Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the world has witnessed a tumultuous couple of months. This pandemic has changed in diverse ways relations and interactions among community citizens and between citizens and institutions. Most countries have been at the mercy of this rampaging pandemic, and a key sector that has been put in the spotlight is civil society.
It is important to state that the intrinsic value of civil society is attributed to its mission and power to mobilise citizens and communities to support social causes. COVID-19 has presented an existential threat to civil society’s relevance and legitimacy. These are vital principles that enable the sector to find expression, meaning and impact.
There have been several discussions and conversations on various virtual platforms about the response of civil society to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of adaptation of operations but also how effectively the sector is engaging with communities. The question that needs to be interrogated is, to what extent is civil society representative, responsive, collaborative, resilient and influential? And how do these elements relate to the sector’s effectiveness?
There are a serious of questions that need reflection and consideration as civil society seeks to ensure that representation brings tangible benefits to communities in these difficult times. They include, but are not limited to:
- Has civil society responded to the crisis in a way that shows that it is representing the interest of communities?
- To what extent has civil society been able to “listen” to communities that it represents and integrate these engagements and ensure they are reflected in initiatives, programmes, and projects to respond to the needs of these communities?
- What does representation mean in a pandemic situation?
- Is representation only about numbers and metrics? Does it go beyond the notion that civil society gives voice?
- And what does it mean to give voice to marginalised groups within a pandemic scenario?
- Can we continue to do business as usual advocacy, or we need to think like “there is no box” and create new engagement tactics to navigate this uncertain future?
- What are the new forms and strategies for building solidarity that we need to employ?
While reflecting on these questions, it will be pertinent to recognise that civil society as a sector encompasses a wide range of actors.
Whereas, diversity should have been synonymous with strong representation power, the lack of clear and consensual standards and mechanisms by which citizens can authorise representation and ensure accountability and responsiveness constitutes a significant impediment to the sector’s representativeness.
Several actors have argued that in the first two months when the pandemic garnered global attention, civil society was in a “coma” like state. The sector was clearly at a loss as to how to react, help and engage with its various partners and communities. Even though projects implemented by civil society usually have a component of risk management, the ongoing pandemic can be described as a black swan, a metaphor that often describes an event that comes as a surprise has a significant effect.
Admittedly, some projects may have included in their risk assessment the possibility of a local epidemic outbreak as a major risk that could affect project outcomes. However, it would be highly unlikely that project designs considered the possibility of a global pandemic and mitigation strategies to respond to it.
Therefore, it has become apparent that civil society must develop a collaborative to conduct scenario analysis and emergency response planning quickly. It also appears that civil society as a sector has a lot to learn. Therefore, there is a need to ensure that there are comprehensive learnings and documentation of the current COVID-19 responses to guide more effective and responsive future interventions in crises.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that pockets of excellence and passionate individual efforts are welcome but are not enough. The pandemic has shown that the greatest possibility for change will be civil society’s collective efforts. Civil society is being challenged to elevate its ways of working and operational strategies. Civil society must deepen its partnerships and work more intimately beyond thematic and cluster interests.
The challenge is for social justice, humanitarian, and environmental groups to work together in a seamless and coordinated way to leave no one behind. Indeed, this is a time for a cohesive and coordinated response to the issues that affect humanity. Civil society should not approach issues in an insular manner, but work collectively using individual strengths, with mutual respect and most importantly bringing communities along, ensuring they are at the forefront of the changes that need to happen. This is the season to develop cross-sector innovative partnerships with government and the private sector that stretch beyond civil society’s inner circles.
Civil society can achieve the above milestones if the sector itself is resilient. To do so, means groupings in both organic and organised forms are strong and robust. This includes having the capability to adapt quickly to emergencies, sustain their causes and more pertinently the “engine” for achieving these social outcomes. Therefore, the issue of financial and non-financial resources becomes critical. The challenge is for civil society especially in the global south to explore different avenues for mobilising funding and expertise, reducing the dependence on external aid but looking internally, building capacities to access financing from domestic communities. This would help to build sustained resilience, not resilience to implement projects but resilience to sustain social change.
Positively, civil society continues to influence major social and policy changes in communities around the world. However, COVID-19, and the impacts arising from the virus, challenge civil society to scale up its influence and ability to make a significant dent on reducing poverty and inequality in communities. It has become crystal clear that as a sector, civil society cannot achieve major transformations working alone.
For civil society to contribute significantly to the achievement of the sustainable development goals and to ensure that no one is left behind, the sector must engage in a robust, respectful and collaborative manner with governments, the private sector, traditional communities, religious bodies and family associations.
Civil society’s ability to act as a catalyst and as a platform for citizens to share their views is vital. The sector must ensure that its influence shapes the culture of governance, democratisation, and the promotion of basic freedoms. Civil society’s influence must extend beyond policy prescriptions, open letters, advocacy campaigns and reports to real, relevant, and tangible progress, especially of marginalised communities.
Opportunity in Uncertainty
History has shown us that within times of uncertainty; there is always opportunity. These are challenging times, but it also presents an opportunity for civil society to harness its years of experience of organising, enabling community engagement, holding government and stakeholders accountable to step up to the current challenges. Civil society must respond to this “new normal” to ensure that beyond rhetoric, it leverages its assets, including its representative and responsiveness nature, collaborative potential, resilience, and influence. This is the time for civil society to cement its position as an indispensable catalyst for sustained social change and community-led action.