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Managing the risk: Election related violence in the developing world

Roads blocked with burning tires by angry crowds protesting election results in Haiti. Grenade attacks on polling places in Burundi. Post-election bombings in Zanzibar. As countries transition to democracy, election related violence is often an unfortunate byproduct. While the violence rarely deliberately targets those working for international companies and organizations, the widespread nature of the risk means that those working globally can find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when election violence flares. For companies and organizations working in environments prone to election violence, it’s essential to adjust risk management planning and emergency preparedness as elections approach.

Just as democracy is about more than elections, election related violence isn’t confined to polling day. The period around elections present a range of potential risks:

  • Pre-election: Voter intimidation, campaign rally violence, efforts to disrupt election preparation
  • Election day: Disruption and suppression of voting and results tabulation by targeting polling places, voters, observers, etc.
  • Post-election: Announcement of results is often a flashpoint for civil unrest; others include delays in announcement, canceling/invalidating results (ala Zanzibar), swearing in of new government

Exactly how these risks play out on the ground varies from country to country. Understanding the potential for and type of election related violence in a country is crucial to ensure plans and procedures are adjusted to reflect the developing risk environment. Some general measures to consider where the risk of election violence is looming:

  • Limit travel to and within the country to help reduce risk exposure
  • Strengthen information gathering and travel management to avoid rallies and other flashpoints
  • Increase communication check-ins
  • Reduce staff and/or dependents in country
  • Avoid holding large events or programs — with the obvious exception of election related activities

Given the risk of civil disorder, it’s essential to update safe haven and evacuation plans during election periods.  Offices and residences should maintain supplies and emergency equipment that allows personnel to shelter in place or stand fast for an extended period –typically 72 hours at a minimum — in the event that violence makes movement too risky.  Evacuation plans should be updated and refreshed, though remember that in the event of widespread violence standing fast/sheltering in place at a safe location may be better than risking exposure while attempting to reach the airport.

External resources –while not a substitute for a plan — may be essential to help manage and respond to election related risks. In particular security assistance and evacuation services will be a valuable source of information and guidance — and would provide critical support in the event the environment deteriorates to the point that evacuation becomes necessary.

Election related violence is an unfortunate reality in many developing countries.  Understanding the potential for violence and adjusting plans, procedures and resources during an election period will help mitigate risks and lay the groundwork for responding to emergencies as they arise.