This page is part of a series of COVID-19 resource pages that we are creating to help civil society actors.
On this page, you will find links to readings, podcasts and videos related to the latest COVID-19 news and analysis. If you have a recommendation or a suggestion, let us know. Many thanks to our volunteer researcher Ineke Stemmet.
The sections are:
Staying up-to-date: Links to sites that will keep you abreast of important developments related to our sector and the latest news.
Strategic: We look at the impact and responses to COVID-19 in a general and intersectional way (i.e. impacts on human rights, climate change, etc).
Policy: Civil society’s policies that respond to challenges posed by COVID-19.
Operational: A list of what your organisation can do now to navigate these unprecedented times.
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:
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.
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.
Ahead of an upcoming update to our 2019 report on ‘Civil Society Innovation and Populism in a Digital Era’, the Centre has invited guest blogs from new contributors we have heard from about their interesting initiatives to respond to the challenges posed by populism. Since last year, The Democratic Society has been involved in the ‘Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE)’ project running citizen ‘democracy labs’ across Europe. We asked Bernardo Jurema, Research & Project Officer, to tell us more about this experience so far.
The ‘Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE)’ project, a Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commission, involves us at the Democratic Society and eight other partners across Europe. We are aiming to understand different aspects of populist movements, identify and build upon lessons from positive examples of connecting with citizens, and through this play a part in constructing a firmer democratic and institutional foundation for Europe.
Over the last decade in Europe, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a rise of political forces loosely labeled as “populist,” that question the prevailing liberal order of the last 40 years. PaCE intends to respond to the illiberal and un- or anti-democratic tendencies of these populist movements.
By involving people’s voices throughout the project, especially those of minorities and under-represented groups, in a transparent, open and welcoming way, PaCE aims to strengthen our research process and legitimise our results.
The polarisation of societies across Europe at the root of populism — particularly between perceived “elites” and an imagined “ordinary people” – makes the need for a structured process for dialogue between decision-makers, researchers and the public especially necessary. PaCE has therefore put dialogue at the centre of our actions, recognising the general public and civil society actors as key interlocutors with legitimate views, concerns and claims that will benefit our research.
These dialogue forums, our ‘democracy labs’, seek to overcome the distance, whether actual or imagined, between the general public and the economic, political and intellectual elites that fuel populist movements. Through them, we aim to better understand how citizens’ attitudes towards democracy are shaped, how they access and evaluate which information they can trust, and how this process influences their voting decisions.
Local civil society organisations (CSOs) are key partners for our labs because of the role they play within local communities. As multipliers, they reach specific target audiences, and can also incorporate the research findings into their own work aiming at strengthening democracy across Europe.
The labs will take place in several European countries to both complement and disseminate our research findings. We have held two so far: one with under-represented members of the public in Messina, Italy, and one in Brussels, Belgium, with stakeholders from EU institutions.
The last few decades in Italy has seen a decline in party-based representation, a rise in populist protest movements, and new media dynamics leading to personalisation and anti-intellectualism. Former Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has explained that the traditional political parties have failed to address citizens’ concerns whilst populist parties are seen as posing the “right questions”.
Since 2017, the island of Sicily has been governed by the Diventerà Bellissima party, a regional affiliate of the Brothers of Italy (FdI), the national party seen as the main heir to the Italian neo-fascist conservative movement. Messina, the third largest city on Sicily, was therefore a particularly interesting location for our first citizen democracy lab.
Our lab took place in the city’s public library, a neutral meeting space for participants of all backgrounds and affiliations, in September 2019. Our two local civil society partners – Associazione Ionio Messina and Startup Messina – brought in their language skills and local expertise to help ensure representative participation, reduce the barriers to civic engagement and take ownership of the process beyond the lab itself.
Local participants were of different age groups and social backgrounds. One woman found the experience ‘very significant and motivating’: “ …I got the chance to talk with people I didn’t know before, of which I have absolutely no idea about their political opinions. With them, I have argued about relevant topics, such as conscious approach to voting….These meetings should be planned more often, involving more people…it would be nice to be able to discuss our ideas with many others”.
In contrast to Messina, our Brussels lab was attended by professionals already working on democracy issues, and included policymakers and EU staff, as part of the 2019 European Public Communication Conference (EuroPCOM). The session was a real-time simulation of citizen participation around the question of how we can make our democracy stronger, with our specific focus on: ‘what needs to be done to ensure informed voting?’
The discussion revolved around innovative new forms of citizen engagement to address populism in the EU, the need to include emotions and values in our communication, and the responsibilities inherent to citizenship.
The main takeaways that emerged from this lab were the importance of:
Join our upcoming labs!
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have moved the next upcoming democracy labs across Europe online. This gives us the opportunity to bring stakeholders from different countries together to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak based on the varied governmental response measures and strategies experienced across the continent.
With these upcoming labs, we will continue to engage with local CSOs to learn and put into practice innovative ways to engage with citizens. The report of each event will be shared publicly, and we also plan to present our broader findings at events and conferences to inform wider research efforts.
Local CSOs from across Europe interested in taking part or hosting one of our online labs can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more about the project on Twitter and Facebook @popandce, or visit www.popandce.eu to sign up for our newsletter and stay updated on research developments.