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The White House
For Immediate Release

Support, Defend, and Sustain: The Relevance of U.S. Response to Closing Civic Space

Remarks by Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications
“Support, Defend, and Sustain’: The Relevance of U.S. Response to Closing Civic Space”
InterAction Annual Forum
Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Washington Marriott Hotel, Wardman Park


Good Afternoon. Thank you to Sam Worthington and InterAction for inviting me to be here today. InterAction is a formidable coalition of NGOs, operating in all corners of the world. I got to know Inter-Action years ago when I worked for Lee Hamilton and he was a board member.

We appreciate all that you do around the world. And the world can be daunting place. In my job, it often seems like we are dealing with crisis after crisis – and your day can easily be dominated by responding to whatever the worst situation is around the world. But one thing President Obama always reminds us is that we need to keep our eye on the long-game – on the difference that we can make in the lives of the American people, and people around the globe. And frankly, that agenda overlaps very much with the mission embraced by Inter-Action:

  •  Like you, we are working to eliminate extreme poverty and vulnerability – through our efforts on issues like health and food security, and preparation for the next round of Millennium Development goals;
  •  Through the patient and persistent work of strengthening human rights and citizen participation around the globe;
  •  Through our efforts to safeguard a sustainable plane, especially as we prepare for the Paris talks later this year;
  •  And through our overarching efforts on behalf of peace and dignity for all people.

I make these points because they lead to a simple truth. America’s support for civil society is not something we do as a side project; our support for civil society is fundamental to the national interests that we work to advance every single day. Our foreign policy cannot succeed unless civil society succeeds. Because you are the ones on the front lines – pushing for more political rights; delivering humanitarian assistance in dangerous places; coming up with solutions that are – frankly – more creative than anything government could envision.

Just because we agree on many big things doesn’t mean that we expect you to agree with everything that we do. Part of what is so important about civil society is that you push and prod governments, including our own, to be better. I personally welcome that pressure. It keeps us honest and accountable. Often, it can fill the gaps that we cannot fill.

President Obama understands this. He began his public life as a civil society leader – working with a coalition of churches to help communities hit hard by lay-offs and overlooked by their government.  That’s why he pressed us to think hard about how we support civil society, which led to the Stand with Civil Society initiative that we launched nearly two years ago.

Today, I want to give you an update on these efforts – why we started down this course; what we’ve done; and the lessons we’ve learned. And as we have throughout this process, I look forward to hearing more from you as well.  


Let me begin by offering a few observations that led us to where we are today.

  1. First, the relevance of civil society is only increasing.

The major trends that are shaping life in this century make civil society that much more relevant. And I say that because we define civil society broadly, as reflected in the audience here: formal organizations, large and small; faith-based organizations; the media; citizen activists.

Power is becoming more diffuse – among states, and between governments and those they govern. As technology empowers individuals, it also increases their capacity to organize. As problems increasingly cross borders, organizations have the opportunity to learn from one another. All of this holds extraordinary promise for people around the world to make their own lives – and the lives of their fellow citizens – better.

  1. However, the second observation that we all share is that there is a concerted effort in many parts of the world to limit the space in which civil society operates.

Precisely because of the increased relevance of civil society, we see a growing, global crackdown on civil society, and freedom of expression, association and assembly. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, since 2012, 50 countries – including some nominally democratic states – have adopted laws designed to restrict the activity of civil society organizations or to curtail funding for their work.  If we include countries that have considered or enacted restrictive measures, the number goes up to over 90 since 2012.

You don’t have to look hard to find the anecdotal evidence. In Russia, a politics – and propaganda – rooted in fear casts every civil society effort as a Western-backed color revolution. In China, western media faces visa restrictions and citizens face a Great Firewall on the Internet, even as activists raise awareness on issues like air quality and corruption. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, instead of finding new models for political participation, many activists have found themselves facing new obstacles. From the Americas to Africa, advances in democracy have been coupled with pockets of resistance. Meanwhile, we must acknowledge that America’s own efforts and legal frameworks to combat terrorism have been used by other countries – accidentally or intentionally – as a tool that can make it harder for NGOs to operate.

  1. These trends led us to a third observation: the United States needs to rethink how we provide support to civil society, given these new realities.

Of course, we will continue the traditional forms of support that we provide – through funding, partnership, and advocacy with organizations like yours. But we also must adjust to the new reality. The President’s guidance was clear. We cannot take for granted the steady advance of democracy or human rights. We have to be mindful of efforts to stigmatize civil society as an extension of America and the West. We have to broaden the tools that we have to push back against closing space – learning from what works, and what does not. We have to engage more non-governmental actors around the globe, not less. We need to connect organizations with one another, so they can draw support from their colleagues. And we have to build new coalitions.

