Welcome to my debut in the brave new world of blogging at USAID.

We’ve made the most of our time during Dr. Shah’s first Africa trip as the head of this amazing agency; only in the home stretch have I found a few minutes to share an observation or two.

With impressions still intense from a day and a night in Darfur – most notably, visiting under a scorching sun a vast and desert-dusty camp for internally displaced people that thousands of victims of violence, mostly women and children, now know as home – we rose at dawn to head to Juba in the far south of Sudan.  Here the climate is different in every sense.

Right off the bat we met with our civil society partners in the effort to improve governance and confidence in democracy.  The Sudanese Group for Democratic Elections and the Sudanese Network for Democratic Elections provide voter education and poll-watching in the country’s north and south, respectively.  They face very different political situations but similar challenges in trying to protect the integrity of the electoral process.  USAID facilitates this grassroots work with technical guidance and
key supplies for training kits, among other means.

It was fascinating to hear how these innovative, independent groups, deeply committed to upholding the principle of one person, one vote, are working to overcome obstacles of all types — from basic civics education in regions of high illiteracy (using hand-drawn pictures to explain what’s where in a polling place) to egregious violations of voters’ rights, such as ballot boxes that go missing in the middle of the night.

One often hears about organizations in the United States and abroad that send people to places such as this to monitor elections; it’s a worthy pursuit that merits our support   But it’s good to hear first-hand how NGOs in Sudan, where democracy is still at a delicate stage, have trained a great number of their compatriots to take ownership of their rights and have set up systems to report irregularities straight away. This is an important confidence-building measure as citizens here prepare for the upcoming referendum on the status of Southern Sudan.  It’s empowering and encouraging – an upbeat thought to bring home to D.C.

By Lynne Weil
Press Director and Spokeswoman, USAID