Supporting local agents of nonviolent change is critical to preventing violent conflict and advancing democratic development. Civic campaigns are key drivers of social and political development, as is clear from issues-focused movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and most recently the Middle East and North Africa. Effectively aiding civic movements that are fluid, diverse, decentralized, and often loosely organized is tricky. Drawn from a review of the literature and numerous interviews with international policymakers and civil society leaders, this report explores both the ways donors engage civil society and creative new approaches to supporting nontraditional actors.


  • Civic campaigns and movements are key drivers of social and political development but receive inadequate attention and support from development actors.
  • External support for diffuse, decentralized, and often leaderless movements that engage in nonviolent direct action, however, is neither straightforward nor uncontroversial. It differs from support for traditional NGOs.
  • Traditional NGOs are especially effective as brokers to provide information, raise awareness of rights, and push to widen democratic space within which civic campaigns and movements can emerge.
  • Supporting movements requires shifts in the way donors understand and engage civil society, creative new approaches to supporting nontraditional actors, and a willingness to take calculated financial and political risk.
  • A movement mindset would stress agile funding mechanisms, nonmonetary support, and development of convening spaces in which to bring movements, NGOs, and governments into contact with each other. Regional hubs for civil society currently being developed by USAID, Sida, and other donors could help advance these goals.

About the Report

This report explores, through a review of the literature and numerous interviews with U.S. and international policymakers and civil society leaders, how foreign aid can most effectively be used to support civic campaigns and movements whose goals align with international norms. It was written under the auspices of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), which both conducts research, education, and workshops related to strategic nonviolent action and supports nontraditional civil society actors with small grants in South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

About the Authors

Maria J. Stephan, a senior USIP policy fellow, focuses on the dynamics of civil resistance and external support options for nonviolent movements. She previously served at the U.S. State Department, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and at Georgetown and American Universities. Stephan holds doctoral and master’s degrees from the Fletcher School. Sadaf Lakhani is a social development professional with expertise in governance and private-sector development in fragile and conflict contexts. She has worked for USIP, World Bank, and United Nations Development Program, as well as NGOs. Lakhani holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and a PhD from Kings College, London. Nadia Naviwala, USIP’s former country representative for Pakistan, developed and piloted USIP’s Peace Innovations Fund. She previously served as Pakistan Desk Officer for USAID and a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. Naviwala holds a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard and a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University.

Related Publications

The Latest Kashmir Conflict Explained

The Latest Kashmir Conflict Explained

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

By: Tara Kartha; Jalil Jilani

USIP Jennings Randolph Fellows Dr. Tara Kartha and Ambassador Jalil Jilani look at the latest crisis in Kashmir from their respective views. Dr. Kartha was a member of India’s National Security Council for 15 years and has over 30 years’ experience in national security policy. Amb. Jilani, a career Pakistani diplomat, is a former ambassador to the U.S. and former foreign secretary. This post represents the views of the authors and not those of USIP.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Vikram Singh on Hong Kong and India-Pakistan

Vikram Singh on Hong Kong and India-Pakistan

Thursday, June 13, 2019

By: Vikram J. Singh

Massive unrest has hit Hong Kong, as citizens protest an extradition law they believe is favorable to China. Vikram Singh says protesters’ fear that Beijing is working to undermine Hong Kong’s longstanding judicial independence. Looking at India and Pakistan, Singh says that the chances for meaningful dialogue right now are small, as both countries focus on their own issues.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

India-Pakistan Tensions Test China’s Relationships, Crisis Management Role

India-Pakistan Tensions Test China’s Relationships, Crisis Management Role

Thursday, March 7, 2019

By: Jacob Stokes; Jennifer Staats

The latest India-Pakistan crisis has put China in a difficult position, as it tries to balance its relationships with both countries, while helping to stave off a conflict and demonstrate its ability to manage and resolve crises. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to leaders in both Pakistan and India last week, urging them to practice restraint and find a way to deescalate the situation. Despite Pakistan’s request for China to play a more active role, competing priorities constrained the degree to which Beijing could lead—highlighting a chronic challenge for Chinese diplomacy in South Asia. China’s decision to keep a low profile is likely deliberate and in keeping with longstanding practice, but it is inconsistent with Beijing’s aspirations to lead in Asian crisis diplomacy.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

View All Publications