Supporting democracy in Sierra Leone

Linden Hills resident joins international delegation that will observe the elections process in small West African country

Just days before she left to join a small team of elections observers in Sierra Leone, Linden Hills resident Karen Louise Boothe was still working out the remaining details of her trip and had yet to receive her airline ticket.

Yet she sat in one of the neighborhood¹s coffee shops, relaxed and excited to describe the role she¹ll play as one of just two Americans selected to join an eight-member international team that will monitor the process leading up to the small West African country¹s elections.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide, put together the team and is funding the project along with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the British Council. The group¹s mission is to demonstrate the international community¹s interest in the development of a democracy in Sierra Leone, a country that was locked in a bitter civil war that lasted more than a decade before peace was reached in 2002. The delegation will spends the months leading up to the July 28 presidential and legislative elections working with government officials, journalists and other groups to help ensure the elections are, according to Boothe, ³free, fair, open and accessible.²

Pat Merloe, NDI¹s director of electoral programs, said the role of the election observers is to provide an impartial and accurate report on what they see and hear in the months leading up to the elections. Having outside observers helps create voter confidence in the process, he said.

Boothe will largely focus on civic engagement, working to reach out to eligible voters and provide voter education. She will also work with independent media on covering the elections in a fair and balanced manner. It¹s no small task, especially given that, according to a report by USAID, Sierra Leone has ³a legacy of bad governance, mismanagement and systemic corruption, and the lack of citizens¹ confidence in their government¹s ability to deliver basic services continue to undermine the well-being of the country.²

Yet Boothe, 46, isn¹t daunted by the task before her. After spending 20 years as a reporter, including 10 years as a senior political reporter with Minnesota Public Radio during which she did a wealth of international reporting, she left journalism to pursue just this type of project.

³There came a time when I wanted to be active in the international arena rather than just report on it as an observer,² Boothe said.

She formed Prepone Consulting LLC, and her civic engagement and advocacy work has taken her to areas of the world such as Macedonia and Cambodia. She¹s also worked before for NDI. The organization sent her to Kyrgyzstan for a year in 2003-2004, where she said she opened up information centers for residents that also served as community centers.

Another international job had just fallen through when NDI again contacted Boothe, this time with an offer to work in Sierra Leone. Although she had just weeks to get additional immunizations and organize her travel plans, Boothe jumped at the opportunity. Despite amassing 240,000 frequent flier miles in the process of her travels, Boothe said West Africa is one corner of the world she has not yet worked. That means she¹ll have to learn about the culture while working to prompt civic engagement. Learning about other cultures and seeing how people in other parts of the world live and participate in their community is one of the things that magnetized Boothe to international advocacy work.

³I always get more than I feel I give,² Boothe said. ³Whenever I leave and come back, it changes the way I live and act as a consumer.²