Administrator Power at the Summit for Democracy Event: “Expanding Civic Space: Empowering Human Rights Defenders and Independent Media Within and Across Borders”

Speeches Shim

Friday, December 10, 2021

Washington Convention Center
Washington, DC

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so, so much Damon, for that introduction and for your many years of leadership in promoting democracy and protecting freedom.

Since the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the world has faced an era of mass protest. From 2009 to 2019, the number of mass protests increased annually by 11.5 percent each year.

But while some countries, like Malawi and the Dominican Republic—both represented by their respective presidents on today’s panel—have elected governments that have been responsive to the protests against corruption in their countries, other glimmers of democratic progress have been met with attempts to crush civic space.

In 2017, after decades of grave human rights abuses, Rohingya in Burma endured horrific atrocities at the hands of Burmese security forces, which forced more than 750,000 to flee their homes. Today, brutal violence persists against pro-democracy protestors and members of many ethnic minority groups, as the country continues to spiral into chaos after the February 1 coup.

And after a very promising turn in Sudan, precipitated in 2019 by the leadership and courage of Sudanese women and youth who took to the streets for peaceful demonstrations, a military takeover has threatened to derail a democratic transition and dampened the prospect of civilian rule. Despite facing deadly violence, Sudanese protesters, nonetheless, took to the streets in response, refusing to give up the spirit of the revolution that they fought so hard to unleash. Although there is still a long way to go in Sudan, their efforts have produced some results and restored hope for Sudan’s path to democracy.

Whether democratic reform was already underway in your country, or it’s merely the hope that lives in the heart of the masses, one thing remains true: as you said Damon, civil society is under attack and civic space is being wiped out. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 91 countries—that’s nearly half the world—have introduced or enacted new laws restricting civil society in just the last five years. Many of them have used the cover of the pandemic as an excuse.

So our strategies for expanding civic space and defending human rights, let’s be honest, they’re not working. In order for democracy to prosper, we have to adapt to an ever-changing landscape and build forums for civil society actors that can withstand authoritarian overreach.

Today, very quickly, I’d like to highlight five U.S.-led initiatives that will expand civic space, boost support for the change agents on the front lines, and show government leaders—those who respect civic space and human rights—that the United States is serious about supporting their progress.

The first is called Partnerships for Democracy and it allows USAID to capitalize on democratic openings with assistance that will incentivize further democratic progress.

Traditionally, USAID’s democracy assistance has emphasized media trainings, election monitoring, or rights advocacy. This is really important stuff, but what governments pursuing democratic reforms really need, and we hear this from them directly, is the ability to demonstrate that democracy can deliver for their people. Even more than democracy assistance, they might need a shipment of vaccines, a debt relief program, or investment in their power utility to keep the lights on.

Through Partnerships for Democracy, USAID will surge assistance across sectors to countries that have shown a willingness to further their own democratic reforms. When we spot an opening, we will seek to expand assistance in a country’s health, energy, or business sectors—whatever is most needed—should the government commit to developing and sustaining democratic systems.

The second initiative, called Powered by the People, focuses not on supporting the NGOs and civil society organizations we are so used to partnering with, but the often leaderless mass movements—many powered by women and young people—at the heart of most democratic transitions.

We want to help the movements with the momentum to shake the halls of power, help them learn from each other. A youth-led democracy movement in one country might be unaware of the tactics that led to successful reform in another. And both may be unaware of outside expertise on how to organize, spread their messages, navigate local hurdles, or avoid regime crackdowns. Powered by the People will give movement leaders, activists, civil society organizations, and international experts a platform to connect and access resources to improve the effectiveness of collective action.

The third initiative is the launch of a so-called Media Viability Accelerator, which will complement President Biden’s announcement yesterday that we will provide seed money to launch the multi-donor International Fund for Public Interest Media. For decades, the donor community and USAID have advanced public interest media through trainings and reforms. But all the training in the world won’t matter if media outlets aren’t financially viable. We’ve seen that here at home, as local papers shut down and local networks are gobbled up by media conglomerates, harming a community’s ability to stay informed. The rise of digital technology and the consolidation of online ad revenue by tech companies has spawned a crisis for public media—what some are calling an “extinction event.”

The Media Viability Accelerator aims to respond to this moment. We will bring together local media outlets with an array of experts who have extensive industry experience, to help them make the leap to digital platforms, to help them better serve local markets, to help them bolster bottom lines with stronger revenue, and help them generate content that keeps audiences engaged.

The fourth initiative is USAID’s Empowering Anti-Corruption Change Agents Program. This effort will help activists build coalitions and design effective advocacy campaigns, using cutting edge research on social and behavioral change. It will also expand our support to networks of investigative journalists, like those who cracked the Pandora Papers. And it will support the brave people who risk their lives to expose corruption, whether that’s by helping them install gates and cameras at their office, access counseling services, or shore up their digital security so they don’t get hacked.

Our last effort is vital to—and will reinforce—the rest: the Advancing Women’s and Girls’ Civic and Political Leadership Initiative.

Even with a mass of data to support the need for women in government—showing that these governments are more peaceful, less corrupt, wealthier and more stable—representation is dismal, the barriers are high, and far too often, abuse, harassment, and the threat of violence stands as a deterrent to potential female candidates.

Too often, we invest in training for women to inspire their political participation, but don’t address the policies or social attitudes that may bar them from running or the harassment that forces them off the ballot.

So, through this initiative, we’re going to do both. Together with our allies, we’re going to invest in civic education, peer-to-peer exchanges, and skill-building to create a pipeline of women leaders, while we work with gender champions—male and female—to change corrupt and discriminatory rules and fight online harassment that hinders women’s leadership.

By developing new tools and approaches to organize, advocate, and protect human rights and free expression, we can seize the window of opportunity that exists in democratic bright spots like the ones we are about to hear about and we can remind power-hungry autocrats that the universal thirst for freedom and self-rule will not be extinguished.

Thank you so much.

Last updated: December 06, 2022

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