Disrupt & Innovate

Civil Society in the Corona Crisis

7th April 2020 by Wolfgang Jamann

One month of WHO-declared pandemic has meant one month of crisis mitigation for civil society leaders. Ensuring staff care and safety and maintaining the continuity of operations was and is a priority task for any leader these days. In addition, staying healthy, looking after family and friends, is more than an activity on the side. We are grateful for all the efforts that have been undertaken to stay as safe as possible in the sector.

Civil society organisations (CSOs), big and small, global and local, are ‘system-relevant’ – it matters to millions of people that we remain operational and support the most vulnerable and their environment. It comes as no surprise that the SDG principle to ‘Leave no one behind’ has become a unifying theme of solidarity in response to the Coronavirus around the world, mirroring what our organisations stand for.

For CSOs to remain operational in the future will mean refocusing on the potential and foreseeable impacts of the crisis in countries of the global South – a humanitarian, health and food security crisis yet in the making. If we have learned anything from past disasters – man-made or so-called ‘natural’: it is always the most marginalised, the poorest and the least protected who will bear the highest burden. 

We cannot yet foresee whether direct or indirect consequences of Coronavirus will affect livelihoods most. For example, the indirect ones on the horizon might be much graver in the medium to long term – such as re-direction of aid flows towards domestic issues, dwindling global solidarity and growing nationalism, scarcity of economic resources, to name but a few.

Four weeks into the crisis and civil society leaders are strategising and planning for mid-term and longer-term implications. Information (and opinion) overload still need to be interpreted, but there are some valuable resources that are useful for thinking and planning ahead. The Centre has collected a number of pieces that will help navigate the immediate and longer-term future, and so have other civil society networks. 

Already, numerous valuable advocacy initiatives are kicking in. They are occurring in order of urgency rather than priority, such as:

And we hear encouraging statements from global leaders like WHO Executive Director Thedros Ghebreyesus, making sure that the poorer continents do not become testing grounds for the wealthier nations

As more advocacy statements and initiatives are being rolled-out, we need to make sure that there is not a competition of concerns and mandates, but that we remain connected over the aims that we all share.

Further ahead is scenario planning. Futurists and foresighters are looking at weak and strong signals on post-Coronavirus situation. The most unlikely scenario will be “business as before”, once a vaccine or treatments are found. The biggest questions appear around so-called ‘systems changes’ – is the globalist, capitalist, financial and political system good enough in times of increasing global challenges? Where will our societies drift – back into nationalist and inward-looking behaviours, or forward towards global solidarity, interconnected actions and multilateral governance? And how will the current experience affect our dealing with ‘the other’ large global crisis around climate change?

Highly relevant to these future systems will be the role of organised civil society, whether it is around aid, social discourse, political decision-making or framing the narratives that hold our societies together. Civil society in the ‘sector’ (of development, social justice, environment and human rights) has undergone continuous transformations over the past decades, but it is challenged to keep pace with the current crisis, its responsibilities, and yes, the opportunities that come with it. We should not let others define the future of the values and systems that matter for civil society around the world.

Our most significant contribution to overcoming this crisis will be working in collaboration, focusing on the solidarity and empathy. Our humanistic values that bind us and the societies we work in demand that we are forward-looking and strategic in our actions, irrespective of the high operational pressures out there. Putting people, unorganised and organised civil society at the centre of post-Coronavirus planning is the task we need to unite behind and show collective leadership.

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.