Democracy does not disappear by accident. Instead, all over the world we are witnessing deliberate attempts by anti-democratic actors to weaken civil society, cripple the rule of law and activate social fragmentation.

From weaponizing fear to rewriting history to exploiting religion, today’s autocrats and their followers tap into the same playbook. At the heart of this playbook is a multipronged attack on civil society. In 2021, of the 33 autocratizing countries, repression of civil society worsened in 22.

If a diminished civil society is the foundation of autocracy, a robust and inclusive civil society is the foundation of democracy. Civil society mediates between the state and the individual, made up of organizations such as schools and universities, nonprofit and advocacy groups, professional associations, churches, and cultural institutions. Civil society is the connective tissue that holds any society together. It is no coincidence that anti-democratic actors start there.

Despite the central role of civil society in the authoritarian scenario, efforts to strengthen democracy too often underinvest in civil society – even though it is our best line of defense.

Civil society organizations in both democracies and autocratic regimes are crippled by limited resources and a lack of coordination. Even in the United States, with the most sophisticated philanthropic culture in the world, civil society organizations that defend and strengthen democracy are grossly underfunded compared to organizations working on education, health, or poverty reduction. poverty.

For example, in 2020, American philanthropists spent $71 billion on education, while philanthropic funding to democratic organizations over a decade was about $14 billion. This tendency to overinvest in problem areas and underinvest in governance is also reflected in how the US government has allocated its funding globally. For example, in Africa, the US government spends 70% of its funds ($5.4 billion) on health initiatives and only 4% ($312.4 million) on democracy, human rights and governance.

Because civil society is inherently decentralized, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to invest in it strategically. Investments in civil society may not seem as important as sweeping institutional and political reforms, such as HR 1 in the United States. Or, because civilian life involves the messy work of bringing people together, efforts to strengthen it can seem unpredictable compared to individually targeted psychological interventions, such as traditional or social media advertisements to spur action.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can and must develop a strategic approach to strengthen and inoculate civil society against attempts to weaken it.

The first part of the solution to protecting and strengthening democracy is to prioritize funding for democratic issues and organizations. The second is to strategically invest these resources in civil society.

We propose two immediate priorities:

Building Civic Resilience:

In the United States and around the world, there is an overinvestment in short-term results, in the pursuit of electoral or political victory in money (the 2020 United States elections cost $14 billion). While leadership and structural reforms are important for strengthening democracy, we also need civil society organizations that cultivate a shared commitment to democratic values ​​and build the resilience of individuals and communities to advance those values.

Funding for civil society organizations that tirelessly build the culture of democracy and social cohesion through approaches such as civic education, community organizing, leadership development and the facilitation of deliberative dialogue for inclusive democracy should be prioritized alongside those working on structural reforms.

Facilitating transnational coordination for democracy:

As Freedom House warns, “the world order is approaching a tipping point, and if democracy advocates do not work together to help secure freedom for all, the authoritarian model will prevail.”

Today, pro-democracy organizations are siloed, lacking the level of transnational coordination and sharing of playbooks that their autocratic counterparts astutely orchestrate. We must create forums such as the upcoming Virtual Summit of Global Democracy Champions to build global networks and elevate the aspirations, leadership and innovations of pro-democracy organizations, activists, scholars and philanthropists.

From journalists to think thanks to Ukrainian freedom fighters, there is an outcry for resources and innovation to defend liberal democracy. As philanthropic institutions, governments and multilateral institutions have galvanized in response to COVID-19, now is the time to mount global solidarity for democracy.

Philanthropy, in particular, has a historic role to play in making bold investments in civil society organizations to address both short-term crises and long-term civic infrastructure building efforts.

Yordanos Eyoel is the founder of Keseb and a visiting scholar at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Hahrie Han is the institute’s first director and professor of political science at Johns Hopkins. They wrote this for The Fulcrum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news platform covering efforts to fix our systems of governance.