Counterpart International’s Vice President of Programs Alex Sardar was a panelist recently for the USAID sponsored, “Global Trends in Civil Society Resilience: Opportunities and Challenges” at the National Press Building in Washington, D.C. Sardar addressed Counterpart’s work in the civil society sector and how organizations need to collaborate and take cues from local organizations in order to be successful and sustainable in their work.

“There needs to be an understanding about what we expect of civil society organizations and activists, those we call the ‘change makers’ in these countries,” noted Sardar. “They need to be able to be in the driver’s seat and we need to listen to them, not after the fact but before things get bad.”

Sardar specifically spoke about Counterpart’s experience in Afghanistan and Armenia and he challenged the representatives from various non-governmental and the academic sector to branch out and make sure that they are engaging local organizations in the work that they are doing.

“We’ve learned from our experience that we cannot wait to go local. In Afghanistan that local energy and local leadership is determining what civil society means for the country and what civil society can do to reform the agenda in the country. This local involvement started at the very beginning and what we’re seeing very clearly is that it is actually defining the sector in Afghanistan,” he said.

Sardar also emphasized the need to look to the long term; “Let’s not talk about sustainability at the end of our projects, let’s do it right now. Let’s talk with our local partners about what needs to be in place 20 years from now for that country,” Sardar said.

One of the key elements to achieve sustainability is the active involvement of youth, according to Sardar. He noted that organizations in Afghanistan have made young people the centerpiece of a strategy for longevity of impact. “Young people who are coming through the ranks of NGOs are actually branching out, supporting that formal sector, but branching out and crossing the political line, creating movements around very specific policy issues,” Sardar said.

“They are coming together to support candidates who are supporting their specific policy issues. Over the last two decades we’ve seen a very hard line between what’s acceptable for civil society to be involved in and what’s not acceptable because it’s partisan politics. In Afghanistan we’re not seeing that. We’re seeing the blurring of that line and it’s been very effective to motivate young people to be engaged,” added Sardar.

In Armenia, Sardar told the audience that there’s a blending of the sectors. The burgeoning of technology and social media tools in everyone’s hands has also helped to blur the lines between what was traditionally seen as civil society — such as democratic reform advocates — to now include organizations at the community level, and the social investment community. “This blending of the three tracks has opened up new opportunities for more effective involvement and bigger impact,” Sardar pointed out.

Sardar emphasized Counterpart’s focus on expanding the concept of the social sector – to include those who are also investing in this space, including the private sector. “The definition that’s important here is one that includes the private sector – those who invest in the social good of any country or community,” Sardar said. Based on research from Johns Hopkins University, in 2010, the social sector included 45 million people. “We all need to understand that this is a labor force to be reckoned with. It’s a sector that’s innovating and building skills in very nascent environments. There’s a bigger story to be told about the social sector.”

The panel was moderated by USAID Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia Paige Alexander and also featured Dr. Mirza Jahani, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A, and Amy Hawthorne, resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The panel was a part of USAID’s discussions on its recently released CSO Sustainability Indexes for 2012 and 2013.

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