Reflections on USAID’s 2018 DRG Partners’ Forum

June 29, 2018

We’re sending a shout-out to USAID’s Learning Team at the Democracy, Rights and Governance Center of Excellence, known as the DRG Center.  Last week was the bi-annual Partners’ Forum in Washington, D.C., a convening of USAID’s community of designers, doers, evaluators, and thinkers who all work to support democracy, rights, and governance around the world.

I had the pleasure of helping USAID open the forum and shared three reasons why, in my view, this event succeeds in adding so much value to the DRG community time after time.

First, this forum brings together people who are willing to generously share some of their best thinking and their hard-won successes.  Sharing is the norm at this event: individuals and organizations set aside their various agendas for the collective good.

I know my team has benefited over and over again from these Forums. In 2016, Counterpart was re-examining how to organize our own learning function. At the DRG Partners’ Forum that year, three other organizations generously shared their learning methods, which led us to completely rethink our approach.  Their willingness to share with us changed our learning trajectory, which has since helped us strengthen our programs. In return, we look for ways to “pay it forward” by sharing our successes and failures with others at the Forum and beyond.

Second, this meeting is a platform for mutual support – to a community of practitioners scattered across over 80 countries. DRG work can be slow, with long lead times – sometimes decades! – before successes  and with plenty of skirmishes along the way.  In the midst of this, having a community of like-minded people who simply understand is invaluable.  These two days act as a salve, and leave me every time with a stronger network of kindred professionals who can provide words of wisdom when they are most needed.

And third, this Forum always challenges us to question our assumptions and examine our collective DRG toolkit. Who would have thought, even five years ago, how effective and efficient authoritarian governments would become in shutting down civic space? The approaches we’ve used for a generation of DRG programs are showing their limits – especially in the face of disinformation and digital surveillance.

The goal is to enter this experimental space together – as full as it is of uncertainties and risks – so that together we can speed up the collective DRG learning curve.

Two years ago at this meeting, Counterpart and USAID described our first shaky steps toward creating six regional civil society innovation hubs. We’re still in experimentation stage today, but at least we can share what we’ve learned about supporting a Global South leadership team from behind. If they are successful, these regional platforms could provide an alternative source of support to civil society in the face of barriers to both national and international NGOs.  And we need to keep colliding what we think we know with a diverse group of thinkers because this is new territory.

So that’s why I congratulate the DRG Center on a great meeting – two days in which we uncovered only the tip of what we need to work on over the next 24 months, delivered in a culture of generosity, mutual support, and humility.  Now…back to work.



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