Civil Society has become a key concept for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in its efforts to promote democracy. This was especially the case in programming in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, where the agency supported initiatives to decentralize political and economic decision-making.
In the same period, USAID itself became more open to alternative visions and voices from organizations and individuals outside Washington's beltway. In 1994, for example, when President Clinton announced the creation of a new "democracy network" initiative in eleven Eastern European countries which was designed, in his words, to "bring new resources to grassroots and independent groups throughout the region," the program was then outsourced to seven different US-based non-governmental organizations.
In Macedonia and Bulgaria, Demnet was implemented by the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities, or ISC. Drawing on the state's robust traditions of town meetings and citizen participation, ISC also emphasized the environment as an issue of common concern.
Gwen Hallsmith worked as Community Action Director (1998-2002) and Director of Institutional Capacity Building (1992-1995) at ISC, where she introduced the Community Action Plan (CAP) as a key mechanism of locally-driven, participatory planning. In this 2008 interview, conducted when she was Director of Planning and Community Development at City of Montpelier, Vermont, she outlines the importance of paying attention to shared values, human relationships, and intergenerational conversations in the development process.