President Obama took a break away from activities at UN Headquarters to make his annual appearance at the Clinton Global Initiative today. After making a few jokes about the havoc his presence always causes on New York City traffic, Obama took the opportunity to highlight the important role civil society plays around the world.

In comparison to the other appearances the president makes during the week – this year includes his annual address to the UN General Assembly, an address to the UN Climate Summit and hosting a UN Security Council meeting on the rise of foreign fighters in wars around the globe – CGI provides a chance to talk about important, albeit lighter, issues that impact the world. With all the events going on this week, focusing on the contribution of civil society seems an appropriate topic to raise.

Obama started by noting that the most important title a person can have is never president or prime minister, but rather that of a citizen. Often, both in democracies and non-democracies, it is through civil society that many people fight to gain the full rights and dignity that help societies grow and prosper.

These citizens remind us why civil society is so essential. When people are free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsive and more effective. When entrepreneurs are free to create and develop new ideas, then economies are more innovative, and attract more trade and investment, and ultimately become more prosperous.

When communities, including minorities, are free to live and pray and love as they choose; when nations uphold the rights of all their people -— including, perhaps especially, women and girls -— then those countries are more likely to thrive.  If you want strong, successful countries, you need strong, vibrant civil societies.  When citizens are free to organize and work together across borders to make our communities healthier, our environment cleaner, and our world safer, that’s when real change comes.

Such change is vital for progress but in countries that are less than free, pushing for this change can come at a high price for those on the frontlines. Obama highlighted numerous activists around the world who have faced harassment, imprisonment and death for trying to bring about change within their countries. While it is important to remember the sacrifices made, it is also important to remember what civil society has accomplished around the world. We would not have the world we do today if not for the perseverance of civil society groups who frequently push us to do better and speak out for those whose voices are lost amongst the many.

Yet civil society, particularly with NGOs, is facing rising crackdowns from several governments around the world. This is not an issue of developed versus developing states as sometimes represented in the media, but rather an issue of governments who fear the power of their own people. From Hungary to China, harsh new laws targeting NGOs are pushing civil society out of the public sphere. This phenomenon appeared to be the real focus of Obama’s address and the presidential actions he announced today.

Those actions include directing all federal agencies to consult with civil society more regularly in decision making processes as well as establishing centers of excellence around the world to serve as incubators for civil society actors to turn their ideas into concrete results. Obama also announced new initiatives to help “embattled NGOs” in oppressive states, the finalization of regulations to making financial transfers between international donors and civil society easier for all involved, and legal and political support for organizations battling these overbearing NGO laws.

Throughout the address, Obama pointed out the struggles civil society faces, suggesting that the issues raised today have been of concern for the US government for quite some time. Tomorrow the focus will shift to the General Assembly and the Security Council as well as the many urgent crises currently facing the international community. But behind the scenes will be civil society and today’s speech was one way of not only acknowledging the role they play, but to shine a light on the conditions they often must overcome to bring about the change we all seek.

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