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:
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.
Those who follow the news know that these days, politicians tend to use the term sovereignty mainly in two different contexts: when it comes to close borders and keep migrants and refugees out or in discussions that touch on the ongoing transformation of our societies. That’s the moment they advocate for technological, cyber, and/or data sovereignty.
It was, thus, a question of time that somebody would bring up the issue of African data sovereignty. It happened in the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique in summer 2020 when the Senegalese law professor Jean-Louis Corréa stated that the data extraction by entities of the Global North is not benefitting Africans. He made no difference between data collection and mining for commercial and other purposes and called on African leaders to resist the ongoing cyber colonialism.
At around the same time, Paul Currion identified the unfinished business of decolonization and described it from the following angles: how aid flows map soft power relationships between former colonial powers and former colonies; how the career trajectory of many international aid workers often resembles that of colonial administrators; and how the aid beneficiary has been constructed as a post-colonial Other. And now data.
Hence, it seems obvious to put the role of Africa in the global digital market on the agenda of the Digital Debates event series which was launched by the International Civil Society Centre in 2021. Once a month Barbara Iverson hosts such a debate. The next one will be held on 1 April and discuss the question: Is Africa “falling prey” to data colonialism?
We invite you to join this discussion here: Digital Debate 2: Is Africa ‘falling prey’ to Data Colonialism? – The International Civil Society Centre (icscentre.org)
Barbara Iverson will host Jean-Louis Corréa together with Karen Guevara of the Equanimity Foundation.
In the first of two guest blogs, accompanying the publication of ‘Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs’, George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz argued that if the ‘charity architecture’ in which our ICSO sector has been embedded for decades does not change, ICSOs will not be able to achieve the long-term impact they promise to deliver.
In this companion blog, Barney Tallack and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken discuss some recent changes in the environment of ICSOs and what this means for their role. An upcoming interview with all four authors on these big questions of power and relevance of ICSOs will also be released later this month on the Centre’s Civil Society Futures and Innovation Podcast.
The COVID-19 pandemic primarily accelerated underlying challenges, providing additional drivers for what have been longer-standing trends:
The #shiftthepower and decolonising aid narratives, rhetorically, have become stronger and calls for action louder. The key question is: will ICSOs hear the critiques of Global South civil society, academics and governments and respond this time with greater clarity on how their role and size need to change and/or reduce significantly, in order to retain legitimacy and relevance? And can they discern the contexts in which a larger scale and global presence is still adding value?
At the same time, let’s add some nuance. For instance, which parts of global South civil society do not agree with the stance that ICSOs are crowding them out, and why not? We also urge the sector to take a nuanced, contextualised approach. The request to simply transfer unrestricted resources to Southern CSOs does not recognise the necessity for northern ICSOs to still create that income in the first place. They can only do this by being out in front of the public in their own markets, or by mobilising citizens to give their governments the mandates to allocate resources.
At the same time, a good amount of philanthropy is provided by high wealth individuals (increasingly from all parts of the world) who still need persuading that direct transfer of resources to CSOs in the Global South means that their ways of imprinting on such delivery will be more limited.
Equally, the commitment of boards, staff and volunteers to social justice and solidarity should not be dismissively categorised as being all about self-interest. It is the “how”, the “forms and norms” (as we say in the book) that need to change. It is not about the wholesale removal of Northern ICSOs from the equation.
ICSOs need to seriously rethink shifting their roles to respond to this set of drivers, but we have not yet seen widespread openness to doing this in significant ways. By this, we mean more focused, specific and limited roles that really add value to the system, given the maturity of Global South civil society. Few ICSOs have fundamentally changed their role, power structure, or organisational “forms and norms”.
How ICSO leaders can start doing this:
What these new roles could look like:
As practitioners, we will be keen to follow whether we will see such role shifts develop, and with them a greater handover of power, authority and decision rights – not just responsibility and risk – to country-level leadership, national boards and to partners.
As a sector, we need now more than ever to identify and share models of transformative practice in role shifting, and we will stay connected with the Centre to do this together in future. So if you have something significant to share on this, please get in touch!
Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, alongside George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz, are co-authors of the recently published book Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs. You can discover more details about it here.