This blog is written by Deborah Doane, who along with Sarah Pugh, authored a series of pilot case studies on civil society solidarity. The six case studies analyse how civil society organisations and coalitions are developing resilience and showing solidarity in response to undue scrutiny and clampdowns.
We heard last week that Oxfam was making drastic cuts to its organisation worldwide, – phasing “out 18 of its country offices”. This comes as a result of the compounding impacts of the 2018 Haiti safeguarding scandal, and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic. Both have resulted in exponential drops in income for the organisation. Tragically, it has had to make these cuts deeply and rapidly. Staff and partners will no doubt be reeling from the announcement, as other international civil society organisations (ICSOs) look on and perhaps wonder about their fate.
Many of the countries where Oxfam will be withdrawing from are experiencing shrinking civic space: Tanzania, Egypt, Burundi, amongst others. In these countries’ civic space environments, civil society is routinely attacked, restricted from operating in a way that enables them to do their work effectively. ICSOs were not immune to these attacks by governments, as some work – especially that with a rights-based lens — would have been difficult to continue on an ongoing basis, long before COVID-19.
Oxfam’s measures put into stark light the need for us to look at the role of international civil society on a broader basis. For people in southern civil society, they have increasingly been calling on ICSOs to work with them from a position of solidarity. In a time of rapid change in international civil society, and drastic cutbacks such as these, what would it look like? How can we ensure that an ICSO withdrawal doesn’t lead to even more rapid shrinking civic space, as we’re already starting to see with restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic? Some national governments, worryingly, will be seeing Oxfam’s announcement as a vindication of their attacks on international civil society actors.
My colleague, Sarah Pugh and I, have been working with civil society and philanthropy for several years now, to understand how we can support the enabling environment for civil society more effectively. Last year, we worked with the International Civil Society Centre by creating a “Solidarity Playbook” that include pilot case studies of ICSO responses to closing civic space and learned some key lessons about what solidarity looked like in the face of it. What we found was that ICSOs played an important role in working in solidarity and partnership with local actors. We also found that some of these – if not all – do not necessarily require an in-country presence to support them.
I want to highlight some of the key findings from across the case studies were:
- Maintain solid defences. When governments attack, the basics are important. In India, for example, thousands of small civil groups were denied the ability to receive foreign funding just for failing to complete their paperwork correctly. In one of the case studies, Action Aid found this was critical for their survival when they were attacked in Uganda. All organisations can be ensuring that relevant legislation is adhered to and supporting their partners in this endeavour. Infrastructure and resources are needed for this – from accountants to legal advice, but our own learning from other work shows that these can be pooled and shared across civil society.
- Working with local civil society on joint strategies. Engaging in scenario planning about what closing space might be bringing can help to understand and manage these risks, and identify both contingencies and offence strategies – like joint advocacy and framing work to combat the threats. In Nigeria, the Action Group on Free Civic Space includes 60 organisations working to create a unified sector voice in the face of a range of restrictions on civic space, including in the digital sphere. Amnesty International in this case, played a role in supporting the formalisation of a cross-sector network of local and national actors, which worked hard to find common ground and approaches, so that when risks surface that threaten civic space, they can respond as one.
- Raising awareness of the importance of civil and political space, and of why it should be defended and expanded. Organisations can’t do this in isolation: they need to work in coalition with others to address these risks, as in the face of closing space many of them are systemic. When Islamic Relief was targeted by smear campaigns in the US, which were motivated by Islamaphobia and aimed at removing their state funding, their membership in the Together Project and InterAction ensured a broad advocacy response from peers acting in solidarity. They succeeded in countering the damaging narratives being spread by those opposed to their operations, so that they, and others, can continue their important work in many of the most challenging and complex environments. Their ongoing work on fighting ‘bank de-risking’ is important across civil society globally, to ensure that funds can be received and local civil society can function.
Prior to COVID-19, challenges about responding to closing civic space were myriad, from getting institutional buy-in, to maintaining coalition work. On coalition work, in particular, which feels acutely important as organisations may be receding from the field, what we found was that while it was easy to galvanise coalitions in the immediate face of any government attacks, coalitions tended to drift after the threat subsided. Unfortunately, this gave governments an opening to come back down the line and seek to restrict space repeatedly. Organisations will now be dealing with the immediate issues of COVID-19. Thus, prioritising keeping collaborative relationships across civil society to respond to this as a collective will be an even greater challenge, but even more critical both for the emergency response and for the longer-term, too.
We know from countries where space closed, and where many international civil society actors had to withdraw, prior to things improving, such as Tunisia or Ethiopia, that survival of local civil society relied on ongoing relationships with international actors who worked with them in solidarity on a range of human rights and other issues. Service delivery may be closing for Oxfam in some countries, but solidarity itself, especially on an issue like civic space, can actually be strengthened. Indeed Oxfam’s work on inequality gives a good indication of what can be done.
When ICSOs are facing significant income loss and for many staff members, the loss of their own day-to-day livelihoods, or confronting COVID-19 in their own personal and professional lives, adding ‘closing civic space’ to the list of things they need to worry about, seems like a very tall order. But civil society’s survival relies on it being front and centre of any strategy right now and beyond.
This page is part of a series of COVID-19 resource pages that we are creating to help civil society actors.
Click here to view all available pages.
Click here for our latest events news.
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.
1. Staying up-to-Date
- A billion people live in the slums of the world’s megacities—and they’re being missed by coronavirus plans (Fast Company)
Sprawling urban areas in Brazil, Nigeria and Bangladesh are all seeing COVID-19 infections rise rapidly.
