"We're going to a really pristine situation," Diana Carlin said Thursday. "Hopefully they can benefit from our experiences," and vice-versa, she said.
Carlin, dean of KU's graduate school and international programs, will leave Sunday for Benin, a nation of about 6 million people in West Africa that will elect a president in March.
Carlin will spend five days in Benin to help set up the country's first presidential debate.
There are 12 candidates and, although French is the national language, the debates will be translated into several languages.
Carlin has served as director of DebateWatch, a national project sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
DebateWatch organized and surveyed focus groups after the 2000 U.S. presidential debates to determine what issues were important to voters.
Through her work on that project, she was asked by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, an organization that tries to help new democracies, to go to Benin.
She received the request late last week and immediately cleared out her schedule to go.
Carlin said she hopes to help officials prepare the media and voters for the debate, and establish voter education programs.
Carlin has worked with officials from South Africa and South America who set up debates.
U.S. voters could learn something from people in emerging democracies and how they view debate as "not a contest but really a way of informing people," she said. This is her first visit to Africa, she said.
Leonardo Villalon, a KU political science professor and expert on West Africa, said Benin has a unique history in that it was the first African nation to renounce Marxism and become a democracy. The change occurred peacefully, Villalon said.
Benin also became the first African country to have two straight democratic transfers of power after elections.
The country is poor and under-developed but was once a great kingdom, the cultural birthplace of voodoo, and later a major slave-exporting zone, Villalon said.
He said most people in Benin who are interested in the election will have to hear the debate on the radio. He said television and print media will not play a large role.
-- Staff writer Scott Rothschild can be reached at 832-7221.