House gave us insight into how D.C. think tanks aim to project American values and promote freedom at home and abroad. But strengthening political institutions seems more gradual and harder to get right than other areas of development work we learned about. One question we are left with is whether we need to think beyond “representative democracy and Marshallian citizenship,” to quote Soss and Weaver, when working to make the world a more free and fair place.