Under the leadership of Administrator Mark Green, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent the past three years developing a new vision in its relationship with partner countries: the Journey to Self-Reliance. This refocusing of how the U.S. provides foreign assistance is being implemented through a series of new policies and partnerships. However, as the agency has previewed these new policies and some welcome reforms with interested partners and members of U.S. civil society, including our members of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), we have continued to note the significant absence of a strategy for engagement with local civil society in partner countries.
As advocates of foreign assistance reform, MFAN focuses on two specific reform pillars – accountability and local ownership. From our vantage point, the absence of this local voice is especially troubling and causes us to question the very ability of the agency to succeed in carrying out its self-reliance goals in partner countries without it.
We know that the agency has a robust history of supporting civil society, and Mark Green’s recent #DemocracyIs campaign is a great example of this support. We don’t think this is enough though. The agency’s deep regard for local civil society is simply an additional reason to formalize it in an official public strategy.
MFAN’s Accountability and Country Ownership Working Group spent the past few months examining how the agency’s mission might better succeed at working with countries on their Journey to Self-Reliance through a formal Civil Society Strategy. We did a deep dive into the current thinking of what effective civil society looks like in developing countries, and examined ways in which they could be bolstered to ensure their important role in supporting their fellow citizens and institutions and holding their government to account.
We identified four overarching principles for engaging local civil society: promoting civil society participation in priority-setting; strengthening and protecting civic space; investing in local civil society actors; and ensuring an equitable and inclusive approach.
While USAID is formalizing partnerships with local organizations through its New Partnerships Initiative and procurement reform, civil society engagement means far more than simply working with local partners on service provision. MFAN is supportive of broadening and diversifying partnerships, particularly with local organizations, but the U.S. must recognize the critical role that supporting, strengthening, and investing in civil society groups, regardless of their status as implementing partners, plays in ensuring a stable, inclusive, economically thriving partner country.
These civil society groups, in their own right, contribute to research, innovation, advocacy, political organizing, accountability, and awareness-raising in our partner countries. At no time is the role of civil society more critical than now, as the world endures the COVID-19 pandemic. With transportation routes closed and communities across the globe on lock-down, it is these very communities that must lead to protect themselves.
In short, MFAN is urging USAID to develop a Strategy on Engaging Local Civil Society because civil society forms the backbone of country ownership and effective development. While we strongly support USAID’s efforts to build local partnerships, working with civil society involves many other functions and deserves a formal public strategy laying this out. To encourage the agency, MFAN has also published a set of recommendations in addition to guiding Principles. The full set of Principles and Recommendations can be found here.
We are grateful for Administrator Green’s leadership of the United States’ primary development agency and his own commitment to robust civil society organizations in partner countries. As he departs the agency, we are hopeful that USAID will continue to carry out the important reforms begun under his leadership. We hope these reforms will also include the strong support of civil society as key partners in every country’s Journey to Self-Reliance.