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From Idea to Impact: Studying Through a US Civil Society Program in Macedonia

Funded by IREX, RBF, and the Watson Institute’s Global Media Project, this project applied to the process of U.S. civil society promotion a qualitative case-based approach which brought together disconnected bodies of knowledge across professional, disciplinary and national borders. At its core were in-depth, informal interviews with observers of and participants in USAID’s Democracy Network Program (DemNet) in Macedonia between 1995 and 2004.  Through these interviews—which we envisaged as informal, open-ended conversations, or a kind of muabet—the core research team (Keith Brown, Paul Nuti and Paige Sarlin, working also with a team of Brown University undergraduates, and Macedonian film-makers) tracked the birth, implementation and after-life of this program.  During 2008 and 2009 interviews were conducted in Washington DC, Vermont (where the U.S. implementing NGO, the Institute for Sustainable Communities, has its headquarters), Skopje, and the towns of Sveti Nikole, Prilep and Struga.

 The research revealed how the DemNet program reflected long-standing tensions in the conceptualization and practice of democracy in the United States, whereby “participation” demands either direct, volunteer citizen involvement in common decision-making and action, or representative, professionalized civil society organizations which identify and advocate for citizen interests.  Initially focusing on the mobilizing power of environmental issues, the DemNet program evolved, under the pressure of political developments in Macedonia, and shifts in U.S. funding priorities and mechanisms, to focus on the professionalization and organizational capacity in the civil society sector, including the creation of a legacy organization. 

Where the program initially integrated issues of sustainable development (of the kind articulated in the Rio UN summit in 1992) with democratic decision-making at the local level, by its close the focus was on the financial sustainability of the strong cadre of advocacy and service provider NGOs that a variety of foreign donors have supported over the past decade (especially since 1999).

DemNet’s early work was highly regarded in Macedonia, and contributed to human and social capital development. Its later transformation, in response to USAID demands, generated more ambivalence locally. While the positive impact of the program remains substantial (and, for the investment of $8.05 million over nine years, highly cost-effective), the research suggests it would have been still greater had the donor-enforced shifts not taken place.

            Interviews were filmed and transcribed, and work is continuing on a documentary film.