For more than three decades, Riva Levinson has witnessed history in the making throughout the globe. From Angola to Sri Lanka and numerous other countries, she has learned and lived the life of an international political consultant.
Advising political candidates abroad has become a robust and often lucrative business for American political strategists. Levinson attributes the growth of international political consulting to a pivotal time in modern history when much change was occurring outside the United States -- including the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
“That's what permitted the U.S. political consulting business to be realized in places like Latin America, the former Soviet Union, Africa, because we started -- people started becoming democratic in our model,” said Levinson, the president and chief executive officer of the advocacy and communications firm, KRL International.
Motivations for international political consulting
While many U.S. consultants who work overseas advise candidates in democratic countries, others may not be as selective.
One of the more infamous international political consultants is Paul Manafort, the one-time chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign who received a 7½-year sentence for tax and bank fraud, as well as conspiracy and witness tampering, stemming in part from his work lobbying for Ukraine's former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Even prior to his work in Ukraine, Manafort and his lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, made headlines for their list of international clients, including former Philippine autocrat Ferdinand Marcos, known for his government’s corruption and human rights abuses, and former Zaire President and dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Manafort hired Levinson when she was 24 years old. In her 2016 memoir, “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President,” Levinson writes about her trip to Somalia in 1989, where her firm sent her to meet with Said Barre, whom she called a “murderous dictator” for human rights abuses committed during his rule.
After 10 years with the firm, Levinson said she left and became much more selective in taking on clients. She has been spending much of her time on the continent of Africa.
“You could make such a difference in order to have countries that are just beginning to be democracies,” she said. “You could come in and you could help people. You could make a huge difference.”
She became an adviser for several prominent African politicians including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, who in 2005 became the first democratically elected woman president in an African country. Sirleaf received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
In 2013, the Government of South Sudan hired Levinson’s firm to help engage the US and other international stakeholders during a civil war. Levinson said her team “helped to create conditions to open negotiations for peace.”
In 2015, Levinson helped build a communications office and global platform for Jeanine Mabunda Lioko Mudiayi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Presidential Advisor on Sexual Violence and Child Recruitment. In 2017 the United Nations delisted the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) for the recruitment of child soldiers. However, challenges continue in the country with allegations of violence against children.
Former political strategist Bob Shrum said there are different motivations for political consultants who want to work overseas.
“There are some people who are willing to go off and work for folks that don't share their values. And there are a lot of people that aren't. I mean I was once offered a pretty substantial sum of money to work for a dictator in Africa and I just said no,” said Shrum, who is now a professor at the University of Southern California.
US campaign expertise
Shrum’s campaign experience in the U.S. started in the early 1970s, and for decades he worked on the campaigns of scores of politicians and U.S. presidential candidates. Abroad, Shrum’s list of clients included the British Labour Party from 1988-2005 and helping Ehud Barak’s campaign for prime minister of Israel in 1999.
Foreign candidates are attracted to American consultants in part because of their experience and political savvy in campaign work.
“We're [Americans] in a permanent campaign so that people are really professionally committed, involved in, and thinking about this all the time,” Shrum said.
The amount of money spent on U.S. elections is another factor that plays into the expertise.
“A lot of people view U.S. elections as sort of this Super Bowl of elections or the World Cup of elections, because we do just have so much money pouring in,” political consultant and digital campaigning expert Jiore Craig, vice president of GQR, a public opinion research firm, said.
The money in political campaigning plus the frequency of U.S. elections at all levels of government have turned campaign strategizing into a full-time profession.
While some individual consultants advise candidates within the U.S. and abroad, some U.S.-based firms also specialize in consulting clients abroad.
Many consultants are required to register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) if they are working on behalf of a foreign entity within the U.S.
Other American consultants working for clients overseas do not have to register under FARA if they do not lobby in the U.S. on behalf of their clients.
Maturing global campaigns
Consultants said that over the years, political campaigns have matured and become more experienced, so international political consulting has also evolved.
“You're not putting a ‘Campaign 101’ in front of people. You know you've got to come to the table with something specifically value-added that they don't have,” Levinson said.
The digital capacity of young people “is remarkable” said Levinson in places where she has had worked, such as Nigeria and Ghana.
In a more mature and technologically savvy political environment, Levinson said, it is as important for international consultants to work on protecting the integrity of the election process where corruption and intimidation may exist, as it is to run a campaign.
Levinson points to the 2019 election in Malawi, where the incumbent Peter Mutharika was first declared the winner, but then due to irregularities and allegations of election rigging, a Malawi court mandated a rerun of the presidential elections. That led to the victory of the opposition candidate, Lazarus Chakwera, in June of 2020.
The advent of the internet and social media led to the role of a digital consultant, the newest addition to campaign advising.
“In some countries in Asia, [they] have 100% of the population on social media now. When you look at the data and it's showing you trends like that, you have to adjust your strategy accordingly,” Craig, of the public opinion research firm, said.
Craig has worked as a digital consultant in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. She not only translates online data into useful information for campaigns, she also helps weed through disinformation tactics.
“I would say the number one thing I help campaigns with is understanding what type of online attack is significant and what is something they can ignore,” she said.
In recent years, there has been a trend of homegrown political consultants emerging in many countries around the world, Craig said.
“I am seeing consultants from other countries sort of move around in the same way that Americans move around,” she said. “I think that is largely in part because of the internet. I do think social media has brought to light, how these strategies can be shared in ways that really weren't happening before.”
Unlike the institutionalized nature of U.S. political campaign work, in other countries, campaigns are not necessary a full-time profession for many of the campaign workers who have other jobs, such as marketing or a building an app, and where elections don’t happen as often. As a result, Craig has seen more innovations rise out of foreign campaign strategists.
“It in part comes from how specialized teams are in the U.S. to the point where they [American strategists] aren't able to adapt at the same rate and elections need to adapt more quickly than these organizations can,” Craig said.
Many campaigns abroad are more nimble, said Craig, where they were quickly using social media to communicate, organize, and do outreach “whereas campaigns here in the U.S. were sort of siloed in two buckets of using digital for email fundraising [and] using social media to push out an ad.”
Consultants in the U.S. and abroad will have to evolve as technology continues to reshape how campaigns reach the electorate.