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"The Most Important Title is 'Citizen'": President Obama on the Significance of a Civil Society

Speaking to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, New York, President Obama explained how the voice of one citizen can remind us why a civil society is so essential.
President Obama Delivers Remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative 2014

President Obama delivers remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, N.Y. September 23, 2014. (by Paul Morse / Clinton Global Initiative)

The courage of Berta Soler, the leader of Cuba's Ladies in White who endure harassment and arrest to win freedom for the Cuban people.

The determination of Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg, speaking up for the rule of law and human rights in their country. 

The hope of young Palestinians in Ramallah, dreaming of building their future in a free and independent state. 

"It is the civil society leaders who, in many ways, are going to have the more lasting impact," President Obama said. "Because as the saying goes, the most important title is not 'president' or 'prime minister'; the most important title is 'citizen.'"  

Speaking to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, NY, President Obama explained how the voice of one citizen can remind us why a civil society is so essential: 

Citizens remind us why civil society is so essential. When people are free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsive and more effective. When entrepreneurs are free to create and develop new ideas, then economies are more innovative, and attract more trade and investment, and ultimately become more prosperous.

When communities, including minorities, are free to live and pray and love as they choose; when nations uphold the rights of all their people -- including, perhaps especially, women and girls -- then those countries are more likely to thrive.  If you want strong, successful countries, you need strong, vibrant civil societies.  When citizens are free to organize and work together across borders to make our communities healthier, our environment cleaner, and our world safer, that's when real change comes.

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"It is citizens -- ordinary men and women, determined to forge their own future -- who throughout history have sparked all the great change and progress."

A citizen is a powerful force for change. That is why more and more governments are doing what they can to silence them -- from Russia to China to Venezuela and more. "This growing crackdown on civil society is a campaign to undermine the very idea of democracy. And what's needed is an even stronger campaign to defend democracy," the President said.  

To carry that campaign forward, he announced a series of new steps the United States will take to protect and promote the strength of civil societies across the globe:

  1. All federal departments and agencies will now consult and partner more regularly with civil society groups. They will oppose efforts by foreign governments to dictate our assistance to civil society or to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and expression.
  2. We will create new innovation centers for civil society groups to use to network and access knowledge, technology, and funding they need to put their ideas into action. The first six initial centers will be located in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia. 
  3. The U.S. will expand support and funding for Community of Democracies to better coordinate the diplomacy and pressure we exert to fight against laws that restrict civil society. 
  4. We will increase our support for society groups across the board, from emergency assistance to legal assistance to technical support. The Treasury Department will finalize regulations so it is easier and less costly for foundations to make grants overseas. 

The realities of America's national security present imperfect choices, forcing the U.S. to work with governments that do not fully respect the universal rights of their citizens in order to protect the safety and security of Americans. "But that does not mean that human rights can be simply sacrificed for the sake of expediency," the President said. 

So although it is uncomfortable, although it sometimes causes friction, the United States will not stop speaking out for the human rights of all people, and pushing governments to uphold those rights and freedoms.  We will not stop doing that, because that's part of who we are, and that's part of what we stand for.

"When your governments may try to pass oppressive laws, we’ll try to oppose them. When they try to cut off your funding, we’re going to try to give you a lifeline. And when they try to silence you, we want to amplify your voice."

"If, amid all the restrictions, and all the pressure, and all the harassment, and all the fear, if they try to tell you that the world does not care and that your friends have forsaken you, do not ever believe it," President Obama said. "Because you are not alone. You are never alone."

In the darkest hours of our trials, President Obama urged all to remember the words of Dr. King: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

The reason we support civil society is because we have seen in this country of ours that it does, in fact, bend toward justice. But it does not do so on its own. It does so because there are hands of ordinary people doing extraordinary things every single day and they pull that arc in the direction of justice.

That's why we have freedom in this country. That's why I’m able to stand before you here today. And that's why we will stand with them tomorrow.