Administrator Samantha Power’s Keynote Speech at the Summit of the Americas Civil Society Forum

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Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Sheraton Grand
Los Angeles, California

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ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good morning, everybody. Before I begin, I want to thank the Organization of American States for its role in convening this forum. I want to acknowledge the leadership of Secretary General Almagro as a steadfast defender of democracy in our hemisphere. I feel really privileged to get to engage with you in particular, and there's a lot of talk this week about leaders, heads of state gathered here in Los Angeles, but in engaging with you, I feel I have an opportunity to hear directly from you, who are able to channel the views, concerns, and hopes of the citizens of your countries.

Non-governmental organizations represented here, universities, faith groups, professional associations, labor unions, cooperatives, community organizations, business entities, who's going to know their countries, their communities better, right, than groups like yours, individuals like you. You represent what we all, or many of us at least know to be true, which is a diverse civil society, is essential to a healthy society. It informs citizens, monitors government policies and actions, holds government actors accountable, advocates, pushes for better policies, defends rights, and delivers essential services, especially to marginalized populations who too often fall by the wayside.

And when new challenges crop up and times are tough -- and Lord knows times are tough right now with the pandemic, the growing food crisis, devastating climate shocks, job insecurity, jumps in homicides, jumps in gender based violence, the contraction of civil liberties, which I'll talk a little more about. It is all of you who are stepping up on behalf of your communities.

For decades, my organization, the United States for -- the United States Agency for International Development, has worked with civil society partners across Latin America and the Caribbean to help you serve your communities. So often we see that no matter the mandate or the particular issue of the day, civil society groups are the most agile, in pivoting in moments of difficulty and strain, in actually bringing that agility, that nimbleness to bear.

I'll give you an example in Ecuador. Our partner Fundación Esquel is known as a capacity building organization for other members of civil society organizations with a famous leadership institute in Quito. But since the pandemic hit, the foundation has leveraged its nationwide network and operations to provide lifesaving assistance to communities. In over two years, an organization that didn't used to do this kind of work has established 31 triage centers, provided oxygen therapy to over 100 people in their homes, and served more than 250,000 patients, ultimately saving hundreds of lives.

As more vaccines have become available through donations from the United States and other countries, they've also pivoted again to power vaccine brigades in remote regions, helping protect over 500,000 people. Civil society organizations do this all over the world and very much in this hemisphere, and they do it for, I think, two main reasons. First, that proximity, the way that civil society gets close to people and individuals in need of assistance; you don't have the luxury of looking away or not paying attention to the plight of your own communities, the communities that you are living with and hearing from every day. But second, you do something which I think is essential to meet the challenges of this time, which is that you focus on the progress of the people around you, not just the programs you run and administer. You don't care if some new line of effort doesn't fall directly in line with what you've done before. When a crisis hits, as I think the example I offered shows, but as you all could illustrate as well in your own work, you break from the past and seek to deliver results in the present.

You're not limited also by the expertise that lives squarely within your organizations. You build coalitions and make linkages like you're doing here today that are going to allow you to extend your impact. And you've never let your budgets or a lack of funding stop you from creatively finding ways to make an impact.

And here's the challenge right now. We are never going to have enough funding to meet the needs of all the people who might benefit from assistance. We just know that. And so as creative and nimble and connected as you are to your communities, I would argue and I'm arguing this to my own agency as well, we are thinking through how to do this ourselves, but we all have to be even more bold in embracing new partnerships, especially with those who may not be traditional allies, but who share your goals, like working with the private sector to counter corruption or to strengthen environmental protection.

In Mexico, for instance, USAID worked with the private sector to provide funds for civil society to promote open government and provide procurement transparency in the city of Chihuahua, where only 60 percent of all contracts were published and transparent. While some companies were benefiting from opaque processes, many were being left out altogether and saw it as being in their financial interest to hold the city accountable to more fair business practices. So there was a business incentive to actually get involved in increasing transparency. This effort resulted in a new partnership with the local organization, Karewa and a new online platform -- Monitor it's called, which posts and assesses the corruption risk level of all publicly available contracts. As a result of Monitor, now 100 percent of municipal tenders are now made public and the tool is being rolled out in 22 other cities and state governments across Mexico.

In Brazil, we were inspired by the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forest, and Agriculture, which is composed of more than 300 representatives from civil society, business, finance, and academia. This unlikely coalition came together united by a shared commitment to a low carbon future and inclusive and sustainable land use. Through its opposition to deforestation and its public policy proposals, the Coalition has emerged actually as a formidable advocate for Brazil's international climate commitments and demonstrated a path forward, both in terms of economic competitiveness and environmental sustainability.

In a fight to sustain democracy and expand the space for civil society, we all need to embrace partnerships like these, partnerships that 10 years ago might not have come naturally to many of us. Because in too many places -- and many of you were living this personally -- the work of civil society organizations is getting harder and harder. Since 2016, as you well know, according to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, 91 countries around the world have passed a total of 187 legal measures restricting the freedom of civil society. This is part of a much longer and troubling global trend that is seeing democracy on its back foot.

In Latin America in particular, polling shows steadily declining levels of citizen support and satisfaction with democracy and trust in government declining as leaders seek to shrink the space for civil society and weaken the rule of law. These abstract trends, these statistics have real world, real life consequences with civil society increasingly under threat.

Javier Tarazona, director of the Venezuelan NGO FundaREDES, recently completed 11 months in prison, falsely accused of terrorism and treason for denouncing links between the authorities and illegal armed groups. Javier's detention did not happen by accident and follows a troubling pattern of democratic decline and erosion of the separation of powers, silencing of the free press, persecution of critics, manipulation of elections, jailing of opponents. You know what is happening.

Venezuela is, of course, an extreme case, but it is not the only one. To Javier Tarazona's name, we can add those of Cuban human rights activist José Daniel Ferrer and the Nicaraguan opposition leader, Violeta Granera Padilla. And too many others persecuted simply for speaking the truth.

Worryingly in the Americas today, we've seen more countries taking steps to limit the operations of civil society organizations, to attack the press, or to capture the courts. And I want to be clear, of course, my country, the United States, is not at all immune from these forces seeking to undermine liberal democracy and an open society. A toxic brew of political polarization and online disinformation have given rise to extremist voices and, on occasion, political violence, some of it aimed at our very own Democratic system. President Biden convened a summit for democracy in December, not because us democracy or any democracy has the answers, but because of the urgent need to lock arms and push back against authoritarian trends.

This is the work we need to do together to preserve the space for civil society as an essential engine of democracy and development. And we especially need to support civil society in the places that are bucking the trends and experiencing efforts at democratic reform, like in the Dominican Republic, where a new government was elected on the very promise of tackling endemic corruption. It is civil society who are sustaining these pro-democratic movements. Journalists and activists who helped expose corruption. Citizen movements demanding gender, ethnic, and marriage equality, even demanding in Chile, a new constitution to enshrine these principles. And courageous NGOs like Foro Penal, working in less forgiving circumstances in Venezuela to stand up to government abuse, to document and denounce Javier Tarazona’s detention and those of 236 other political prisoners.

So the world's democracies must do more to support civil society because the forces aligned against are getting more and more sophisticated. They are using new tools, new technology, big data, spyware, artificial intelligence to spy on citizens, to track members of civil society, and to preserve and expand their power. And they are increasingly using weaponized propaganda and disinformation, often originating by authoritarians beyond our hemisphere itself, to divide societies and to manipulate elections.

In parts of Central America, specifically, we see an accelerating contraction in civic space, propelled by the enactment of repressive or ambiguous laws, the erosion of judicial independence, limitations on access to public information, criminalization and spurious litigation, smear campaigns, including against some of you in this room, and digital tools of repression like, again, disinformation and misinformation. These trends threaten not just democratic principles, such as freedom of expression and association, but regional stability and prosperity for all of our countries.

The United States deeply believes that when civil society is free to flourish, governments are more accountable, and thus they perform better. Citizens are more invested in their communities, and problems, big and small are more likely to get solved. For this reason, today, I'm pleased to announce a new U.S. government initiative. As part of the Biden-Harris Administration's strategy to address the root causes of migration in Central America, we are launching Voces, the Voces Initiative. Voices to preserve, protect, and defend civic space in Central America.

Under this Voices Initiative, we will work with like-minded partners to focus on three critical challenges. First, we will promote digital democracy to counter digital authoritarianism. Second, Voices will promote freedom of expression and strengthen independent media. And third, we will work to counter this increasing trend of trying to criminalize civil society actors, providing them with enhanced physical, digital, and legal protection. We are initially devoting over $40 million to these objectives in Central America, but again, the initiative is not just about funding new programs, it is also about mobilizing partnerships to achieve progress. So we will be elevating our private and public diplomacy in defense of civil society, partnering with willing governments in the region and beyond. We will engage more deeply with the tech companies using our on the ground presence in countries throughout the region and our relationships with all of you to hold up a mirror to Silicon Valley and describe the real world harm that social media platforms are too often causing.

We will more closely partner with civil society to channel your concerns and evidence to sanctioning authorities and consider the adoption of rights violating NGO laws or their arbitrary application, a form of anti-democratic behavior in determining visa ineligibilities and other relevant sanctions. We will work with the Financial Action Task Force so that countries are not unduly hindering legitimate NGO activities under the guise of counter-terrorist financing laws.

As the Inter-American Democratic Charter states, it is the right and responsibility of all citizens to participate in decisions relating to their own development. I would encourage all of you to expand your circle of allies to deliver progress for your citizens and know that USAID will be behind you. We will be an ally working with you to try to foster dialog, coordination, and collaboration with public institutions and political leaders committed to democratic principles. Thank you so much. And now I'm eager for our conversation. Thank you.

Last updated: September 23, 2022

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