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The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.

Janet Brown, executive director, Commission on Presidential Debates; Trevor Fearon, advisor, Jamaica Debates Commission

With the 2nd U.S. presidential debate as a backdrop, 25 visitors from 12 countries came to Hofstra University in New York in mid-October to exchange information about putting on debates in their own countries and witness first-hand the intricacies of organizing the Oct. 16 matchup between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.

The visitors’ countries – Argentina, Colombia, Egypt, Ghana, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, Serbia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Tunisia – are in different stages of debate development. But all share the belief that debates benefit new democracies in many ways, including helping voters make an informed choice at the ballot box, reducing the potential for violence in countries coming out of civil war, encouraging candidates to focus on public policy issues rather than personality and holding elected officials accountable to their campaign promises after elections.

The visit was sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and NDI in collaboration with Hofstra.  The CPD, in partnership with NDI, has since 1994 assisted debate sponsors around the world to take advantage of their collective expertise and help each other organize debates for the first time or make improvements where debates have taken place before.  The assistance is based on the two organizations’ experience with more than 200 debates in 30 countries.

Many of the visitors were representatives of the International Debates Network, an organization created in 2009 with CPD and NDI assistance that now has 17 member countries. 

While at Hofstra, the visitors got a backstage look at the production and organization of a “town hall” style debate.  They visited the set and sat on chairs that would be occupied on debate day by 80 uncommitted voters chosen by an independent public opinion survey to ask questions of the presidential candidates.  Executive producer Martin Slutsky laid out the debate’s production details including the moderator’s role in facilitating discussion, camera positions and timing lights for the candidates.

Earlier, CPD staff discussed debate formats, ticketing procedures, arrangements for the 3,500 U.S. and international media covering the debate, how debate rules are set, debate-related Internet voter education activities, and a host of operational and logistical details that go into debate preparation.  They also talked with CPD leaders and staff, public safety officials and Hofstra representatives, who discussed what goes into hosting a debate and the more than 100 courses and activities designed to engage students, faculty and the community in the debates.

On debate night, the visitors were all in the Hofstra arena to watch the candidates face off. In a pre-debate program, CPD Executive Director Janet Brown recognized their presence as a “network that goes very far in time and mileage of people who are helping each other start debates in their own countries…”

An important part of the meeting was the information the visitors shared among themselves.  Some of the countries represented, such as Ghana, Nigeria, Colombia and Jamaica, have considerable experience in debate organization, which they were able to share with the group and especially with colleagues from Argentina, Egypt and Tunisia, which are just beginning to move in that direction.

NDI and the CPD have carried out debate programs in Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East; hosted the forum that led to the establishment of the International Debates Network; initiated a web-based debate resource center and commenced a comparative guide to organizing debates. NDI and the CPD have received support for debates programs from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.K. Department for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Supporting the Global Movement for Candidate Debates

The printed program provided to the audience present for each of the three 2012 U.S. presidential debates and the vice presidential match up included a reference to the international work that the Commission on Presidential Debates and NDI do together.  Here is a brief excerpt:

“Presidential debates in the United States are watched in real time by audiences worldwide.  Increasingly, other countries – particularly emerging democracies – believe that starting their own debate traditions will strengthen their electoral processes…

“The CPD, in partnership with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), helps debate sponsors around the world pool their expertise and assist each other, both in organizing debates for the first time and improving debates where they have taken place before…”

Haitian Presidential Debates

The program also includes a brief case study of the work the CPD, NDI and the Jamaican Debates Commission did together to help with the organization of debates for Haiti’s last presidential election.

“As the country was continuing to recover and rebuild from the devastating 2010 earthquake that claimed more than 200,000 lives and left more than a million homeless, the Public Affairs Intervention Group (GIAP) of Haiti organized seven presidential debates for 19 candidates that were broadcast nationally on more than 30 radio and television stations.  The CPD, NDI and Jamaican Debates Commission assisted GIAP over a period of several months as the group planned and held the debates.  GIAP’s final March 2011 debate for the run-off election between Mirlande Manigat and now president Michel Martelly reached an estimated 71 percent of Haitians.  GIAP also facilitated a joint appearance by both candidates at the conclusion of the debate where they encouraged Haitians to vote, sending a message of tolerance to their respective supporters to refrain from the street violence that has historically plagued Haitian elections.” 


Published Oct. 22, 2012