In an effort to advance the Stand for Civil Society call to action, launched in September 2013, the President reminded us at this year’s United Nations General Assembly that “it is our obligation as free peoples, as free nations, to stand with the courageous citizens and brave civil society groups who are working for equality and opportunity and justice and human dignity all over the world.”
He referenced a newly issued Presidential Memorandum that directs U.S. agencies abroad to support civil society in several ways and announced a groundbreaking USAID initiative, in collaboration with the Sweden International Development Agency (SIDA) and the Aga Khan Foundation, to establish Regional Civil Society Innovation Centers that build connections among civil society organizations by providing resources, tools, and knowledge.
Civil society plays an important role in building stable, robust democracies and in protecting the rights of marginalized populations. At the same time, it remains an easy target for governments resistant to change. USAID has become increasingly concerned in recent years as governments adopt more laws that restrict activities of civil society and continue to harass, detain and imprison civil society activists. Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment describes this closing space phenomenon as the “new normal,” which is why the President’s call to action is both timely and necessary.
Last month in Jakarta, Indonesia, I attended the Asia Civil Society Experience Summit (CSES), co-hosted by USAID, where the role of civil society and the backlash from numerous governments was the subject of much discussion. At the end of the Asia CSES, the participating activists issued a statement, which called upon Asian civil society, Asian governments and the international community to:
- Build an enabling environment for civil society;
- Promote innovative partnerships with diverse actors and change agents:
- Leverage information and communication technologies to build and strengthen local and regional networks;
- Explore innovative means to provide technical, institutional and financial support to civil society; and
- Build and strengthen civil society transparency, accountability and effective governance.
The statement closed with a plea for “donors, governments, and international community to ensure continued financial and political commitment to civil society, particularly in closing and closed environments.”
Having travelled to Jakarta from Sri Lanka, I understood well the tensions and challenges that USAID faces in these environments. Sri Lanka was once a robust democracy but then suffered 25 years of brutal civil war. In the aftermath of the conflict, the government has sought to restrict NGOs they view as “political” by intimidating activists and imposing arduous legal regulations.
USAID’s response applies our three-pronged “prevention, adaptation, and support” approach in closing spaces: prevent the introduction of restrictive legislation; adapt to government efforts that make our existing operations difficult; and commit to continued support, financial or otherwise, for organizations that work in development, reconciliation and human rights.
In Sri Lanka today, many of the organizations that USAID supports are leading the effort to counter government plans to adopt a restrictive NGO law and to highlight concerns about security force intimidation that is affecting their operations. We are also funding programs that work with CSOs to ensure that they can continue serving their communities and advocating for human rights, even as government intimidation increases. And, we intend on continuing to support civil society, even after we transition in 2017 from a full mission to a limited presence country status program.
In Cambodia, USAID’s Development Innovations lab is connecting civil society, technology and social enterprises to provide physical space, expertise and catalytic programming to a number of groups and initiatives. The lab is involved in several activities, including teaching girls to utilize computer code in preparation for an international competition and assisting agriculture organizations to develop better monitoring apps. Via another project in Cambodia, USAID is funding the creation of mobile phone apps that allow Cambodians to read, text and chat in Khmer, their national language, as well as in Cham, the minority language.
The U.S. is the largest supporter of civil society in the world, having invested more than $2.7 billion to strengthen civil society since 2010.
As we continue to face grave challenges around the world, USAID will ensure that, when it comes to civil society, our financial investments are matched by our political commitments, and that we utilize both our presence in the field and technological innovations to support inclusive and accountable democracies that advance freedom, dignity and development.