Civil Society

Thinking with DFID about Effective Civil Society: A Personal Reflection

Today’s Twitter panel hosted by @DFID_Inclusive and @bondngo got me thinking. A trip down memory lane…21 years back when I lived in Armenia and worked on a civil society strengthening program funded by USAID and the Armenian Diaspora. In the early ‘90s our work focused on supporting the nascent civil society through resource mobilization, capacity development and enabling strategic partnerships. I witnessed how civic groups were established, governed, funded, and sustained. I was fascinated by what motivates their mission-driven work and what drives their volunteers and under-paid staff to continue to work on social, political and economic issues which were deliberately ignored and exacerbated during the years of political transition, humanitarian crisis, war and blockade.

These groups emerged from the social and political upheaval of the late ‘80s, when thousands marched on the streets of Yerevan, in what developed into an unprecedented movement in the Soviet Union at that time. My formative years were shaped by these events as my city was placed under martial law, schools were closed and mass demonstrations lasted for weeks. This spontaneous grassroots activity served as a launch pad for a national democratic movement that swept across the republic, developing into a powerful opposition to the Communist rule in Armenia. Once people organized and voiced their opinions, an act banned by the totalitarian regime, the citizens’ movement could not be stopped. More than 1,000 civic groups were born prompting Ronald Grigor Suny to famously remark, “Power was demystified and the people animated.”

Despite heavy police and army mobilization and the incessant ideological campaigns by the Communist Party, the citizen-led movement began to undermine the status quo of the regime. Then came December 1988. A devastating earthquake in northern Armenia killed 25,000 and left 500,000 homeless. The scale of the disaster and desperate need for relief forced the Communist government to open the country up to international assistance for the first time since WWII. It was also the first time that the Diaspora was allowed to contribute financially to Soviet Armenia.

The humanitarian relief efforts triggered the formation of local voluntary organizations which were responsible for setting up orphanages, temporary shelter, delivering medical supplies and food. These were the first NGOs in Soviet Armenia – a remarkable phenomenon, considering that it was still three years prior to the disintegration of USSR. With the arrival of international aid, Armenia was suddenly exposed to a large number of private foreign organizations, INGOs and “experts.” Foreign relief workers, based on their experience elsewhere, preferred to work with local NGOs, encouraging and promoting newly formed civic organizations.

In 1991, Armenia celebrated an independent statehood. This event coincided with the escalation of armed conflict with Azerbaijan. An economic blockade followed, making our life even more intolerable. Despite fuel shortages, blackouts, and food ration lines, a new outburst of voluntary action led to the formation of groups such as Soldiers’ Mothers, Refugee Fund, Political Prisoners Fund as well as human rights and environmental groups. Most of these groups emerged in direct response to the crisis. It took several years before some of them could turn their attention to long-term policy and advocacy issues and to channel the demands and priorities of citizens into the newly minted political system.

Reflecting on DFID’s questions about enabling environment and incentives, I don’t think the most critical contributions to galvanizing civil society could have been manufactured by design. There were socio-political triggers, game-changing events (a national independence movement, the disintegration of USSR, an earthquake, war with Azerbaijan), and persuasive civic leadership. The influx of resources and external support which lasted through the 1990s helped to consolidate and sustain civic action. What mattered most at the beginning, was the initial unity and the coalitions that were shaped by a common agenda. This unity eventually dissipated but what remained was a powerful shared narrative of a civil society born out of crisis and strife.


Isabella JeanIsabella Jean is Co-Director of Collaborative Learning at CDA. She has led field-based collaborative learning and research efforts with international and local organizations in Africa, Asia, Caucasus and the Middle East. Based on findings from CDA’s Listening Project, Isabella Jean co-authored a book on cumulative impacts of international assistance “Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid.” Isabella’s research and analysis focuses on aid effectiveness, conflict-sensitive aid and peacebuilding effectiveness, participatory program design, monitoring and evaluation methods, and feedback loops.

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About Isabella Jean

Isabella Jean joined CDA in 2007 and is the co-director of our Collaborative Learning wing. Her professional expertise is in conflict-sensitivity, peacebuilding effectiveness, program design, monitoring and evaluation methods, and feedback loops. Isabella has led collaborative learning processes and field research in Africa, Asia, Middle East and Caucasus. In 2012, she co-authored CDA’s book, Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of Aid. Isabella continues to lead research on feedback loops and supports CDA’s work on peacebuilding evaluation. Internally, Isabella supports CDA’s monitoring and evaluation efforts to capture the results of our initiatives.