USAID is facing a development challenge that is not discussed as much as higher profile threats like Ebola, climate change or extreme poverty, but one that threatens to exacerbate all of those crises and impede the world’s ability to ameliorate them. It’s the growing restrictions against freedom of association, assembly and expression.
In the past two years, over 50 laws limiting civil society space have been proposed or enacted by governments around the world trying to tame the power of citizens to meet, organize, write and inspire, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, a USAID partner.
For example, in Kyrgyzstan, the government is considering a law that would echo the draconian stifling of dissent in Russia. In Kenya, the government is again floating a law that would restrict civil society organizations (CSOs) from accessing foreign funding. Again and again, we are seeing these restrictions in an increasing number of countries around the world, even those with democratically elected governments.
As a small aid agency, USAID relies on international and local CSOs that do the work of development. We also support the development of vibrant civil society sectors where we work because we know that civil society is necessary for the growth of democracy, which is in turn necessary to sustain development outcomes.
So this backlash against civil society affects not only USAID’s democracy work, but its work in all sectors, including health, humanitarian assistance, the environment, education and economic growth.
In response to these headwinds, President Obama launched the Stand with Civil Society initiative in 2013, where he called on governments, multilaterals and private philanthropy to explore innovative ways to support civil society. USAID took up that challenge. At the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2014, the president announced the Civil Society İnnovation Initiative (CSİI): USAID, together with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Aga Khan Development Network and other partners, will develop up to six regional civil society innovation hubs that will connect CSOs to each other through peer-to-peer learning and to tools (technological and otherwise) to support their work and amplify the voice of civil society.
But how can USAID launch a new program designed to support civil society and protect its space without input from civil society? More than soliciting input, USAID wanted to create a process that would allow civil society to co-design the CSI with us.
That’s where the Global Development Lab came in. The Lab is not only fostering innovative solutions to development problems, it is also exploring process innovations to make USAID a more nimble, smarter donor. The Development Innovation Accelerator is a new instrument that lets USAID co-create a program with its partners to allow more dialogue and input from many more stakeholders and create a more transparent process for project design.
USAID’s Swedish colleagues were along for every step of the way and, in July, we put out a call for expressions of interest for the CSI. We received over 300 responses from 85 countries around the world. Then we invited 45 of the applicants to a three-day co-creation workshop in Istanbul in early November.
I took a number of lessons away from the workshop.
First, the co-creation process generates a better outcome than the more traditional donor-led method of project design. One CSO called it an actual “consultation” and not an “insultation,” where civil society has two minutes to speak in front of a government/donor entity.
Second, expert facilitation is key. We had an incredibly diverse group of CSOs (international, regional, national, grassroots), representing many sectors (human rights, democracy, health, environment, humanitarian assistance). The more diverse the group, the more time needs to be spent on getting everyone on the same page.
Third, co-creation is complicated, but it’s worth the extra investment of time. It was clear that this global workshop will need to be followed by workshops at the regional level to bring in more regional, national and grassroots voices.
Only the energy, creativity and courage of civil society will stop the trend of governments to restrict citizens’ voices and assembly. The challenges are daunting and dangerous. But CSOs are not alone in fighting against the obstacles. USAID, Sida and the global civil society sector support them.
And that’s why co-creation rocks: It enables USAID to be a more open donor, one that is not only listening to civil society, but is also encouraging it to help solve development challenges. This was USAID’s most ambitious co-creation to date. It took a lot to bring it about, but it was worth the investment if it shifted the USAID-civil society relationship a step closer to true partnership.