The Network for Dialogue (N4D), a joint initiative of the Rome-based think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali and the Dutch peacebuilding organization PAX, is a civic incubator that provides safe spaces for Middle East and North African (MENA) civic leaders to engage in ongoing, structured dialogue and build multi-stakeholder collaborations. At a time when the civic space in the region is shrinking, N4D seeks innovative ways to enable and encourage citizens to collaborate to address pressing societal problems. 

By means of its “The Citizens Challenge” RFP, N4D invites the MENA region’s civic leaders and organizations to submit their ideas regarding a local or national challenge that they wish to address together, then identifies the ideas and networks most worthy of support. It provides these small groups of civic leaders the time and space to discuss their shared challenge, by supporting them to structure and convene a series of dialogues over the course of a year – dialogues that move rapidly from problem definition to identifying a strategy to engage in collective action to address it. With the help of a global network of prominent supporters of civil society in the MENA region, N4D then provides these groups any advice, expertise, and connections they may require to implement these collaborative action plans. 


The Middle East and North Africa’s citizens are its most precious resource. Like other regions of the world, the MENA region faces daunting challenges – from inter- and intra-state conflict to widespread corruption, weak governance to resource scarcity, and beyond.  As in other regions of the world, these sticky, wicked problems will not be solved by governments alone, but will also require the concerted help and engagement of citizens.

One of the casualties of the Arab Spring and all that has ensued since has been the public square. Arab countries had a longstanding tradition of rich and lively (though not necessarily unfettered) debate on matters of national import. Even in the region’s most authoritarian countries, citizens were able to find some room for public discussion. That space has closed significantly as several states have collapsed into civil war and the leaders of others have cracked down on public dissent, placed stricter limits on freedom of the press, and cut the activities of and funding for civil society organizations. 

The war in Gaza has compounded the challenges facing the region. The Israeli government’s disproportionate response to the Hamas attack has resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians, triggering protests and a groundswell of public support for the Palestinian cause throughout the region. The war has widened the gap in many countries between citizens and their governments — over governance, the normalization of relations with Israel, ties with the West, and so much more.  In many cases, governments have responded by further closing down the political and civic space.

The shrinking of the public square harms countries in the region. It limits the ability of governments to harness the expertise and energy of their citizens in confronting the complex challenges they face. It also penalizes citizens in the middle who eschew violence and extremism in all its forms. These individuals find themselves unable to air their own views, try to find common ground and make common cause with others, or propose pathways forward toward a better, more peaceful future. 

The Citizen Challenge

The Network for Dialogue seeks creative ways to offer select groups of citizens in the Middle East and North Africa an alternative public square. By means of its “Citizen Challenge,” it supports citizen-led efforts to address pressing national and local challenges and opportunities by offering quiet and secure spaces for dialogue. The intent is to give civic leaders the opportunity to engage in critical reflection and ongoing discussions on important policy issues confronting their country, with the expectation that such dialogue will lead over time to a concrete strategy and collaborative plan for action. N4D believes that “whole of society,” “whole of sector,” or “whole of community” collaborations are usually most effective in addressing difficult societal challenges, in keeping with Collective Impact Theory.

The Network for Dialogue focuses its efforts on the supply side — on identifying ways to provide secure spaces for conversation, whether inside or outside the country. It tries to mitigate the political, legal, financial, and logistical hurdles that these citizens now face in trying to meet and talk. To interested groups, it offers conference facilities, accommodation, and transportation, as well as technical assistance in structuring an effective dialogue. 

The Network for Dialogue solicits demand through a simple request-for-proposal process entitled “The Citizen Challenge.” In a short, secure online application process, interested individuals and organizations need to demonstrate (in English, Arabic, or French) that they have a compelling reason for gathering, the ability to get the right people to attend, a strategy for making effective use of their time together, and a plan to ensure the dialogue eventually leads to collaborative action. According to their wishes, these dialogues can be strictly off-the-record or more public, can include representatives of government or solely members of civil society, and can or cannot include individuals with opposing viewpoints on the issue to be discussed. Regardless, the participants involved should be diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and professional background. The dialogues should start small in terms of the number of participants (6-12) and can grow with time. N4D’s dialogues generally occur three times over the course of a year and are three days in length. 

The Network for Dialogue will conduct a confidential follow-up phone interview with those presenting the most compelling proposals to ascertain more details. A panel composed of academics, former policymakers, and civil society representatives then evaluate the complete application packages and select those most worthy of support.  

Several funding organizations have committed to review worthy proposals, with a view to supporting projects that match their programmatic priorities. The Shiraka programme of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a founding sponsor of the Network for Dialogue.