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Understanding and reimagining civil society and how we support it.

Charities Aid Foundation



26 May 2017

Cuts in funding to the US State Department and new rules restricting the advocacy of the civil society organisations (CSOs) it funds threaten to curtail the liberalising soft power of American generosity.

The promotion of a pluralistic and vibrant civil society abroad has been an important part of the spread democratic values around the world. Whilst we may well be experiencing a regressive period for freedom, by divesting from civil society support we risk undermining the power of an idea that has transformed the world into one which for all the current malaise and turmoil, is freer and less violent than at any other time in human history. As these gains come under threat, it is crucial that the USA - the country which has done more than any other to build civil society abroad - doesn’t lose faith in civil society’s capacity, unfettered and free to develop in society’s image, to transform our world for everyone’s benefit.


The U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is set to be cut by an unprecedented 32% in the next fiscal year. The combined budget request of $37.6 billion for Fiscal Year 2018 will reflect “the President’s commitment to a leaner, more efficient government, and [ensure] that every tax dollar spent is aligned with the Administration’s foreign policy objectives.”

That form of words is significant in what it doesn’t say. No mention of tackling poverty, of advancing the Sustainable Development Goals or of building civil society. The new remit of the State Department will be “Defending U.S. National Security”, “Asserting U.S. Leadership and Influence”, “Fostering Opportunities for U.S. Economic Interests” and “Ensuring Effectiveness and Accountability to the U.S. Taxpayer” – objectives which are transparently about national interests.

The refocusing – or rebranding if you are inclined to cynicism – of aid from a progressive globalist agenda to one of enlightened self interest and finally to a tool of plain old national interest is not unprecedented. The United Kingdom is one of only six OECD members - and by far the biggest - to reach the long-standing target of committing 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) to official development assistance – the US reached just 0.18% in 2015. However, since signing this commitment into law in 2015, the UK government has sought to redefine aid. As early as November of the same year the government released its 5 year aid strategy which was entitled; UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest. A report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed that between 2014 and 2016 there was a twelve percentage point drop in the proportion of ODA budget received by DFID and that by 2016 more than a quarter of the aid budget was being spent outside DFID. More recently, the ruling Conservative Party’s manifesto for the upcoming election stated that;

“We do not believe that international definitions of development assistance always help in determining how money should be spent, on whom and for what purpose. So we will work with like-minded countries to change the rules so that they are updated and better reflect the breadth of our assistance around the world. If that does not work, we will change the law to allow us to use a better definition of development spending, while continuing to meet our 0.7 per cent target.”

2017 Conservative Party Manifesto

As striking as the UK example is, the scale of the change in the US is of a different order entirely. It is of course unsurprising that removing a third of the State Department’s funding has attracted dissent. However, the fact that dissent has come from some of the more hawkish and conservative luminaries of American public life, and with such strength, may surprise the causal onlooker. This is because, for many, the concern is not that such changes will focus on the national interest rather than more high minded global responsibilities, quite the reverse in fact; their concern is that American interests will be undermined.

There are two compelling arguments as to why reducing and refocusing of the State Department could backfire. One of those reasons relates to the scale of the cuts and the balance of spending on national security and the other takes a more nuanced view of the efficacy of approaches to advancing soft power through civil society.


Let me start with some quotes because the combination of the words which follow and the names next to them explain this argument with a force which I cannot. Here’s a representative three;

  • Veteran diplomat and formally national security adviser to President George W. Bush, Stephen J. Hadley said; “We learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan that our military needs an effective civilian partner if victories on the battlefields are going to be converted into a sustainable peace.”
  • Ed Royce, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee has stated that, “Diplomacy matters. It helps keep America strong, and our troops out of combat,” said Mr Royce. “Given the growing threats we face, we should be supporting — not slashing — antiterrorism, law enforcement and humanitarian programmes.”
  • Often the most strident voices defending diplomatic spending come from the military – a department which is actually receiving a 3% increase in President Trump’s budget. For example, Marine Gen. James Mattis – now Trump's secretary of Defense said in 2013,"If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately."

