Invest in Citizens: The best way to push back against closing civic space in Europe and Eurasia

By Erin McCarthy

Fostering a culture that respects civil society and building an institutional framework for citizens and government to interact can take years. Add to that the legacy of distrust of formal civic organizations and the decades of mis-development that occurred under the Soviet-model of communism, and you have work for generations to come. We are quickly approaching this generational mark when it comes to promoting civil society development in Europe and Eurasia. While much progress has been made, the challenges facing the sector’s sustainability may be more nuanced than when USAID and other development practitioners began working there over 25 years ago.

Indeed, CSOs have made tremendous strides since the early-1990s, when one of the biggest challenges they faced was generating public awareness of their role and function in a democratic society. There are now institutionally sound and technically competent organizations that can engage directly with their governments. There are also now legal and regulatory frameworks for organizations to operate within; frameworks that were virtually non-existent immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union. USAID and other international donors and NGOs have supported local organizations to develop the necessary legal structures and organizational capacities to operate.

The most concerning and intractable issue today relates to the open vilification of the sector and attempts to limit fundamental freedoms of association and expression. Anti-CSO smear campaigns, which are often propagated by state-sponsored media, have had a significant impact on the public perception of countless organizations throughout the region, from the countries in the Western Balkans and Eurasia to the Baltics. Governments are passing restrictive legislation and regulatory measures at an unprecedented rate. Countless activists in the region are being routinely harassed, arrested, or physically attacked by government or government-affiliated entities. Two underlying factors have allowed this attack on civil society to take root and must be addressed in order for the sector to both withstand the pressure being exerted on it in the short term as well as to grow and become self-sustaining in the long term. These factors are lack of broad citizen engagement in civic activities and the disconnect between formal CSOs and citizens.

Citizen Engagement:

Academics, policy makers and development practitioners have often labeled citizens in many countries in the Europe and Eurasia region as apathetic or reluctant to engage in civil or political activities. This assumption has proven incorrect time and time again, as citizens have been quick to mobilize and speak out against perceived injustices. In order for citizens to participate and speak out, including against issues of closing civic space, it seems that two underlying factors must be present: First, citizens must perceive the injustice as relevant to them and their everyday lives. This can include instances of corruption or malfeasance, as was the case in the 2016 Macedonia protests or opaque and unjustified political decisions that would ultimately impact citizens’ socioeconomic status, as was the case in the 2014 Ukraine protests. Second, citizens must genuinely believe their actions and involvement can have an impact. For example, a citizen is unlikely to show up to vote in an election when there are systemic electoral violations or a deeply fractured opposition unlikely to win. They do not believe that their participation will make a difference one way or another, and therefore do not participate.

The development challenge for civil society practitioners is how to educate citizens on the importance of engaging on issues even if they will not see an immediate and direct impact. The value of active citizenship, with all the privileges and responsibilities it affords, must be instilled early and often. This concept of engaging in fully voluntary activities which are autonomous from the state can be difficult to grasp. For decades, citizens living under Soviet communism were compelled to devote a certain amount of time each week to community services such as cleaning the streets, fixing public amenities, or sorting recyclable material. Overcoming this legacy and helping citizens to distinguish truly voluntary civic activity from these obligatory “subbotnik’s” has been a unique challenge to fostering broad based civic engagement in the Europe and Eurasia region.

Citizens must recognize the important role that they themselves play within their communities. If individuals do not understand what it means to be an active citizen, to question the common narrative, and how and why they must hold their governments to account, the important link between civil society and government will never be forged. The importance of speaking up, problem solving, analytical thinking, individualism, exercising tolerance and giving back to the community is key to building resiliency among citizens and pushing back against governments attempts to stifle fundamental civic freedoms. These principles are not innate and should be taught at an early age and continuously reinforced throughout youth and adulthood, with ample opportunities for practical application. Whether through educational television programming for preschoolers, participation in extracurricular activities such as Scouting, model United Nations and Student Government Associations for children and teens, media literacy campaigns, youth camps and exchanges, service learning projects, community philanthropy, social entrepreneurship activities and service organizations such as Lions and Rotary Clubs, investments in individual citizens are critical to pushing back against the closure of civic space. Assistance for ongoing involvement in civic activities, in small towns and big cities, through associations and clubs, volunteer opportunities, community improvement projects and the like, continues the experience of these principles of civic engagement and translates them into how society governs itself.

