- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

For Jim Vermillion, promoting democracy is not a job — it is a calling.

“It gets into the marrow of your bones,” said Mr. Vermillion, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Agency for International Development who recently took over as executive vice president of IFES, a District-based international nonprofit that helps young democracies develop their institutions.

Before joining IFES, Mr. Vermillion was managing director of the Latin American Division of the Millennium Challenge Corp., which supports economic growth in developing countries. Before that, he spent three years as the USAID director in Nicaragua.

Mr. Vermillion, 60, recalls a visit he made in the early 1990s to a camp of Burmese refugees who had escaped from slavery.

“You have these personal experiences where people have been tortured and the like,” he said. “All of a sudden, you realize: Wait a minute, we all have to stand up and work for human rights for everyone in the world.”

Mr. Vermillion is in charge of day-to-day operations and long-term planning at IFES, which has 28 field offices around the world and employs a staff of 150 specialists from 25 countries. The organization helps countries set up elections and support the development of civil society.

“There’s no fixed model for what a democracy looks like,” said Mr. Vermillion, who developed an interest in international work when he spent five years after college teaching math in Jamaica.

Each country has a unique culture and history, he said, “yet there are some fundamental values and principles — we honestly believe in the worth and value of every human being.”

In order for democracy to take hold, local citizens must be involved at every level of its development, Mr. Vermillion said.

“If you come in and you try to impose something from the outside, even if it’s the best of ideas, there’s always going to be resistance to that,” he said. “We go into a country and say, ‘We see the situation in your country and what we’d like to do is share with you what’s been tried in these same situations in other countries.’

“So countries can make their own decisions but based on experience and knowledge.”

Democracy faces immense challenges in the Middle East, he said.

“One of the huge issues is the difference between a secular and a nonsecular state,” Mr. Vermillion said, noting that IFES does not take a position but advocates that countries study the implications of both models. “These kinds of discussions can only be positive in the long run.”

As executive vice president, Mr. Vermillion said he wants to diversify the organization’s programs, identify more international sources of funding and ensure that IFES is “on the cutting edge intellectually and programmatically” when it comes to promoting democracy around the world.

Richard Soudriette, president of IFES, said Mr. Vermillion’s “experience and analytical skills will strengthen IFES’ work in its core program areas of elections assistance, civil society building, rule of law and governance.”

“It’s not coming to work to produce widgets,” Mr. Vermillion said of his job. “It’s coming to work to really get engaged in helping to promote human rights in the world. It’s fun to be a part of this.”

— Kara Rowland

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