Case Study

Co-Creating a Global Network to Defend Civic Space

How global and local organizations can work together as true partners to co-create effective, responsive interventions.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) play a vital role in social justice and human development. Yet their ability to fulfill their missions is often constrained by their capacity, funding, and operating environments. Additionally, threats to civil society globally have increased in recent years, as the rights to meet, organize, publish, and drive change through civic action have increasingly been curtailed. USAID and Sida, along with a growing alliance of partners, sought to support civil society across their work and combat growing repression by developing a global network of civil society innovation “hubs,” each tailored to support local needs and goals. Seeking to work with civil society as partners, rather than directing design as the key funders, USAID and Sida engaged hundreds of CSOs in a co-creation process to collaboratively define key features and parameters of the hubs.

Reboot was asked to develop and co-facilitate the hubs’ design process, starting with the inaugural convening and continuing through 1.5 years of co-creation, in partnership with CIVICUS and Counterpart International. The first global convening gathered more than 60 representatives from 45 organizations. We started by building a community of collaborators and then guided that community through a series of dynamic exercises to draw out participants’ perspectives and individual areas of expertise. Our workshop design and facilitation navigated the natural power imbalances within the group to create the space for all voices to participate authentically. Together, we developed a blueprint for an innovative global initiative that was then built out over a year-long process of regional and global workshops.

The success of our approach was reflected in participants’ ownership over and commitment to the initiative, and in the funders’ decision to document and widely disseminate the process we had helped pioneer. Today, there are six regional hubs—across Africa, Central Asia, East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia—developing new partnerships and innovations to defend and strengthen civic space, and overcome restrictions to citizens’ basic freedoms of assembly, association, and speech.

Civil society organizations are critical to the strength of the social contract, serving as service providers for vulnerable populations, organizing citizen interests, and holding the powerful accountable. Recently, world leaders and development practitioners have watched increasing threats to civil society around the world with growing alarm; in 2013, US President Barack Obama announced his “Stand with Civil Society” initiative, calling for the international community to combat such repression through innovative responses.  

In line with the president’s initiative, USAID and Sida set out to expand civic space and support the work of civil society in general through the development of a global network of innovation “hubs,” each tailored to support the goals and needs of civil society communities in a specific region. Rather than determining the design and driving the creation of the hubs, the donors sought to work with civil society as full partners in the initiative. After soliciting and receiving ideas from around the world, they organized a series of global and regional co-creation workshops, with the goal of collaboratively setting the foundation and building the ethos of the new initiative.  

By inviting civil society organizations to participate in the creation of the hubs, USAID and Sida were demonstrating a commitment to incorporating the key constituents of the hubs throughout the process. They were also taking on a difficult challenge: Done well, co-creation is time consuming and complex. The beginning of the process requires more effort to break down traditional power boundaries and invite multiple voices together in a shared process. But when the groundwork is thoughtfully laid, a participatory process yields results that are much richer and more appropriate and sustainable, and that have greater ownership from users and stakeholders.  

To ensure that the civil society hubs benefited from the full participation of civil society, USAID and Sida invited Reboot to design the model for the co-creation workshops, and to co-facilitate them with CIVICUS, a global consortium of civil society organizations. Over the course of eight workshops, we developed the design for each of the hubs and identified local organizations that could own their development and management. From there, Reboot served as an advisor to support the hubs’ ongoing strategy, design, and innovation efforts through their incubation period.

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