The message here is simple; the military can win battles but only diplomacy can deliver hearts and minds and ultimately win the peace. Civil society is a crucial part of securing that peace through networks and organisations which represent the needs, concerns and beliefs of everyone, help to challenge corruption and uphold the rule of law and extend the reach of services to augment or replace ailing or malign governments.


In the second half of the 20th Century, civil society organisations experienced unprecedented growth in both resources and influence. A leading role in the civil rights movement, the end of apartheid in South Africa and in aiding the transition to democracy of nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall saw CSOs reach their zenith at the turn of the 21st Century. However, a series of world events in the dawn of the millennium set in motion a global trend for the closing of civil society space.

For Doug Rutzen, Director of the International Center for Not-for-profit Law - incidentally itself a recipient of State Department funding at the time of writing – the crucial turning point was the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Civil society organisations found themselves under scrutiny as potential vehicles for the financing of terror (leading to an assumption of risk that has taken more than a decade to start to abate) whilst also becoming co-opted into the war effort as part of the post-conflict democratisation project. This, according to Rutzen has led to a more cynical appraisal of international civil society that characterises CSOs as a Trojan Horse for regime change rather than the undirected and benign extension of soft power.

"On the one hand, the sector was targeted under the War on Terror. On the other, the Bush Administration embedded support for civil society into the Freedom Agenda. For both reasons— the association of civil society with terrorism and the association of civil society with Bush’s Freedom Agenda—governments around the world became increasingly concerned about civil society, particularly CSOs that received international support."

Doug Rutzen, Director, International Center for Not-for-profit Law.

The prevailing perception that the international CSO agenda is being directed by western governments - chiefly the US but increasingly the European Union (see Hungary) - may have its origins in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but for many, the pushback against international CSOs matured into a counter movement during the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and it’s figurehead is arguably Vladimir Putin.

President Putin, and pro-Russian Ukrainians suspected that the protests in Kiev were being orchestrated by foreign forces through puppet CSO’s. For those who grew up under the Iron Curtain and the climate of suspicion and paranoia that is synonymous with society in a police state, this must have seemed entirely plausible. Putin accused the United States of pursuing a "dictatorial" foreign policy, packaged, he said, in "beautiful, pseudo-democratic phraseology" and succeeded, to some extent in undermining the credibility of CSO’s receiving funding from the US. This was the fracture which started an avalanche of regimes which were nervous of being accountable to the increasing power of a growing global civil society.

It would be only too easy to suggest that civil society is a busted flush – that now that foreign states have become wise to the democratising impact (and intent) of foreign donors to civil society, the jig is up. That would be a mistake

According to data from ICNL, between 2004 and 2010, more than fifty countries considered or enacted measures restricting civil society. In 2010 the trend shifted to the Arab world in earnest as governments – in a mirroring of what happened after the Orange Revolution – reacted by constricting the freedoms of association and assembly and undermining connections with foreign CSOs and funders in response to the Arab Spring. The trend – referred to by then as the ‘closing’ or ‘shrinking space for civil society’ - accelerated and globalised between 2012 and 2015 with “more than ninety laws constraining the freedoms of association or assembly [having] been proposed or enacted”. It has only slowed of late because there is now so little space left for further constriction. Recognising this closing space for civil society as a threat to freedom generally and US soft power specifically, the US government established the Stand With Civil Society agenda which sought to monitor developments and support CSOs and activists to continue their work in spite of increasing barriers. Sadly, it is doubtful such efforts will now continue.


It would be only too easy to suggest that civil society is a busted flush – that now that foreign states have become wise to the democratising impact (and intent) of foreign donors to civil society, the jig is up. That would be a mistake. For all that civil society has constricted since the millennium in nations where the US has funded its development, it continues to exist. Governments can make life extremely difficult for CSOs to register, gain funding and undertake activities but once a people connect with the idea that through association, they can use their collective resources to influence change the dye has been cast and civil society will endure.

