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Creating Change in a Changing World: Building a DARPA for Democracy

Diplomacy is entering a season of profound change, a change the Administration has recognized and embraced. As a result of advances in technology and shifts in culture, it is becoming easier and cheaper for citizens to unite around common interests and advance common goals. These trends are redefining the relationship between governments and the citizens they serve. Already, they have produced a dramatic escalation in citizens’ expectations of governments and a new wave of democratization. 

For more than 200 years, the State Department has focused its diplomatic engagement on other governments—and done so quite successfully. Our strategic cooperation with non-state actors is, by comparison, relatively new. The Administration recognized that the Department would have to create new architecture and initiatives to stay ahead of these dynamics. Former Secretary Hillary Clinton appointed me as the Secretary’s Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies in October 2010 and asked my office to develop a new generation of tools for working with and strengthen­ing civil society and young democracies worldwide. At the heart of our mission was a commitment to elevate engagement with civil society alongside our traditional efforts to work with governments. In its own way, this constituted a watershed moment for American diplomacy. 

Other governments have taken a different path, and launched increasingly aggressive efforts to push back against the growing influence of civil society organizations (CSOs). More than 40 countries—including some nominally democratic states—have recently adopted laws designed to limit the activities of CSOs or curtail funding for their work. Governments are also becoming increasingly adept at exchanging “worst practices,” with innovations such as limits on international support for CSOs spreading quickly among regimes that reject the principles of civic participation. 

Democracies haven’t always kept up when it comes to sharing ideas that advance civic engagement and good governance. At one level, this shouldn’t surprise us. Democracy is an operating system, but it hasn’t had the benefit of a strong users’ group to foster innovation, identify vulnerabilities, and assist new customers as they learn to navigate an unfamiliar product. To address this challenge, we have been working to redesign and reinvigorate the Community of Democracies (CD). For the decade after it was founded by Madeleine Albright and Bronislaw Geremek in 2000, the CD provided a periodic forum for democracies to get together. Over the last three years, the organization has been transformed into a platform for democracies to get things done, particularly strengthening democratic transitions and civil society. Today, the CD has an entirely new governance structure, a clear mission, and leadership from its first Secretary General, Ambassador Maria Leissner of Sweden.  It is also providing the multilateral architecture to support a broad range of innovative, cost-effective democracy initiatives, including the LEND Network (for Leaders Engaged in New Democracies).

LEND grew out of a recognition that many leaders in nascent democracies were being drafted into jobs for which they had minimal preparation, and there was no manual for managing a newly representative government. LEND brings together key leaders from the world’s youngest democracies with former presidents, prime ministers, supreme court justices, and other experts who played key roles in their countries’ democratic transitions. The Network encourages participants to work together through face-to-face meetings and a virtual platform that provides voice, video, and text communication along with groundbreaking translation tools. In Tunisia, participants have been working through LEND to develop draft language for the country’s new constitution. The initiative lever­ages public-private partnerships with Google and OpenText, and is a true multilateral effort, having received funding from a diverse coalition of governments. It still isn’t an owner’s manual for new democracies, but LEND provides the diplomatic equivalent of tech support, and it is helping leaders in government and civil society build accountable institutions and establish the rule of law. 

Beyond providing better tools, we are also working to be better partners. Our commitment to constructive engagement with civil society led to the establishment of the Secretary’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society as the Department’s new flagship effort to engage non-state actors. Modeled on our high-level bilateral dialogues with other governments, this initiative has catalyzed interaction with civil society into concrete results involving more than 50 offices and bureaus across the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The Dialogue is remaking both the optics and substance of our work with civil society. Public diplomacy metrics tell part of the story. The Dialogue’s Civil Society Summit last May generated 14.5 million Twitter impressions and was the largest web broadcasting event in Department history. Over 70 of our embassies have opened their doors to civil society leaders for events held in conjunction with the Dialogue, and 40 posts have established civil society working groups within the initiative. The Dialogue has also generated serious policy results. By channeling recommendations from civil society directly to the Secretary and other government agencies, the Dialogue’s Federal Advisory Committee has helped bring about new training and guidelines on diplomatic cooperation with religious organizations, an Arabic language media campaign on women’s rights, and most recently, Secretary Kerry’s groundbreaking decision to create a new Office of Faith Based Community Initiatives. 

The Dialogue is also helping the Department tap into a key independent source of support for civil society: the philanthropic community. The Dialogue created a new Global Philanthropy Working Group that includes participation from many of the country’s leading foundations. We are now working together to encourage domestic philanthropy in other countries, coordinate action in the face of threats to foundations and grantees abroad, and remove barriers to cross border philanthropy. In collaboration with the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service, the Working Group has even helped introduce new tax rules for US foundations that dropped the legal and regulatory costs associated with funding foreign CSOs from around $10,000 per grant to as little as $350. The Working Group is engaging emerging philanthropists in countries with growing economies but little experience with philanthropy and helping them develop strategies, tax policies and civic infrastructure that support civil society. Ambassadors are playing a key role in this effort by connecting leaders in the private sector and aspiring philanthropists with outstanding CSOs. In too many cases, civil society groups have received short-term financial support from foreign governments, including the United States, only to close their doors when that funding dries up. The Dialogue is helping to unlock new resources that will contribute to the long-term sustainability of the entire sector.

Alongside its benefits for American diplomacy, our work with civil society is creating a model for collaboration that is being adopted by other governments. Many foreign leaders feel that civil society exists solely to disparage their work. For CSOs, providing constructive criticism of government is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient. The Dialogue is demonstrating how the civic sector can create value and help governments devise and implement real solutions, rather than simply condemning flawed policies.  

Our work on these issues to date has reaffirmed that many of the topics confronting the State Department are too broad and complex for us to solve alone, particularly given the limited resources available for research and innovation. Our newest project, Diplomacy Lab, harnesses the power of America’s best universities to help the Department take on the world’s toughest challenges. Diplomacy Lab launched as a pilot with the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary this fall. The Lab will provide academics with a mechanism to participate in the work of the Department while allowing policymakers to tap into a vast and underutilized reservoir of intellectual capacity—all at no cost. It enables bureaus and offices to “course-source” research and innovation to faculty-led teams around the country. Universities compete against each other to produce the best research and policy recommendations, and teams that generate the best ideas are invited to brief Department principals. Diplomacy Lab began as an effort to support civil society and young democracies, but the response has been so overwhelming that we are expanding the program to address other topics.

None of these new tools—the CD, LEND, the Dialogue, our philanthropy work, or Diplomacy Lab—can guarantee the success of our foreign policy. But in the 21st century, the absence of an innovative democracy and civil society agenda is a harbinger of likely failure. In a rapidly changing world, the stakes are high. The United States’ commitment to civil society and democracy is one of our greatest strategic assets. It provides the basis for much of our credibility in the international system, affords us a key advantage over rival powers, and is at the core of who we are as a nation.  We look forward to working with current and former American ambassadors to expand support for civil society and emerging democracies. In doing so, we can help unlock the promise of a new era in civic activism—and help our diplomacy keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

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Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies