President Obama speaks with members of the Young African Leaders Initiative Program (YALI) at a townhall in Washington, DC on August 3, 2016.

President Obama makes it a priority to meet with civil society all over the world. Here’s why that matters:

Ben Rhodes
5 min readSep 27, 2016

President Obama started in public life not as an elected official but as a community organizer. He worked with churches and other groups on the south side of Chicago to push public leaders to fight poverty, improve the local school system and make housing more affordable, and to bring about the change the community needed and deserved. So much of the progress that America has made in expanding freedom and opportunity at home grew out of this kind of bottom-up civic participation.

All over the world, independent and strong civil society — NGOs, faith leaders, and other community advocates — help governments solve problems and better serve their people better by shining a light on the issues that matter most — like education standards, access to healthcare, the rule of law, and economic opportunity. Where civil society thrives, governments operate with more transparency and accountability. This creates a tangible impact on the lives of everyday citizens.

Yet an increasing number of governments are putting in place placing restrictions in order to stifle civil society. The reach of these restrictions target more than just support for democracy and human rights — they can suppress humanitarian aid work in conflict zones, cut life-saving health programs where they’re needed most, and limit economic growth.

President Obama has consistently recognized that citizens engaged in communities — both at home and abroad — make us stronger.

That’s why support for civil society — engaging peoples as well as governments — is an important part of American foreign policy.

President Obama delivers remarks at the Civil Society Forum in Panama City, Panama, April 10, 2015.

In 2013, President Obama launched Stand with Civil Society, a global call to action to support, defend, and sustain the operations of civil society organizations. He said:

The human progress has always been propelled at some level by what happens in civil society — citizens coming together to insist that a better life is possible, pushing their leaders to protect the rights and the dignities of all people. And that’s why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.’ This is not a Western value; this is a universal right.

Our actions express our priorities. Throughout his foreign travel, President Obama has met with young leaders or members of civil society. During formal, bilateral meetings with government counterparts, he expresses America’s support for ordinary citizens known.

President Obama meets with members of civil society while on official travel in Hanoi, Vietnam on May 24, 2016.

The United States remains the largest supporter of civil society worldwide. Since 2010, the U.S. has invested $3.2 billion to strengthen civil society across the globe. Since launching Stand with Civil Society, USAID has launched regional hubs around the world that provide additional resources for civil society, and connect civil society organizations with one another. We’ve also broadened the U.S. government agencies that engage civil society, and elevated our efforts to push back against closing civic space through a new Presidential Memorandum that guides our efforts.

Where civil society is welcomed, communities are more safe, more secure, and more prosperous. We will continue build partnerships with civil society and push back wherever there are efforts to suppress people’s right to assemble and express themselves. There is no doubt that pushback against civil society will continue around the globe, so we must continue to work with like-minded governments and non-governmental partners to stand up for universal values, as the President discussed at the UN General Assembly.

President Obama Speaks at the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2016.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet with and speak alongside people that exemplify the kind of hands-on work of civil society that brings communities together around common interests and collective action. Their stories show why supporting civil society is not only a key U.S. interest, it’s a fundamental part of who we are as a country.

Their stories are worth sharing — check out a few here:

Dlshad Othman, Internews Network:

I’m happy that access to information is always supported as much as other civil society activities. Aid workers and media outlets in war zones like Syria rely completely on Internet to communicate and work. Civil society and activists in closed spaces like this are facing censorship, surveillance, and torture for their online presence. The United States’ support within civil society improved the public awareness of digital security and its importance, saved lives of many of the most vulnerable people, and encouraged technology maker to cooperate to provider safer spaces for under-risk activists.

Payal Patel, American Jewish World Service:

The development community — which cares about issues like promoting public health and ending poverty — needs to realize that increased government restrictions on civil society is not just a human rights issue, it is a development issue. When you cripple civil society, you are hindering development, as well. You can’t end HIV/AIDS if governments in the areas most affected enact laws that allow LGBT organizations to be “de-registered” and closed. You’re not going to get electricity to the poor if the government raids and ransacks the office of a grassroots organization promoting renewable energy in poor communities. These are just two examples from issues we work on of the way closing civil society space directly impacts critical development outcomes.

Wafa Ulliyan, Mercy Corps:

Local aid actors build the population’s resilience to recurring conflict by promoting community preparedness, providing basic services and increasingly playing an essential role in delivering humanitarian assistance when conflict flares up. In closed environments like Gaza, they are often the only groups that can access the communities which are cut off and in greatest need. Over many years of partnership with civil society, we’ve seen our local partners grow from small grassroots organizations to strong institutions providing essential services and facilitating dialogue at the community level about challenges they’re facing and regarding the trajectory for their future.



Ben Rhodes

White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications & Speechwriting. Notes may be archived: