After climbing out of a civil war that ravaged their country earlier this decade, residents of Côte d’Ivoire are supposed to go to the polls in November for their first presidential election in years. As of press time, it looked possible that those elections could be postponed due to logistical problems with organizing the process. Joan Marshall ’03 was in Côte d’Ivoire earlier this year working with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Search For Common Ground (SFCG). Earlier this semester, she told us what brought her to Côte d’Ivoire, about the work she did there, and about the challenges the West African nation faces in bouncing back from years of conflict.
After graduating from TCNJ in 2003, Marshall spent time with the Peace Corps in the Togolese Republic in West Africa. Her work there helped her realize that she wanted to pursue a career in conflict management. She applied and was accepted to Duquesne University, where she is currently working toward a master’s in social and public policy with a specialization in conflict resolution. She said that she always planned to return to West Africa if given the chance.
When Marshall found out about the SFCG internship in Côte d’Ivoire, she realized it was the perfect opportunity. The internship allowed her to continue her conflict resolution work in a part of the world with which she was already familiar. Additionally, her fluency in French would come in handy, since French is the official language of the country.
For those not familiar with the situation in Côte d’Ivoire, two coup d’états in the late 1990s led to a 2002 civil war. Although a peace accord was reached in 2007, “it is still a precarious situation in the Ivory Coast,” Marshall said when we talked with her in August. The civil war took a serious toll on the country’s governmental institutions and infrastructure, Marshall said, adding, ““The northern part of the country remains under the authority of the rebels who are in the process of disarmament and reintegration. Nonetheless, in the north, there are few, if any, governmental institutions that remain intact.”
The NGO Marshall worked with, SFCG, works mostly through a country’s media and communications outreach programs to reach the youth and women in areas that have been torn apart by conflict, Marshall said. For instance, in Côte d’Ivoire, SFCG helped the situation by training radio station operators on how to be more neutral when reporting on current events and political developments.
“During the war, the airwaves were controlled by the ruling party, so a lot of incorrect or disinformation was spread via the radio,” Marshall said in explaining the need for such actions.
Marshall’s work in Côte d’Ivoire was to gauge the effectiveness of SFCG’s efforts. For example, she completed a case study that examined how the lessons learned during an SFCG symposium on Peace and Democracy were guiding women toward reconciliation and working together for the development of their community.
“Studies have shown that women are often better suited for conflict resolution than the men are,” Marshall said, explaining why SFCG focuses much of its efforts on women. “It is also a way to empower women and involve them in the decision-making processes of their country.”
Another study Marshall completed looked at how an SFCG civic education training session influenced a group of youth to take action and re-establish electric power in their community, she said. Having realized during the SFCG training that they had the right to demand that their elected officials upkeep certain infrastructure elements in their community, the youth banded together to contact their councilman in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire’s most populous city) and ask that he re-establish what they realized that they had a right to—electric power.
Marshall’s internship went from June through August, at which time she returned to the states to continue working toward her master’s degree. She is scheduled to graduate in December 2009. When we spoke with her in late August, she explained that it would be an uphill battle for the country to have a presidential election this November.
There was (and still is) some question as to who can and can’t vote, Marshall explained. During the war, most if not all of the government facilities (including town halls and records centers) were destroyed, leaving no paperwork to show who is and who isn’t an Ivorian, and therefore eligible to cast a ballot, Marshall said.
As if sounding a note of hope for the country, Marshall said, “It is a lawless land, but at least it is peaceful now. It is a slow process to build a lasting peace, but I feel the Ivory Coast is moving in the right direction.”