Disrupt & Innovate

Some learnings for civil society after a year of the pandemic

20th April 2021 by Wolfgang Jamann

Over a year has passed since the WHO declared a global health emergency. COVID-19 has come upon the world and ever since affected everyone’s life and work. Needless to say, the work of civil society organisations has not been exempt from this.

Corona diaries, high-level reflections on what has happened, and efforts to understand a post-COVID world are plenty – several valuable insights are linked in the below brief observations. They might help in the necessary efforts to prepare for the consequences – particularly for those already marginalised.

Despite all the insecurities of analyses, some key observations seem to crystalise:

Inequalities are sharply increasing, particularly around gender dimensions, employment (‘gig economy’) and human rights. Reports by organisations like Amnesty International or Oxfam International testify to the fact that the most marginalised bear the biggest burden of COVID-19 impacts. At the same time, emergent agency for civil society includes new roles, new actors and new strategies.

Digitalisation is rapidly accelerating, in ambivalent directions (surveillance and data exploitation vs global connectivity). Yuval Noah Harari has three conclusions: data should always be used to help people; surveillance should go two ways, not just towards citizens but more bottom-up towards governments and corporations; and we must not allow high concentration of data with anyone – a data monopoly being the recipe for dictatorship.

The international community’s ability to deal with crises has unveiled the faults in the system – powerless multilateral and UN institutions, lack of global collaboration and a renaissance of nationalism. 

Societies are shaking. According to the latest Edelman trust barometer, confidence in governments and institutions is severely affected. The incredible willingness of people to sacrifice, act with solidarity and discipline and show empathy, has not been capitalised upon by political leaders. If there is one truth around the pandemic, it’s this: we are strongly interconnected. Yet, global solidarity is weak and yet to become a stronger glue beyond national borders.

Societal divisions are happening between ‘old’ frontiers (liberal vs conservative worldviews) but show new, disturbing lines: identity politics and cancel culture are the downsides of the increased struggle for human and citizen rights. Extreme worldviews (conspiracy theories, anti-government and anti-elite sentiments) are becoming abundant and powerful. The attack on the US Capitol in January showed their imminent danger. 

Dis-/mis- and malinformation accelerate these divisions. Digital communication and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming ‘fire accelerators’. According to the ICNL COVID-19 civic freedom tracker, civic space is more easily restricted due to the pandemic.

Closer to home, civil society organisations, while badly needed in the global discourse, are often still in a reactive/crisis mode, partly constrained by restrictive donor policies, unsurmountable operational challenges, homemade problems, and colonial legacy. Their leaders are facing immense challenges, they have to deal with complexities and interconnectedness, and the large-scale nature of the crisis challenges established leadership and good governance practices. As a result, and while the increasing responsibilities (and opportunities) for civil society organisations and their leaders become clearer and clearer, too little is being done to address those responsibilities. 

Here are some of them to be dealt with as priorities:

  • It is high time and overdue to intensify and radicalise partner support, power shift and locally-led responses while redefining mandates of internationally operating civil society organisations.
  • There is an urgent need to engage actively with overriding societal trends (intergenerational justice, climate change and planetary boundaries, culture and value clashes, gender equality) beyond the actual mandates that ICSOs are pursuing. ICSOs need to become a more powerful, desired and competent part of responses to global crises. 
  • Civil society organisations need to become more than merely just users, but navigators and co-creators of the policy dimensions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, actively participating in internet governance, ethical data use and doing digital work for the marginalised. 
  • On a global and global-to-local level, they should establish and role-model interconnectedness and active collaboration at eye-level.

Lastly, there are increasing demands for systems change. Systems thinking is necessary, the intersectionality of trends needs to be understood, yet civil society will have to go for smart and scalable answers without lowering ambitions.

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.