In 1997, I attended an event held by the Society for International Development (SID) to discuss the emerging concept of “civil society.” A panel of scholars and practitioners discussed key issues, including the 72 definitions for civil society that one panelist tried to pare down.

Flash forward to last week, when I had the honor to attend Secretary Clinton’s Global Town Hall, part of the 2012 Summit for the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. The Strategic Dialogue was launched last year to elevate U.S. engagement with partners beyond foreign governments and to underscore the US Government’s commitment to supporting and protecting civil society around the world.  The Strategic Dialogue enables civil society to formally engage U.S. policymakers on policy matters – and we need their perspective.

In the 15 years since the SID event, we have witnessed the powerful role of civil society in far corners of the world calling for freedom, demanding dignity, and fighting corruption.  New communication technologies have reduced barriers to networking. Civil society organizations can tell their stories in unprecedented ways; activists can make their case beyond borders and be heard in new ways.  But with this new power has come new threats.  The same technologies that activists use to spread their messages have been used to target them for harassment, arrest, and worse.  As citizens find new ways to organize, assemble, and express themselves, autocratic governments have found new ways to restrict their space and suppress information.

One key way oppressive governments try to control civil society is by attempting to restrict the registration or foreign funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  For more than 20 years, USAID has supported programs to improve the legal environment for NGOs to operate and expand space for civil society worldwide.  In the last four years alone, through our partnership with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), USAID has supported and defended space for civil society in some  40 countries.

In Tunisia, for example, USAID assistance to ICNL enabled the first-ever meeting of civil society leaders and legislators to work toward replacing the existing, restrictive law governing associations with a new legal framework.   The new law passed as a result of this meeting is now considered a best practice for a region undergoing tectonic shifts. Now, USAID programs are allowing Tunisian civil society actors to share their experience with new voices in Libya working to create safe legal space for activism in a country where the brutal regime of Muammar Qaddafi suppressed civil society for more than 40 years.

The Arab Spring underscored that true stability requires legitimate, inclusive governance , with accountable state-society relationships. USAID supports development of the three-legged stool that Secretary Clinton talked about, where government, civil society, and the private sector all flourish and create stability for a prosperous country.

Amid the rich discussion at last week’s Town Hall, I was particularly struck by one comment made by a Moroccan civil society leader, who remarked that “90 percent of US assistance goes to only 10 percent of the NGOs.”

All too often, donors, including USAID, have partnered primarily with a small number of elite, capital city-based NGOs and missed the rich dialogue that comes with working with smaller, regionally-based organizations.  As part of the larger USAID Forward reform effort, we’re working to change those percentages. USAID’s Implementation and Procurement Reform will help streamline our regulations to make it easier for us to partner directly with a wider range of civil society organizations, amplify additional voices marginalized for too long, and lend much-needed support to the grassroots.

Through efforts like these—to reach and support a wider array of actors and expand the space where civil society can operate—USAID is playing an instrumental role in advancing active dialogue with civil society, so essential to any sustainable development effort and a vital piece of our country partnerships that ensure success.