Seconds after landing at Dulles Airport this past Tuesday, scrolling through the dozens of emails that have accumulated while flying from Europe, the many marked “Urgent” caught our eye: earlier that day, news broke that in Egypt 43 activists had been convicted of criminal offenses relating to their work promoting democracy and human rights that they performed while working for U.S. and German funded non-governmental organizations (NGO).
Ironically, we were arriving from Brussels, Belgium where we had held a day-long consultation with European Union and NGO counterparts to discuss the very grave topic of “closing civil society space.” Our European colleagues and we agree on the scope and seriousness of this rising threat to our ability to carry out development activities worldwide and on the need to coordinate our responses.
For the past year, we have led an internal USAID working group that has watched with dismay as governments have imposed restrictions on registration, funding and basic freedom of association, all designed to limit the activities of civil society in their countries. In Russia and Bolivia, the governments went so far as to expel USAID Missions. Experts will point to multiple reasons for these unprecedented actions, but fundamentally the governments sought to end USG support of civil society organizations. And now in Egypt, the government has criminalized the activities of our implementing partners, imposing severe prison sentences on both Egyptian activists and citizens of other countries, while intentionally mischaracterizing their work in support of democracy and human rights.
We have tracked this global phenomenon with a mix of dread and determination. We have collected the experiences of our field Missions, many of which have creatively sought to counter the trend, taking into account unique socio-political contexts. We have catalogued these responses under three broad categories of “prevention,” “adaptation” and “continued support,” have shared the specific examples of Missions’ responses across the Agency, and encouraged our Missions to maintain their commitment to expanding civil society space and to working with a broad range of non-governmental actors. We have engaged with both our international implementing partners and other donors to share experiences, as well as worked with State Department colleagues to sound the alarm. Perhaps most important, we have communicated to relevant partners in the field that we will not abandon them.
Some describe the closing space phenomenon as the “new normal.” If this is indeed the case, then the consequences for achieving our development goals, as well as the ambitious new development goals presented last week by the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, will be severely compromised. However, we are convinced that with concerted international attention dedicated to the issue by both diplomats and development professionals and using innovative approaches, we can keep civil society space open and ensure that the aspirations of people around the globe for freedom and dignity will be achieved.