They Speak the Same Language: Democracy

USAID applauds 14 civic leaders from around the world

Sep 11 · 11 min read
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They overcame discrimination, self-doubt, bureaucratic red tape, and demands to wait their turn — all in the service of building resilient societies, promoting justice, and advocating fairness. In USAID’s eyes, this makes them democracy heroes.

Meet some of today’s changemakers who wield democracy’s most important principles to help their countries advance and their fellow citizens succeed.

Raša Nedeljkov and Rosana Schaack / USAID

When Serbia held parliamentary elections in June 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the opposition boycotted the vote. This wasn’t new. Owing to a checkered history of elections, the Serbian people have a healthy skepticism of the integrity of their election process, and many other elements of their democracy. Raša Nedeljkov — a passionate activist, a firm believer in civic activism, and fighter for greater democracy — knows this all too well.

As the program director of the USAID-supported Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), he is committed to developing democratic culture and civic activism, and to holding officials accountable. Under Raša’s leadership, CRTA started observing elections in Serbia in 2016. Since then, he has been coordinating the Citizens on Watch network, which had 1,700 short-term election observers deployed across the country and 120 people assigned to assess the quality and fairness of the campaign for this year’s parliamentary race.

“Even with the uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no doubt about one thing — the winners of the Serbia 2020 elections,” Raša said. “However, even with this certainty around the election results, numerous irregularities and law breaches further endangered Serbia’s fragile democracy.

“The CRTA team [is] stubborn in finding effective ways to assure people it’s worth pursuing change through exercising the civic power they own. That’s our job: we are calling on and engaging citizens to stand by democracy and not to give up from choosing to change things in their lives.”

Rosana Schaack chose a different path — working on the inside. Stricken with polio at age two in a Liberian community with rudimentary health care, Rosana defied the odds and became a nurse. But, she quickly realized that only through the political process could she help bring about meaningful change to solve Liberia’s deeply entrenched health care problems.

She ran for a Senate seat in 2014. And lost. But displaying the tenacity that helped her overcome polio, she was back in the hunt just three years later running for a seat in the House of Representatives. This time, she had the benefit of Getting Ready to Lead, a USAID program that coaches and mentors women about how to run successful political campaigns. “The training was very good. It taught me how to organize my campaign, how to strategize, how to develop my messaging and communicate my message to my team and the voters,” she said.

This time she won. Today Rosana is one of a handful of women in the legislature where she leads the Women’s Legislative Caucus, championing health care reform, fighting to curb gender-based violence, and showing girls and young women how to use the democratic process to break the male monopoly on political power in Liberia.

Takhmina Khaydarova and Youth4SCORE, and outgrowth of Cyber Guardians and National Champions / USAID

Takhmina Khaydarova, now 33, was devastated when she learned she contracted HIV from her husband — a status that carries a huge stigma in Tajikistan. She found new life through antiretroviral therapy treatment. And then she got to work. As head of the USAID-supported Tajik Network of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (TNW), Takhmina is open about her status, which is unusual for HIV-positive women in Tajikistan, many of whom face violence, threats, and blackmail from relatives, friends, and even health professionals. In 2011, Takhmina and other women registered the NGO, which provides important services but also hope, saving women from isolation, stigma, and possibly suicide.

Takhmina has also spent years writing policy that forbids discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. Thanks to her efforts, the United Nations gave a series of recommendations to the Government of Tajikistan in 2018 to remove barriers targeting HIV-positive people in its criminal code. That same year, Takhmina’s NGO was nominated for the Best Human Rights Defender of the Year Award by the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia.

Yes, really, social media influencers have a role to play in democracy. Sri Lanka’s Cyber Guardians and National Champions promote inclusion and counter the hate speech and misinformation that has become rampant in social media. USAID’s Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE) project trained more than 100 youth from across Sri Lanka in complex social media dynamics. Since completing training, participants have sent out positive messages to counter misleading and divisive content, reaching thousands. Youth trained under SCORE teamed up to establish Youth4SCORE in the southeast of Sri Lanka’s Moneragala District, creating a platform at the regional level to help transform their ideas into concrete action outside Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. This platform encourages young people to advocate for and be involved in local decision-making processes and to exercise leadership in promoting responsible citizenship and reconciliation.