Through technical assistance in creating an enabling legal and regulatory environment for CSOs, through funding charity and philanthropy support organisations to provide services, guidance and sector research to aid CSOs and donors and raise standards in the sector and through funding CSOs to support the democratisation project through building civic engagement and challenging corruption and championing rights; the State Department has unquestionably made the world a more open and stable place. Whilst Hungary, Belarus, Russia and others in post Soviet have backslid despite a great deal of US money being spent establishing civil society in post Soviet Eurasia, others in the region have seen a flowering of civil society – and for all the regressive rhetoric and policies following the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, fundamentally, no government in the region has succeeded in breaking, once established, the notion that people should be able to use their resources through charitable endeavour to change their world for the better.

The problem now, as I see it anyway, is that western governments are also becoming intoxicated by the idea that criticism from civil society is somehow an affront to strong leadership and a distraction from exercising power. Leaders seem to have forgotten that the very reason that American funded CSOs have credibility, and therefore help to extend real soft power, is that they represent not the narrow foreign interests of the American government, but the vibrant, pluralistic and fiercely independent spirit of American society. That, more than anything sells the notion of America as a beacon of democratic maturity and good governance.

This notion; that the United States is so strong and stable, not in spite of, but because it tolerates a wide range of views from within civil society, is reinforced most stridently by the funding of - by US citizens and CSOs - organisations aboard which are critical of US policy. This sends two clear messages; firstly, that America is a place where freedom is sacrosanct and secondly, that any sense that civil society is merely an attempt by the US to meddle in foreign affairs is disproved by the fact that the CSOs themselves often don’t disagree with US policy objectives. Such pluralism sells liberal democracy. The danger now is that an attempt to bring US CSOs in line with foreign policy objectives could damage the credibility of civil society. A clumsy attempt to reshape civil society in its image could see it irreparably damaged.

"The problem now, as I see it anyway, is that western governments are also becoming intoxicated by the idea that criticism from civil society is somehow an affront to strong leadership and a distraction from exercising power."

In January, President Trump issued an executive order to revive a ban on CSOs in receipt of government money from “promot[ing] abortion as a method of family planning.” American tax payers dollars are already prohibited under US law from funding actual abortion services abroad but this ban freezes funding to CSOs in poor countries if they offer abortion counselling or campaign for the abortion rights abroad. In May, State Department rules were published on the basis of that order which effectively ban CSOs even engaging in discussion on the matter of family planning.


Politicians can and do speak eloquently about the value of civil society and are effusive in their praise of the good work of CSOs. Many will also acknowledge that the advocacy of CSOs has led to policy improvements and changed public perceptions on issues like race, sexuality and disease by battling against ingrained prejudice. Despite these words of benign tolerance, the reality is that few value the critical eye of civil society when its gaze lands on them. Yet, as renowned scholar of US foreign policy and International relations Joseph Samuel Nye, Jr puts it; “such criticism is often the most effective way of establishing credibility. Part of America's soft power grows out of the openness of its society […]”

On the face of it, it seems entirely reasonable that funding for the extension of hard military is inherently more effective than funding a diffuse band of diplomats and CSOs. What seems like simple arithmetic at first sight must seem even more concrete when it is observed that many of the CSOs being funded demonstrate forceful independence and aren’t exactly singing from the same hymn sheet as the government. But as Nye points out, having a thicker skin to criticism is central to the basis of American influence;

“Public diplomacy is an important tool in the arsenal of smart power, but smart public diplomacy requires an understanding of the role of credibility, self-criticism, and the role of civil society in generating soft power. Public diplomacy that degenerates into propaganda not only fails to convince, but can undercut soft power.”

Joseph Samuel Nye, Jr.


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