“Leave people better than you met them.” 

Seated before an intimate group at a Wednesday evening college tea, between discussions of democratic survival and civil war, Ann Iyonu offers this piece of her mother’s advice that hits us like a quiet revelation, startling in its clarity. 

As the executive director of the Goodluck Jonathan Foundation, Ann’s work involves high-level mediation during democratic emergencies to prevent violent conflicts and protect democratic integrity across the African continent. It was therefore moving to hear Ann talk about such complex work with her refreshing moral clarity, to imagine that democracy’s most fraught moments can be navigated with the core intention of leaving people better than you met them. And indeed, isn’t one of the fundamental hopes of democracy that it should leave us better than it meets us? That it should not merely meet our needs and aspirations, but insist that they are important enough to be the founding principle of government? 

It is tempting to think that this simple hope might be met with simple solutions. Ann’s experience shows us differently. Democracy, she tells us, “is not rocket science, but it’s not easy.” Over the course of the conversation, Ann navigates a host of democratic dilemmas, drawing out the connections between jihadist terrorism, Russia and China’s external influence and domestic electoral interference. Boko Haram largely recruits impoverished young people; Ann reminds us that when a democratic state fails in its basic obligations to its citizens, someone else will step in. Groups like Wagner help nondemocratic leaders resist the threat of jihadist terrorism, but also commit atrocities against civilians. Russia and China’s influence further complicates Ann’s work by destroying democratic actors’ ability to stop domestic leaders when they move to undermine democracy. If, for example, Russia and China undercut regional bodies’ sanctions on undemocratic regimes, then these sanctions lose their sting. 

One dilemma is particularly striking. In Ann’s work, she often sees elections that suffer from real problems: voter suppression and intimidation, candidate disqualification and sometimes outright electoral fraud. But the opposition’s natural refusal to accept such a defeat can quickly lead to democratic catastrophe. Elections that spiral into civil wars not only destroy any remnant of democracy, but also leave deep scars. It is a kind of violence that Ann believes “you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy.” Thus, the dilemma presents itself: how do you encourage people to accept the results of an individual election they know was unfair for the sake of democracy as a whole? Ann responds, “What choice do you have? If you burn your country down, what will you lead?” In these moments, you can either let your home go up in flames, or you can have a country and try to salvage its democracy later. 

Underlying all these interconnected dilemmas is a global crisis of democracy: how can we convince people to see the importance of democracy when so many democracies do not leave them better off, when they fail to meet their basic needs, fail to deliver on the promise of representation? Ann is well

aware that “if people aren’t seeing the dividends of democracy, all our work will go down the drain.” Here, the radical simplicity of “Leave people better than you met them” cuts to the heart of an endlessly complicated world. In the face of intractable dilemmas, democracy needs to first look inward before it can combat the forces that strive for its downfall, whether Russia or Boko Haram. It is hard to ask citizens to leave democracy better off when it does not do the same for them. 

In practical terms, how can we go about improving democracy in a meaningful way? In my personal conversations with Ann, she has offered a characteristically refreshing response, which she repeats at this evening’s tea. When asked about her work, Ann insists that, unlike the political figures she advises, she is not “in the limelight” — and that this is the best place for her to be. Ann shows us that it is not always the leader, but instead the people the leader listens to, that determine the fate of democracy and those who live within it. 

I wouldn’t say that Ann is outside of the limelight: she directs an important foundation, she works with powerful people and she was there that evening delivering a talk at an immensely influential academic institution. Instead, she works beyond the limelight. There is a common notion (a notion that is especially entrenched within Yale’s campus) that we achieve the most only when the most people know about our work. The big moments of Ann’s career — the moments where crisis is averted, where political figures’ minds are changed — are facilitated not by trying to occupy the limelight herself, but by working beyond it. Moments that attract the public eye are not born of a vacuum, but are the culmination of countless small interactions and personal relationships that play out offstage — and it is offstage that these moments’ true effects are felt once the public spectacle subsides. There, beyond the limelight, are all of us who are better off from knowing Ann.

ISABEL PRIOLEAU is a junior in Davenport. Contact her at isabel.prioleau@yale.edu.