Indonesian farmers speak out. / Photo courtesy of Eti Oktaviani

Across Indonesia and indeed the world, traditional farmers often find themselves at odds with developers, legal restrictions, and industry pressures, especially when these factors collide with tradition. In 2017, three farmers in Central Java found themselves in exactly these crosshairs, imprisoned for farming on lands that were designated as protected — and then slated for industrial use. The farmers, who had worked the land for 40 years, were arrested and fined $750,000, a tremendous sum by any standard.

To help the farmers, long-time USAID-partner and leading legal aid organization LBH Semarang put its community-based network to work. LBH Semarang widens access to justice and legal aid for marginalized groups and individuals, particularly for those in remote areas like the three farmers. Out of their headquarters in Central Java, they defended the farmers’ rights as they lost case after case — and registered appeal after appeal — all the way up to the Supreme Court. Public defender Eti Oktaviani, a passionate and fearless advocate for the rights of traditional farmers and vulnerable citizens, was assigned the case.

Backed up by the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights, Eti advocated that protection of the farmers’ traditional rights to access protected land areas was covered within the Indonesian Human Rights Law of 1999. Persistent legal action and advocacy from Eti and her team at LBH Semarang alongside a coalition of civil society and religious organizations resulted in the president granting the farmers clemency in 2019.

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Serikzhan Mauletbai, Ibtihal Shwaiki, and José Carlos Sánchez Manayay / USAID; Mohammad Magayda; USAID

José Carlos Sánchez Manayay, 32, is from the rural community of San Isidro Labrador in the Incahuasi district of Peru. His leadership is key to the development of his community, where he encourages citizen participation and works to fight corruption. “Speaking Quechua has allowed me to get involved with my community brothers, guiding them more closely on various issues, as part of the Citizen Oversight project,” José Carlos explains.

His knowledge of Quechua, a language spoken by the Indigenous community here, has enhanced the scope of a project developed with USAID and the NGO Transparencia, ensuring that members of his community are trained in their native language to fully exercise their rights. Citizen Oversight trains volunteer social leaders in the nuts and bolts of local governance, such as analyzing public budgets and proposed projects in their communities. They also monitor regional and municipal authorities to ensure their elected and appointed leaders are good stewards of state funding. José Carlos is one of 800 trained inspectors in six regions of the country.

Building on USAID advocacy and leadership training in 2018, Jordan law school graduate Ibtihal Shwaiki launched an initiative with her fellow students contributing to the passage of a law to reduce medical errors. To initiate the “Treat Me Right, Limit Medical Errors” campaign, Ibtihal and fellow students reached out to lawmakers and attended multiple committee meetings to support passage of a new draft law on medical and health accountability that defines a “medical mistake” and includes other provisions regulating the issue of accountability in medical services.

Since finishing the campaign, Ibtihal has used what she learned to work on another initiative advocating for amendments to the curriculum at law schools to better prepare students for the bar exam, which has so far mobilized nearly 1,000 students. And she launched a Facebook group with 5,000 members to help them prepare for the bar exam. Ibtihal is one of more than 90,000 students who participated in USAID-funded advocacy and leadership training at schools and universities throughout Jordan since 2012, resulting in nearly 1,200 civic initiatives on issues like water pollution, early marriage, vandalism of cultural heritage sites, and school heating.

In Kazakhstan, journalist Serikzhan Mauletbai works through the Court Reporter’s League, which he founded and USAID supports, to unite the country’s journalists in safeguarding their right to access public information. This has become particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic when officials initially appointed a moderator to screen the media’s questions and choreographed which expert would respond. Some questions were altered to sound less critical and thus less inconvenient for officials.

This led to an outcry from the media. The Court Reporter’s League drafted an appeal to the President of Kazakhstan to end the restrictive practices and allow journalists to ask questions directly to officials. The appeal, signed by 160 members of the media in just one day, led to the desired — and more transparent — result. Now, the government holds press briefings via a live video conference link and permits journalists to direct their own questions and ask their own follow-ups.

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Kalis Mardi Asih, Ndéye Marie Diédhiou Thaim, and Aziza Furaha Bibi / Photo courtesy of Kalis Mardi Asih; USAID

Aziza Furaha Bibi is a strong advocate for social inclusion for everyone in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Haut Katanga province, not just those with albinism like her. She has overcome stigmatization and marginalization from the genetic condition (caused by a lack of pigmentation which is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa), and participates in training and empowerment coaching organized by USAID’s Civic and Voter Education Activity (2015–2020). Aziza conducts civic and voter education campaigns, promotes inclusion and participation in democracy, and empowers and inspires other women. The campaign has reached over five million Congolese citizens thanks to Aziza and other outspoken democracy advocates.

