School of Social and Political Science

Research project type

Local Perceptions and Media Representations of Election Observation in Africa





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Election observers have had some successes in detecting and deterring certain types of electoral malpractice and have played a central role in helping to spread basic election technologies across Africa.

However, during several recent elections in Africa, questions have been raised about the competency and partiality of observation missions, and about the future of observation both on the continent and elsewhere.

In this context, this project improves understandings, for both academics and practitioners, of election observation in two areas:

Firstly, it investigates local perceptions on a range of issues relating to election observation missions. Despite the fact that citizens in the countries that host election observation missions are one of election observation's major intended beneficiaries, their views are generally overlooked in the academic literature and by many election observation missions. In addressing this gap, the project develops understandings of how people in host countries evaluate the goals, performance, and methods of both international and domestic election observation initiatives.

Secondly, this project investigates how information produced by, and relating to, election observation missions circulates via traditional and social media, as well as the ways in which it can be distorted through this process.

The findings are of particular relevance to observer groups, as local perceptions are central to the question of the credibility of election observers - and ultimately their ability to do their work effectively.

They also have a broader importance as they will allow for the views of non-elite Africans to be better represented in academic and policy debates on the topic of election observation, which are currently dominated by European and North American perspectives.

Research has been conducted during national elections in three countries: Zambia (August 2021), Gambia (December 2021) and Kenya (August 2022). Research in Zambia was conducted in partnership with the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research (SAIPAR). In Gambia, it was conducted in partnership with the Center for Research & Policy Development (CRPD), while in Kenya it is still being conducted in partnership with Racheal Makokha at the Technical University of Kenya.

Research team

Principal Investigator: Thomas Molony - Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh

Project outputs

Can domestic observers serve as impartial arbiters?

Robert Macdonald and Thomas Molony

Tips for Journalists and Editors who Cover Election Observation

Thomas Molony and Robert Macdonald

Media Representations of Election Observation in Africa - Summary Findings

Thomas Molony and Robert Macdonald

Local Perceptions of Election Observation in Africa - Summary Findings

Robert Macdonald and Thomas Molony

Democratization (peer reviewed article) - 'Can domestic observers serve as impartial arbiters?: evidence from Zambia’s 2021 elections' by Robert Macdonald and Thomas Molony

The Journal of Eastern African Studies (peer reviewed article) - 'A comparison of the role of domestic and international election observers in Zambia’s 2016 and 2021 general elections' by O'Brien Kaaba, Marja Hinfelaar and Koffi Sawyer

On 9 November 2022, Thomas Molony and Robert Macdonald presented the project's preliminary findings during an Election Observation Research Network (ELECTOR) virtual meeting. A recording of this can be found on the ELECTOR website (under the heading Session 1: ‘Local Perceptions and Media Representations of Election Observation in Africa: Some preliminary findings’).

African Arguments (blog) - How election observers facilitated Zambia’s smooth change of power by Robert Macdonald

African Arguments (blog) - Why the people picked Barrow again in Gambia’s best-run elections ever by Sait Matty Jaw

African Arguments (blog) - Gambian voters show unpredictability again to deliver first hung parliament by Sait Matty Jaw

The Conversation (blog) - Election observers are important for democracy – but few voters know what they do by Thomas Molony and Robert Macdonald

The East African (newspaper article) - Election observers are important, but few voters know what they do by Thomas Molony and Robert Macdonald

Project funding

This project is funded by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council.

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