If anyone needs a crash course in the critical role played by civil society organizations, COVID-19 is providing it—from increased need for the services they provide to those less fortunate, to the strain they are experiencing from lack of supplies and the need to “social distance,” to government having to act too quickly without civil society input.
But beyond the current crisis, civil society is an essential building block of development and national cohesion. In a country blessed with peace and stability, civil society fills the space untouched by government and the private sector. In a fragile and conflict-ridden country, it plays an even more important role of providing services normally the responsibility of the state and business and can lay the foundation for reconciliation.
Civil society comprises organizations that are not associated with government—including schools and universities, advocacy groups, professional associations, churches, and cultural institutions (business sometimes is covered by the term civil society and sometimes not). Civil society organizations play multiple roles. They are an important source of information for both citizens and government. They monitor government policies and actions and hold government accountable. They engage in advocacy and offer alternative policies for government, the private sector, and other institutions. They deliver services, especially to the poor and underserved. They defend citizen rights and work to change and uphold social norms and behaviors.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has a rich and proud history of engaging and supporting civil society across its partner countries, more so than any other donor agency. Civil society organizations play a large role both as implementing partners and as a target audience for USAID programs.
As part of its current overall strategy, The Journey to Self-Reliance, USAID has issued an overarching Policy Framework and a new Private Sector Engagement Policy, is redesigning its engagement with business and nongovernmental organization (NGOs) through the New Partnerships Initiative, and has initiated a work stream to redefine its relationship with partner governments. What is missing from these “policy updates” is the articulation of USAID’s engagement with civil society—how civil society fits with its other policy priorities and strategies.
Noting this gap, the Modernizing Foreign Assistant Network or MFAN (of which I am a member) is calling on USAID to undertake such an exercise. To provide a start to developing that strategy, the Accountability and Country Ownership Working Group of MFAN released an outline identifying the various roles played by civil society and four basic principles to guide USAID’s engagement with civil society. They include:
- Engage a diverse set of civil society organizations in setting USAID priorities. To be sustainable, donor programs must be driven by the priorities of local stakeholders, including civil society organizations. This requires a targeted effort to reach those often excluded from policymaking—women, girls, youth, and other marginalized groups.
- Work to strengthen and protect the enabling environment for civil society. Civil society and democratic practice are under attack and face increased restrictions in many countries. USAID must combat government constraints, corruption, and disregard for basic human rights, so civil society organizations have the space to exercise their essential roles.
- Invest in the capabilities of civil society. In addition to supporting their programmatic elements, USAID should provide assistance for the operational capacity of civil society organizations, tailored to the specific purposes and priorities of each organization.
- Engage with a broad range and diverse set of civil society actors. USAID can use its investment in civil society organizations to combat the inequality that leaves some groups excluded from the economic, political, and social life of a country. USAID should direct special priority to supporting organizations representing marginalized groups and solicit their input.
If there is uncertainty as to the importance of civil society, that should be put to rest by the challenge posed by coronavirus to community, national, and global health, economic well-being, stability, and cohesion. Civil society, acting on its own and in collaboration with government and business, is facing a herculean task of stemming the impact on society and economies, not just in developing but also in developed countries.