An Open Letter to Civil Society

An Open Letter to Civil Society
Patrick H. Gaspard
U.S. Ambassador to South Africa
Friday, May 6, 2016

I was delighted more than 200 of Africa’s most prominent and progressive civil society organizations came together with government officials this week in beautiful Cape Town to discuss how to improve governance across the continent.  Your participation in the Open Governance Partnership Africa Regional Conference and important role in helping your respective governments become more open and accountable cannot be understated.  You are needed, welcomed and encouraged to lend a voice and lead the charge in bringing about more transparent governments that empower their citizens.

The United States is committed to civil society.  In 2013, President Obama launched the Stand With Civil Society initiative, a global call to action to support, defend, and sustain these organizations amid a rising tide of restrictions on their operations.  In 2014, he signed a Presidential Memorandum that directed U.S. agencies engaged in countries around the world to consult regularly with and support civil society, even in the most restrictive environments, oppose undue restrictions on civil society’s work, and facilitate greater collaboration and exchange between governments and civil society.

Civil society is a critical pillar of society.  You bring the voice of citizens to the government’s ear, put community-empowering agendas into action, and inspire legislation that improves lives.  You also provide a much-needed reality check for government.  For that, you should be commended.  You are a vital resource.  However, all too often you are vilified for your outspoken and critical assessments of government.  Instead of government embracing your criticism as an opportunity for self-reflection and, perhaps, self-correction, you are viewed with contempt.  That’s when you know you are doing a good job.  Throughout the world, civil society and government relations are contentious.  But in thriving democracies like the United States and South Africa we know the tension is necessary to keep government focused on the greater good of citizens.

So, although it is sometimes uncomfortable — although it sometimes causes friction — I ask you to keep speaking out for the human rights of all people, and pushing governments to uphold those rights and freedoms.  The United States will always stand by you.  Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  The reason we support civil society is because we believe it is civil society, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, that bends the arc toward justice.

 

Sincerely,

Patrick H. Gaspard
U.S. Ambassador to South Africa