With the post-Cold War era fading, discussions on levels of foreign assistance are focusing primarily on cutting budgets. No longer is its importance and successes the dominant narrative. In the face of new opportunities, such as technology which is providing interconnectivity, and immense challenges offered by globalization, a growing number of world leaders are consumed with domestic problems in their backyards. Thus, they are withdrawing from multilateral organizations that have been the bedrock of security and cooperation for the past several decades. However, the transnational nature of many problems calls for multilateral assistance to help the less fortunate and to ensure the security and wellbeing of our peoples.
Historically, bilateral and multilateral cooperation via development aid has provided the soft power to conduct carrot and stick diplomacy that has advance the stability of countries around the world. In the nineties, soft power was a central driver of profound changes. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was instrumental in comprehensive and successful democratic reforms across the whole of Europe and parts of Eurasia. These reforms, in turn, impacted transformations leading to freedom and democracy in other regions of the world. Would these reforms have been possible were it not for the foreign assistance provided by the United States, the Great Britain, Germany, and other members of the international community? Would so many countries have become democracies, achieving membership in the European Union and NATO, were it not for the support and know-how shared by the non-governmental organizations (NGO) from these nations?
These are central questions we are grappling with in today’s world. One in which a different distribution of power, via “my country first,” are core political talking points in many nations. One where many more drivers of division rather than partnership are impacting global development. One in which more transactional interests and actions are potentially in play.
In response to these extraordinary challenges, the development community has been striving to continue finding ways to remain financially viable, efficient and impactful. The nature of this work and its constant need for a presence on the ground, have required of them to redefine their approach to security, reconsider their partnerships and adapt their operational structures. Local and international organizations, many have been innovative by finding avenues to act quickly, collaborate on common initiatives and enhance old and build new partnerships, which reflect today’s world – the partnerships of local, regional, international, government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations. More importantly, these partnerships do not expect immediate results and returns on their investment. They are willing to take short-term risks in order to impact long-term positive developments and be responsible world citizens.
Consider the network of organizations and individuals that came together to help Syrian women strengthen their voice in the negotiations for the future of their country. Late in 2012, a small group of international NGOs turned to the very few women negotiators with a request to help Syrian women strengthen their voices in the decision-making processes for Syria. This first dialogue included only a handful of Syrian women, but was so impactful that within a couple of months several governments and multilateral organizations, such as the governments of the United States, Sweden and the Netherlands, the UNWomen, many international and domestic NGOs and individual women leaders, offered their support to advance the cause of Syrian women. As a result, the Syrian Women’s Network was launched in 2013 to ensure that women were included in the conflict resolution and transition processes of their country. Their efforts were refreshing because, among the growing distrust between different religious, ethnic and political groups, a diverse group of Syrian women were committed to ensure they are included in the conflict resolution and transition processes of their country.
Already in 2014, the members of the Syrian Women’s Network were present during Geneva II negotiations. While their participation was only on the sidelines of negotiations, without formal processes of consultation, the presence of the Network itself offered an opportunity to have a collective voice of Syrian women during this pivotal time in their country’s history. Although the negotiations failed in 2014, to continue to amplify their voices during future negotiation processes, in 2015 the Network formed the Women’s Advisory Board. As a result, to this day the UN Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura consults the Women’s Advisory Board, meeting with them separately from the official government and opposition delegations.
Because of the cooperation launched by a small group of international NGOs, Syrian women continue to make their voices heard. No one actor could have achieved what the coalition of international development organizations and multilateral institutions, governments, non-governmental organizations and experienced individuals had achieved through utilizing the soft power to advance the role of Syrian women in the negotiations about the future of Syria. Today, when our common values face the reality of growing nationalism, increasing security, humanitarian and environmental challenges, international cooperation and support for the development community is offering that soft power which grants a response to the challenges and opportunities of globalization.
About the author: Erika Veberyte has twenty years of experience in international relations and global development. She has served as national security adviser to the Speaker of Parliament and President of Lithuania during Lithuania’s accession to the EU and NATO; as a senior Lithuanian diplomat in Washington, D.C.; most recently led the Women’s Democracy Network.