Re-creating USAID as an ‘enablement agency’?

Alliance magazine

On 11 March 1998 Lester Salamon addressed the USAID Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid on the subject of ‘USAID and civil society: A strategy for the future’. The following is an abridged version of what he said:

I believe we are in the midst today of what I have elsewhere termed a ‘global associational revolution’, a massive upsurge of organized private voluntary activity, of structured citizen action outside the boundaries of the market and the state.

This ‘global associational revolution’ reflects some deep-seated historical forces that have come together in the current era:

The crisis of the welfare state – the growing realization of limits on the capabilities of the state, even in advanced industrial societies, to cope on its own with the social welfare demands of the population.

The crisis of development – the growing disappointment with state-centred approaches to development in the less developed regions.

The crisis of the environment – the similar realization of the persistence of environmental problems and the need to engage citizens in their solution.

The crisis of socialism – the evident failure of the experiment in state socialism represented by the former Soviet bloc to deliver on its promises of improved well-being for all.

Taken together, these add up to a loss of confidence in the ability of the state, at least on its own, to meet the combined social welfare, developmental and environmental challenges of our time, and a need to search for new allies to assist the state in these tasks.

Non-profit organizations’ strengths – flexibility, independence, trustworthiness, accessibility and responsiveness – give them special advantages in filling the resulting gaps. This is particularly true in the development field where non-profit organizations enjoy particularly advantages in:

  • mobilizing grass-roots energies and untapped human and financial resources;
  • serving as a bridge among social groups, regions and political alliances;
  • monitoring public policy and exerting pressure for change;
  • promoting participation;
  • delivering services to those unreached by either the market or the state.

A fragile presence

For all their recent growth and importance, however, civil society organizations remain a rather fragile presence on the social landscape of most societies, and this is particularly so in the developing world. At least four important challenges face these organizations at the present time:

  • a challenge of legitimacy resulting from a lack of information and awareness and a legal climate that is often far from encouraging;
  • a challenge of effectiveness reflecting the relative scarcity of management training and experience among these organizations;
  • a challenge of sustainability due to the limited levels of private charitable contributions and indigenous governmental support;
  • a challenge of cooperation reflecting a recent history of tension between third sector institutions and the instrumentalities of the market and the state.

An enabling role for USAID

Given this new importance of civil society organizations in the developing world, and the challenges that the civil society sector faces, what should USAID do?

USAID has already responded to a significant extent, beefing up its support for non-profit organizations throughout the world. But I would argue that a more fundamental response is needed, that USAID should respond to the dramatic rise of the non-profit sector throughout the world with a bold redefinition of its own role in the development process.

In a sense, the rise of the non-profit sector creates an historic opportunity for USAID, as well as for other official development agencies – the opportunity to move increasingly, and more explicitly, from the role of doer to the role of enabler. In this era of ‘reinventing government’, I would argue that USAID should reinvent itself explicitly as an ‘enablement agency’, as an agency one of whose principal functions is to encourage and support the further development of the civil society sector as a key vehicle to promote both democratization and economic well-being throughout the world.

What might such an enablement role mean in practice?

Results measurement  Every USAID initiative should be assessed not only in terms of its contribution to promoting economic growth but also in terms of the contribution it makes to developing indigenous capacity within the civil society sector in the developing world.

Investing in the basic infrastructure  USAID should take some responsibility for investing in the basic infrastructure of the civil society sector in the countries where it is working. In practical terms, this means:

  • investing in basic knowledge about the sector;
  • helping to improve public attitudes;
  • encouraging the creation of an enabling legal environment;
  • promoting professionalization and capacity-building within the sector;
  • creating indigenous training and information-gathering capabilities to sustain professionalization over the long run;
  • building up local infrastructure organizations that can service the local non-profit sector;
  • promoting indigenous financial resources;
  • fostering partnerships with government and the business sector.

Changing the way it does business  USAID will need to place more reliance on ‘cooperative agreements’ rather than contracts, and to give indigenous organizations more leeway to find their own way. It will also have to make more use of intermediary organizations to distribute resources to local organizations. The experience of the Civil Society Foundations created by the European Union’s PHARE Programme in Central Europe is instructive in this regard. Such vehicles consciously create an arms-length relationship between USAID and its local collaborators.

Changing its relationship with Northern PVOs  Northern private voluntary organizations (PVOs) must themselves become enablers instead of doers. USAID assistance to Northern PVOs will therefore have to be conditional on their having a clear ‘indigenization strategy’ – a plan for shifting operational control to Southern NGOs at the earliest possible time.


The rise of the civil society sector in the developing world has opened up an enormous opportunity for USAID. Seizing this opportunity will require something quite a bit more than creating a special ‘civil society unit’ or ‘programme’ within the agency, however. Rather, it will require a more conscious effort to reinvent USAID as an enablement agency, which seeks as a major goal of its efforts to strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations to assist in the development process.

This is not to say that civil society organizations can carry out the development agenda on their own. Collaboration with government and business will also be required and should feature prominently in the enablement work that USAID does. The fundamental point, however, is that enablement should become the watchword of USAID operations, a defining feature of its mission, and the ultimate test of its results. Such a move, I would argue, would end up extending USAID’s reach, maximizing its impact, and unleashing powerful new energies in support of its goals.

Dr Lester M Salamon is Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA. He is a member of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid, the statutory advisory body that provides advice to USAID on behalf of the US private voluntary community.

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