01/31/2013 04:09 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Strengthening the Middle Class in Emerging Democracies

Too often civil society development work in emerging democracies feels like a Herculean if not a Sisyphean task. A recent review of civil society development programs from the Balkans to Asia over the past decade point to similar challenges year after year: civil society organizations (CSOs) are often one-person shows, programs are donor-driven, there is a lack public support for and engagement with CSOs, CSOs lack the skills to properly manage their organization and programs, and funding is limited to a handful of CSOs with access to Western donors. For the most part the international aid community responds to these familiar challenges, as they have for the past 20 years, with the same programs combining trainings and grants. One reason these programs have not yielded the intended results is that they have overlooked the importance of education.

Although international aid programs target a range of CSO sectors ranging from rural-based organizations to think tanks, the objective is usually the same: develop strong organizations independent of the government that work for the will of the people. However, this is difficult in societies with poor education systems and a small and disengaged middle class. Most civil society development programs led by international organizations are designed to be implemented in a system with some semblance of a middle class and where the public has a basic understanding of civic duty and responsibility. Since civil society development aid is granted to CSOs and governments in the name of the people, donors hope these people, led by media outlets, will play a large role in holding aid recipients (CSOs and governments) accountable. The theory is that if the public monitor aid recipients, aid will benefit the public while also strengthening a system rooted in transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Instead, international aid is often perceived by local CSOs and local governments as an entitlement. Some CSOs think that if internationals need to spend their money, why not get the most of the funds with the slightest of effort? With this kind of attitude, it's no wonder the public often views CSOs as financial opportunists who act as service providers for donor-driven initiatives.

The solution is to modify civil society development programming by including a greater emphasis on education. Through education, it will be possible to develop a larger middle class that places a higher value on civic responsibility. The first step is to strengthen cooperation and relationships between CSOs and educational institutions.

Educational institutions in emerging democracies need time and funding to transform their pedagogical models from rote memorization to interactive student-centered learning that promotes critical thinking. Unfortunately, these systems don't have much time or money. What little education funding was made available by donors went to much needed civic education projects. These civic education programs target curriculum reform, teacher education, and new textbooks. However, too often the civic education programs are short-term projects limited to a handful of schools. Rarely is civic education adopted as part of a national curriculum. Without institutionalizing these changes, their potential for positive results are unsustainable.

Like CSOs, educational institutions in emerging democracies usually remain within their established space and rarely reach outside into the petri dish of democracy development in their backyards. Both CSOs and educational institutions need to step out of their silos. Civil society programs should go beyond providing CSOs with funds and training to develop and implement projects. They need to encourage CSO leaders to share their experiences in relevant classroom settings. At the same time, educational institutions, governments, and donors should take a more proactive approach to including CSOs in educational processes to provide students with real-life experience. Universities could, for example, include CSO experts as guest speakers, and CSOs could partner with universities to provide internship opportunities. At the primary and secondary education levels, governments and donors could include CSOs in the design and implementation of civic education components that should become permanent parts of the curriculum.

Such a relationship will prove beneficial to educational institutions, CSOs, and society. CSOs' public image will be improved as they demonstrate greater engagement and commitment to their community. Educational institutions will provide the next generation with a better understanding of the challenges facing their country, and how they can become engaged citizens that work to address these issues. What better way for students to learn about minority rights, economic development, gender equality, and good governance than from their own organizations working in their own backyard?

To end the Sisyphus phenomenon in civil society development programming, governments and donors must be willing to integrate education and civil society, CSOs must recognize their civic responsibilities to schools and students, and educators must look for ways to take the classroom beyond school walls.