From Assistance to Engagement

A Model for a New Era in U.S.-Russian Civil Society Relations

Over two days in July 2009, CSIS, along with colleagues from the Eurasia Foundation and the New Eurasia Foundation, convened a “Civil Society Summit” (CSS) in Moscow that explored how U.S. and Russian civil society ought to engage one another. At the end of the second day, we were joined by President Barack Obama. After listening to reports from several participants touching on challenges in public health, community development, next generation education, the environment, new media, and human rights, President Obama spoke about the fact that “Russia’s future is up to the Russian people.” He endorsed the approach we explored of engaging one another in “this summit, designed not to lecture, but to listen…; not teach or impose solutions, but to learn from each other, from the bottom up.”

What would a new approach to civil society engagement look like, and how would it be different from previous models given the notable asymmetries that exist in the respective civil societies? In this policy memo, Sarah Mendelson suggests U.S. government-funded efforts ought to shift from “democracy assistance” (sometimes referred to as “technical assistance”)—where Americans go to Russia to help teach and train—to a new model of peer-to-peer engagement—where Americans who work on relevant issues in the United States come together periodically with Russians who work on similar issues to share best practices, explore common problems, and where practical, undertake joint projects. In addition to addressing next steps following the July 2009 meeting, she lays out the numerous challenges that need to be overcome in order for the new approach to stimulate a thicker, more organic relationship between American and Russian civil societies that will benefit both governments and populations.

Sarah E. Mendelson