This opinion was published by CSIS on 16 December 2021 as part of commentary Experts React: The 2021 Summit for Democracy.


To go by mainstream media coverage, the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy was nothing more than an exercise in geopolitics. Media attention prior to the summit focused almost exclusively on which countries appeared on the invitation list. And the most newsworthy moment in the proceedings was the unscripted pulling of the video feed when Taiwan digital minister Audrey Tang showed a slide depicting her country in a different color than mainland China, reflecting an assessment by the civil society group CIVICUS of its comparatively open civic space. Time Magazine went so far so to dub the event a “geopolitical ploy.”

Yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken set the tone of the Biden administration’s approach with an understated defense of democracy as the most effective political system for addressing today’s challenges and advancing human dignity. If the commitment to advancing human dignity—the underlying value behind all human rights—is to truly buttress the reassertion of global U.S. leadership, it will be critical for the administration to meet another one of its commitments: supporting citizen-to-citizen solidarity across borders by “localizing” U.S. development assistance.

President Biden announced more than $424 million in new programs and assistance at the summit, under the auspices of the Presidential Initiative on Democratic Renewal. In her summit remarks, USAID administrator Samantha Power emphasized the digital rights components of the initiative, which will also support free media, nonviolent social movements, and labor organizing, among other priorities.

For this initiative to have the desired impact on human rights, however, the U.S. government will need to live up to the promise that Power detailed earlier in the week in a speech to the Professional Services Council: she committed to localizing 25 percent of U.S. development assistance (up from 6 percent at present) by providing it directly to locally led initiatives in other countries within four years. A key challenge in accomplishing that goal will be modifying USAID risk management policies that give primacy to U.S. intermediaries at the expense of direct support to local actors.

Increasing development assistance that enables local democracy activists and human rights defenders to access financial resources that serve their own strategies and initiatives—in contrast to implementing plans formulated in Washington—would make all the difference. If the summit marks a real shift in how U.S. development assistance for human rights operates, in genuine solidarity with grassroots civil society around the world, that will make a significant contribution toward the summit’s goals.


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