Bridging the CSO v Citizen Divide:

Government-sponsored smear campaigns that seek to denigrate independent groups are now common in the Europe and Eurasia region. These campaigns are easy to propagate, as citizens cannot relate to many of the CSOs that are being targeted and do not understand their value or purpose. The accusations that these groups are merely ‘western puppets’ is becoming part of the common narrative and citizen trust in such organizations remains quite low. Without constituents backing CSOs, and in the absence of citizens understanding or prioritizing what they stand for, these organizations will continue to be extremely vulnerable to attack. CSO’s long term financial dependence on foreign donors is partially to blame for this disconnect. This dependency has led many organizations to view donors as their primary constituents rather than citizens. All too often, CSOs focus their organizational missions and project activities on donor priorities, which are not necessarily aligned with citizen needs. This dependency naturally led CSOs to engage in strategic communications with ongoing and prospective donors rather than with citizens. Factoring in the years of focused volunteerism and mandatory membership in state-run ‘civic organizations’ that were notorious during the Soviet period, the low levels of public trust and understanding of CSOs should come as no surprise. These fundamental issues of legitimacy and relevance must be addressed if the civil society sector is to grow and become self-sustaining.

Donors must discern how best to work with CSOs to build their capacities to communicate with and listen to the issues that citizens prioritize. Donors should be less prescriptive in the types of initiatives and activities they support. They must engage in an open dialogue with civil society, to discuss what they consider to be their primary goals and needs, and tailor assistance accordingly. Without these discussions, organizations may continue to align their activities with donor rather than citizen priorities, which will only reinforce the citizen-CSO disconnect. USAID’s approach to working with local organizations to strengthen their capacities to engage with constituents, identify issues that are of greatest concern to them, and in turn advocate for those concerns to their local, regional or national level governments, directly addresses this disconnect. Additionally, flexible procurement mechanisms such as Statements of Objectives, Annual Program Statements tailored to local civil society, and Broad Agency Announcements help to broaden USAID’s and other donors’ partner bases and allows CSOs to tailor their activities to the needs of citizens as they evolve rather than simply restating donor priorities. These mechanisms also allow for greater creativity and innovation on how to achieve broadly defined goals and objectives.

It is important to view the level of civil society development in the Europe and Eurasia region and its capacity to push back against closing civic space in relative terms. Individuals in the U.S. have had over 200 years to learn and practice the values of active citizenship, values that are then passed on from generation to generation. These same concepts and organizations have hardly had 25 years to take root in Europe and Eurasia; with this in mind, the level of civil society development in the region today is impressive. It is important to maintain realistic expectations and to afford civil society in these countries the time and opportunity necessary to flourish, be it one generation, two, or ten. It is equally vital for development practitioners to directly address the underlying factors which have, in many instances, prevented civil society from effectively pushing back against closing civic space. The above-mentioned activities -- civic education, service learning projects, micro-grants, community philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, and community improvement, among others -- help promote citizen engagement, because they place an emphasis on educating and empowering individuals, and addressing their self-identified needs and priorities. These activities equip citizens with the rationale and knowledge as well as the tools and means for being civically and politically engaged. Additionally, empowering CSOs to effectively identify citizen priorities and engage in two-way communication with constituents is critical for increasing levels of visibility, public trust, and legitimacy. These foundational elements are essential to fostering a vibrant, pluralistic, and sustainable civil society; a civil society that is capable of withstanding over time even the most complex threats to censor it.

Erin McCarthy provides advice and technical assistance to missions and policymakers on civil society development programs and trends in the Europe and Eurasia Region at the U.S. Agency for International Development and is a member of the International Consortium on Closing Civic Space’s (iCon’s) Advisory Group.