Globally, restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and association are shrinking the space for people to advocate for themselves. To address this evolving challenge, the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) civil society programs are informed by the experience of IRI’s partners and designed to promote communities’ ability to participate in and influence political systems within their own country.
Civil society can and should play a pivotal role in all countries by serving as a liaison between the people and their government, advocating for community needs while monitoring the government and holding it accountable. IRI has supported civil society development programming for over three decades, with civic engagement featured in 137 of IRI’s programs since 2018.
IRI prioritizes stakeholder ownership in program design, implementation, and evaluation. IRI supports civil society through programs that cultivate the capacity of local partners; work to close the governance “feedback loop”; and build and bolster civil society actors for collective action. By thoroughly adapting programs to the political context of each operational environment, IRI ensures that its support is targeted, uses proper incentives, and prioritizes the safety of civil society partners.
IRI partners with a broad spectrum of civic actors that influence democratic institutions, processes, and culture, including formal civil society organizations (CSOs) and nontraditional actors like civic actors, community leaders, and artists. IRI has developed trusted relationships with non-governmental stakeholders in closed and restrictive environments around the world, recognizing that assisting these groups can lay the groundwork for citizen-centered governance, human rights protections, and a more open democratic space. With an understanding that active engagement of all voices – regardless of identity – is critical to a vibrant, sustainable civic space, IRI prioritizes partnerships with CSOs that are led by and serving underrepresented voices.
IRI commits the time and resources necessary to provide technical capacity development and mentorship opportunities to all partners. Leveraging decades of learning, IRI developed the Civic Organization Assessment Tool (COAT) to measure organizational and technical capabilities of CSOs. Using the COAT methodology, IRI has identified tailored capacity development interventions to empower organizations to achieve their goals in 42 countries, including in Mongolia, Tanzania, and Lebanon.
IRI has developed locally relevant civic education curricula for young leaders around the world. IRI has piloted virtual and in-person modules using participatory training to equip communities with an understanding of the principles of citizen-centered governance and provide opportunities to engage with local government stakeholders.
In Bangladesh, IRI has provided civic education to university students engaged in party politics and campus activism. IRI conducted focus group research across Bangladesh to understand student concerns; the responsiveness of the political system to youth issues; and how best to address the challenges young people face. IRI used this research to design a civic education curriculum on democratic norms, nonviolence, constitutional rights, and political activism.
Recognizing that democratic resilience depends on cultivating the next generation of democratic leaders, IRI empowers hundreds of young Ukrainians through its Youth Civic Academies (YCAs) to increase their understanding of the role citizens, the civic sector, and the government play in a democratic society. Similar to youth academies in Sri Lanka and the Solomon Islands, in 2020, the YCA successfully engaged young activists to work with local governments to analyze problems facing their communities and develop solutions.
Organizational Development and Technical Mentorship
To develop the long-term capacity of local organizations to participate in and influence political decision-making systems, IRI partners with CSOs to provide tailored capacity development support. IRI trainings cover a variety of topics, including monitoring, evaluation, and learning; financial management; program management; marketing and outreach; business development; and digital security.
IRI’s capacity-building programs employ a “learning by doing” approach that ensures the practicality and applicability of skills. For example, in IRI’s MERCI program, with participants from places like Tunisia and Jordan, participating CSOs can apply for grants to design projects aimed at increasing the political participation of youth and women; providing support for elected officials and upcoming candidates in creating policies that respond to their constituents needs; and economically empowering underserved communities such as gender-based violence survivors and people with disabilities.
Central to capacity building, IRI sees mentorships as a key tool for amplifying citizen voices and strengthening democratic institutions. breaks the mentor and mentee relationship into five key steps, offering best practices and lessons learned from Laos, Panama, and Cuba.
IRI partners with civic actors to ensure citizens have access to comprehensible calls to action, means to participate, and ways to stay engaged in the long term. With a focus on youth and women, IRI has provided online social advocacy trainings to hundreds of Cambodian citizens, improving their capacity to push back against the closing space for civil society. This has resulted in digital advocacy campaigns, ranging from wildlife conservation to body positivity, which have reached tens of thousands of Cambodians and millions of people worldwide.
By bringing together communities around shared interests and goals, the Institute supports activists and CSOs effectively advocating for the change they wish to see. In Mexico, IRI supported civic coalitions in three states to advocate for the passage of strengthened anti-corruption legislation. Through tailored advocacy efforts, Mexico’s anti-corruption laws now contain policies and language provided by these coalitions – resulting in laws that go above and beyond Mexico’s federal requirements for such legislation.
To support peer-to-peer sharing and coordination for collaborative action, IRI developed the Networks Field Guide. This tool uses findings from an ex-post evaluation series, academic research, and IRI’s experience to provide guidance and resources for programs that seek to connect individuals or organizations to learn from each other and/or to engage in coordinated action. The tool has been used to design and implement evidence-based programming in more than 20 countries, including Mexico, Laos, Moldova, Iraq, and Mozambique.
IRI assists civic actors in restrictive spaces to promote human rights and democratic principles; counter autocratic rule; respond strategically to repression; and build networks of support. IRI’s assistance prioritizes participant-first interventions that provide partners with the appropriate skills, tools, and opportunities to accomplish their goals. For example, in Burma, IRI worked with pro-democratic actors on the Thai-Burma border for more than 20 years, delivering robust technical assistance to civil society and political leaders pushing for democratic reform. Since the 2021 coup, IRI has leveraged its extensive networks within and outside of Burma to provide holistic support for inclusive non-violent resistance efforts demanding a return to democratic rule.
IRI’s history of programming in these environments enables the Institute to build upon existing, trusted relationships with key actors and forge new partnerships in response to emerging opportunities and challenges. In Syria, IRI’s long-standing relationships with local civil society actors allowed the Institute to establish citizen-led conflict resolution mechanisms that supported successful de-escalation efforts with buy-in from local communities, as well as tribal, religious, and governmental figures.