In Senegal, Ndéye Marie Diédhiou Thaim leads the Women’s Platform for Peace in the Casamance (PFPC), which mobilized to help negotiate an end to the separatist conflict in the Casamance region in southern Senegal. With 14 local affiliates and nearly 25,000 individual members, PFPC has been lauded nationally and internationally for its contributions to the peace process. The organization is a long-term USAID partner, and Ndéye has been a linchpin in implementing several peace-building, conflict management, natural resources management, and economic growth programs. She also led a coalition of civil society organizations, which played a major role in resolving Gambia’s contentious election and transition crisis in December 2016.

Kalis Mardi Asih is part of a new generation of young, media savvy Indonesian democracy heroes at the forefront of upholding a tolerant, diverse, and gender equal country. As the digital campaign manager for countering violence and extremism with Gusdurian Networks, a USAID partner, she writes a weekly column for, Indonesia’s biggest online digital media platform. Kalis has traveled widely to speak about digital media literacy and the gendered impacts of religious attitudes on women and girls. She’s known for talking about everyday issues that are relevant to young people in language they understand.

“Why is it always women who are to blame?” she asks. “Why are they not allowed to speak? Why is it women who have to yield, be patient, and are the ones who are not permitted to confront? “You are perfect as a woman. You don’t need validation from others’ standards to be a perfect woman.”

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Anna Kostanyan and Joao Pinto Soares / USAID

Anna Kostanyan is a young Member of Parliament (MP) from the Bright Armenia opposition faction in Armenia’s National Assembly, and has placed education at the core of her initiatives. Why? She believes that an educated citizen is essential for the continued democratic development of her country, and she is passionate about improving Armenia’s education sector. As a member of the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Science, Education, Culture, Diaspora, Youth and Sport, she develops policy solutions that address issues in the education system.

Most recently, with the support of USAID’s Mission in Armenia, Anna organized an online town hall to discuss issues surrounding student transition from high school to higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic. As thousands of teachers, students, and parents throughout Armenia were exploring education through technology for the first time in their lives, the shift to online learning not only brought up challenges surrounding class planning, digital education management, effective communication, e-learning platform safety, testing/quizzing, but also highlighted inequalities of access to digital devices and the internet throughout the country.

Her efforts to raise awareness of these issues will help the Government of Armenia be proactive in addressing citizens’ concerns and develop policies that ensure continued education opportunities for Armenia’s youth. She has communicated her passion for education to thousands of constituents through a USAID-supported video and has utilized a new culture of communication and outreach to ensure she — and the government — is responsive to the concerns and challenges of citizens.

COVID-19 also spurred action from Joao Pinto Soares in Timor-Leste. The sudden arrival of the pandemic caused much confusion as the government began coordinating its response. Joao had worked with the Crus Vermelha de Timor-Leste (CVTL), the Red Cross of Timor-Leste, since 2002. Today, he has taken the lead on coordinating its volunteers, and engaging with the Ministry of Health and members of parliament to advocate for changes to improve crisis management and protect the public.

His efforts through a USAID project produced discussions between government officials and civil society organizations. The impact was immediate and welcome: ambulances were delivered to rural parts of the country, government officials mobilized to support health infrastructure for health professionals and volunteers responding to the COVID-19 crisis, and a newly drafted agreement with the government provided blood supplies to the CVTL blood bank.

“Becoming a humanitarian worker won’t make you rich, but it is the wealth of happiness that you feel when you see people happy,” says Joao. “As a humanitarian worker, you won’t be well known, but these are things you don’t need. I am happy to contribute to my country through my work because it has more value than the money that is paid to me.”

About the Authors

Angela Rucker is a writer and editor at USAID. Communicators from the following Missions contributed to this blog: Samantha Martin, Indonesia; Melissa Burnes, Armenia; Hazel Correa, Central Asia; Jeffrey Woodham, Jordan; Passanna Gunasekera, Sri Lanka; and Magali Ugarte, Peru.

Want more inspiration? Check out these USAID democracy heroes.

U.S. Agency for International Development

Stories of USAID’s Work from Around the World

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