So in September 2013, President Obama launched Stand with Civil Society -- a global call to action to support, defend, and sustain civil society.  Working in partnership with other governments, the philanthropic community, and multilateral initiatives, we have focused on three lines of effort:

(1) modeling positive engagement between governments and civil society and creating a supportive environment for civil society in accordance with international norms;

(2) developing new assistance tools and programs, including the civil society hubs that the President announced last year at the Clinton Global Initiative;

and (3) coordinating multilateral and diplomatic pressure to push back against restrictions on civil society.

Stand With Civil Society:

Today I can share with you some updates on Stand with Civil Society lines of effort that speak to some of the things that the US Government is doing differently.   And I look forward to your questions and comments on how we can further institutionalize our work.

  1. First, precisely because civil society is so important to everything that we do around the world, we are making our support for civil society a part of everything that we do. 

After we launched Stand with Civil Society, we drew lessons from all of our diplomatic posts about what they were doing to support civil society – what worked, and what didn’t. We learned that while many Embassies and USAID missions are doing extraordinary work, there wasn’t a clear prioritization – or roadmap – for how to combat closing space and support civil society. There also wasn’t a concerted effort to make this a priority across all of our different agencies.

So – in order to elevate and sustain this effort across the government – the President issued the Presidential Memorandum (PM) on Deepening U.S. Government Efforts to Collaborate with and Strengthen Civil Society. As President Obama noted when it was signed last year, this Memorandum means that “partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the U.S. Government…this is a part of American leadership.” Since then, we have expanded our efforts in agencies where this engagement has not been as prominent, especially in restrictive environments.  The Memorandum focuses our efforts, globally, on expanding and strengthening our engagement with civil society, opposing efforts by foreign governments to restrict the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as providing technical assistance and support to governments who want to strengthen collaboration with civil society. In places where it is possible, the Memorandum calls for us to facilitate dialogue between government and civil society. 

The Memorandum also highlights that our support to civil society is happening alongside our other critical foreign policy priorities, including counter terrorism, foreign terrorist fighting, and broader security concerns. One way in which we are navigating these priorities is the growing engagement between the Department of Treasury and the non-profit sector as part of the Financial Action Task Force process. For example, the Task Force hosted a formal consultation with the non-profit organization sector in March 2015 and incorporated their feedback on a draft Best Practices paper for preventing terrorist abuse in the sector.  In addition, Treasury has engaged in several consultations with U.S. non-profits over the past year to solicit their feedback on and input into the Financial Action Task Force paper.

We are also working to bolster our efforts, across the entire U.S. Government, to engage countries when potential issues and tensions arise related to draft NGO laws and regulation. There are important and complicated policy intersections between our imperative to protect freedom of expression, association and assembly, while advancing national security priorities.  These policy intersections play out differently in each county, so our response has to be informed and nimble. There will always be those who contend that we are not striking the right balance, but this is an ongoing process for US departments and agencies, and we are sending a clear signal that the concerns of civil society must be elevated.

  1. Second, we are finding new ways to support civil society

A second focus of our work is to expand innovative support to civil society, in partnership with others. As part of Stand with Civil Society, a Donor Coordination Group -- including the US, Sweden, and private philanthropic partners -- is supporting new and established approaches to promote, strengthen, and connect civil society in open, closing, and closed spaces through the establishment of demand-driven and cutting-edge Civil Society İnnovation Initiative, or CSİI, Hubs.  These regional Hubs will encourage cooperation, innovation, research, learning, and peer-to-peer exchanges.   To create the Hubs, CSİI will catalyze national, regional and global actions among a wide array of actors from civil society, government and the private sector. 

Rather than telling civil society what we think they need, the Donor Coordination Group is working with civil society partners through an inclusive process to define each regional hub. These Hubs will feature virtual and physical components that can aggregate existing tools and resources, including on leadership capacity and regionally-based resource mobilization, as well as serve as a support platform for civic activists that could provide on-demand legal aid.  

Beyond these hubs, we are also making a very significant push to broaden our engagement with new and emerging voices around the globe – the leaders who will shape the future of these debates long after this Administration is gone.

  •  We have launched Young Leaders initiatives in Africa, Southeast Asia, and now the Americas that have already reached nearly too hundred thousand people – including many who are emerging leaders in their communities. These programs establish networks among young people and our diplomatic posts, bring Fellows to the United States for education and internships; and connect young people with our programing – and partners – overseas;
  •  We have also initiated a new strategy to engage religious leaders and faith communities around the world, with a focus on inter-faith dialogue, conflict resolution, development and disaster response – because often faith-based groups have enormous credibility within their communities, and share the same priorities that we care about.
  •  And we are ramping up our support for Entrepreneurship – because we know that societies that foster entrepreneurship are more likely to generate broad-based economic growth; and we also know that entrepreneurs can be agents of change, and creators of opportunity for women and marginalized communities.

All of these efforts recognize the fundamental truth that the interests and values that America cares about are advanced when more people can realize their potential.

  1. Coordinate multilateral and diplomatic pressure

The third area of focus iscoordinating multilateral and diplomatic pressure to push back against undue restrictions on civil society.

The United States is an active supporter of civil society within the United Nations system, but we have also increased the time, resources, and energy we invest in additional multilateral bodies whose core mission includes support for open and vibrant civic space.  Two such organizations are the Open Government Partnership and the Community of Democracies.  

The United States is an active member of the CD’s Executive Committee and Governing Council and has committed to providing $3 million over three years in core funding to the Community to bolster the CD’s ability to protect and promote civic space.  This funding will expand the CD’s presence in Geneva and New York, increase the capacity of CD mechanisms such as the Canadian-led Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society, and allow the CD to create additional opportunities for dialogue between the CD’s member governments and civil society, including civil society from non-democratic states where the threat to civic space is often greatest.  At the upcoming July 22-24 CD Ministerial in El Salvador, this funding will allow the CD to bring nearly 100 representatives of civil society from around the world to participate in the three-day event.

Central to our success in protecting the space for civil society will be our ability to collect and disseminate best practices and lessons learned from the field, including from you. To highlight just a few key lessons – we have learned that:

  •  Safeguarding space and building capacity for civil society must be a long-term effort
  •  Early action during democratic transitions is critical, with local civil society in the lead
  •  Identifying civil society champions in government and the legislature is essential
  •  Expanding consultations that include civil society and government to develop sound legal frameworks is also crucial
  •  Support for civil society efforts at self-regulation, transparency and accountability is important in its own right but also makes it more challenging for those who want to discredit and delegitimize the sector

We are also learning and disseminating best practices on a country level:

  • USAID’s Legal Enabling Environment Program (LEEP), implemented by ICNL, focuses on improving the enabling environment for civil society globally by opposing efforts by governments to restrict the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.  Over the past year, the LEEP program contributed to improved laws in El Salvador, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Nicaragua; laid groundwork for more progressive laws in Morocco and Tunisia; and provided legal analysis of potentially restrictive draft laws in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Kyrgyzstan, among others.   
  •  In Burma, USAID helped ensure that a local CSO working group benefited from technical assistance during their consultations with Parliament on the draft Association Registration Law. Empowered by this assistance, the CSO-parliamentary dialogue resulted in substantial improvements to the law that was ultimately enacted in July 2014.
  •  In Nigeria, USAID supported civil society’s efforts to develop a position paper against a legislation that would restrict donor funding for civil society operations.
  •  In Kazakhstan, USAID helped strengthen a cadre of leading independent CSOs that are now consulted on important legislative initiatives, including the new criminal code, new NGO legislation, and a proposed policy to raise the retirement age for women.
  •  In Rwanda, USAID developed alternative funding mechanisms and independent programs to counter attempts by the Government to channel donor funding for civil society through government approved systems.
  •  In Ukraine, we have engaged a coalition of over 70 civil society groups advocating for reforms. These interactions help support a more stable and democratic Ukraine.

These are just a few examples of how we are working to support, defend and sustain our engagement with civil society. But we need to do more, learn more and adopt more nimble approaches to continue to address and mitigate this global crackdown on civil society.


Let me close with a note of optimism.

President Obama makes it’s a priority to meet with young people and civil society. He’s met with activists who are working – often against great odds – to make change: a woman who runs an NGO that catalogues abuses by the Venezuelan government; an activist from Thailand promoting awareness of human trafficking; a nurse from Liberia who led an effort to obtain medical supplies to fight Ebola; an LGBT advocate fighting a rising tide of intolerance in Russia; a woman who helped pass Saudi Arabia’s first law against domestic violence; a victim of forced marriage who leads an organization that provides services for women and girls who have suffered from gender based violence; a young woman from Myanmar advocating for the human rights of the Rohingya.

You know these people. They work – almost always out of the spotlight – to make life a little bit better: to right wrongs, combat injustice, and solve problems. They answer – not to their own government, and not to the US government – they answer to their own communities.  There can be no more powerful form of legitimacy. And that is why efforts to silence people like them will ultimately fail.

That is not to say that there will be no setbacks. In some countries things will get worse before they get better. And in our own foreign policy, the United States will have to manage difficult trade-offs, since we have many governments who are close partners on some national security issues, even as they impose restrictions on their own people. What we can do – and must do – is use our engagement to press for the rights of these people, while also engaging not just governments but people as well.

Ultimately, though, the future does not belong to governments who fear their own people. History shows that you can only hold a lid on your own people for so long. And while there are increased efforts to close space, there is a rising tide of activism, technology, and inter-connection that cannot be reversed. I believe that more strongly today than I did six years ago. Thank you for all that you do to advance this essential agenda.