- Africa facing a quarter of a billion coronavirus cases, WHO predicts (The Guardian)
Africa will have fewer deaths than Europe and US because of its younger population and other lifestyle factors
- Coronavirus in Africa: Contained or unrecorded? (BBC)
Africa has had less than 100,000 cases so far, but WHO experts believe the continent will have a prolonged outbreak over a few years – and, aid workers say, the huge focus on containing the virus has led to other health issues being neglected. Here, five BBC reporters give a snapshot of what is happening in their countries.
- Coronavirus: World Bank warns 60m at risk of ‘extreme poverty’ (BBC)
Up to 60m people will be pushed into “extreme poverty” by the coronavirus warns the president of the World Bank.
- COVID-19 pandemic has derailed progress on sustainable development goals, says WHO (The BMJ)
The rate of progress towards the United Nations’ sustainable development goals is too slow and is being further “thrown off track” by the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization says.
- COVID-19 to slash global economic output by $8.5 trillion over the next two years (United Nations)
A forecast by the UN Statistical Division estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely cause 34.3 million people to fall below the extreme poverty line in 2020, with 56% of this occurring in Africa. An additional 130 million people may join the ranks of people living in extreme poverty by 2030. The pandemic is disproportionately hurting low-skilled, low-wage jobs and further widen inequality within and between countries.
- DRC has seen epidemics before, but COVID-19’s toll on older people leaves me sleepless (The Guardian)
Anatole Bandu, country representative for HelpAge in DR Congo, gives a testimony on the deadly impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the elder population in Kinshasa.
- How data can mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls (webinar) (Devex)
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have been more willing to share their data. This development is timely, given that the need for data-driven approaches — allowing greater impact and agility — is more critical than ever, particularly for women and girls.
- Power in the Pandemic (Podcast) (Oxfam)
This new podcast captures voice from across the world about their experiences of the coronavirus. This first episode considers how COVID-19 has made us rethink power structures, with David Mwambari on a Post-Corona, Pan-African vision and why now is the time to decolonise, and the effects of the virus on social movements and narratives.
- Social distancing: When extreme weather and coronavirus collide (BBC)
People being displaced by extreme weather events around the world are being forced to break COVID-19 social distancing safety guidelines, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies.
- The problem with predicting coronavirus apocalypse in Africa (Al Jazeera)
Claims that Africa will be hit the worst by the pandemic ignore African epidemiological know-how and action.
- The World Food Program’s Coronavirus Fight—and How You Can Help (Singularity Hub)
To make sure WFP’s programmes are disrupted as little as possible, it is looking to implement creative, tech-driven solutions to food supply chain, production, and delivery systems—and innovative startups and individuals can help.
Biodiversity and Climate Change
Civic Space and Human Rights
- How Africa can reduce COVID-19’s impact on displaced persons (Institute for Security Studies)
Africa’s 25.2 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons are some of the most vulnerable groups to COVID-19. This article explores the ways in which African states can protect these vulnerable groups.
- Imagining our Post-Pandemic Futures (Open Global Rights)
COVID-19 is challenging the human rights movement to adapt, transform, and look ahead—so as to meet urgent demands now while laying the groundwork for a better future. This Up Close series explores the glimpses this pandemic has provided of what a better future could look like and asks just what kind of human rights practice is needed now to get us there.
Data and Digital
- Four Pathways to Better Decisions (Global Dashboard)
How do you make good decisions when you’re playing (COVID-19) whack-a-mole? Here are four recommendations to improve decision-making: (i) form an independent red-team, (ii) empower a ‘mole-spotting’ unit, (iii) embrace foresight to manage risks and (iv) build in real feedback loops. This is how experimentation feeds learning and defers to frontline expertise.
- Why coronavirus may make the world more accessible (BBC Future)
For many people with disabilities, options like remote working have been needed for years. Workplaces around the world have now made this shift. Are there other ways the world could become more accessible, too?
Pandemic Specific Consequences and Responses (economic, health & social impacts)
- Conflict & Resilience Monitor (The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes)
This weeks’ ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict Monitor identifies twelve African countries that may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 related social unrest, and in some cases, a violent conflict.
- COVID-19 in South Asia: India and Pakistan’s regional responses and China’s regional ambitions (podcast) (International Institute for Strategic Studies )
This podcast explores India’s and Pakistan’s responses to COVID-19 and how this may affect their relationship with China and the broader region of South Asia.
- How Covid-19 restrictions and the economic consequences are likely to impact migrant smuggling and cross-border trafficking in persons to Europe and North America (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)
COVID-19 travel and movement restrictions are not stopping the movement of people fleeing conflict, human rights abuses, violence and dangerous living conditions, while the economic consequences of the pandemic are likely to lead to an increase in smuggling of migrants and trafficking in person flows from the most affected countries to more affluent destinations.
- The Pandemic Exposes Dangers of the Informal Economy (Foreign Affairs)
The pandemic has deepened the precariousness of informal work in the US and OECD countries, just as it has in India and other developing countries. The informal sector, incl. gig work, arose out of decisions to dismantle welfare programmes, labour protection, reject or weaken universal health care.
- With the global focus on COVID-19 pandemic, measles remains a silent killer in parts of Africa (Doctors without Borders)
This article describes the devastating impact of measles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Chad. It argues that with international attention focused on COVID-19, the neglect of other illnesses could create another health crisis in these areas.
- A Call to Action on Open Budgets during the COVID-19 Response (From Poverty to Power)
Countries now have a choice about where their response to this crisis will lead — either to less transparency and trust or to more openness and accountability. More than 100 organisations have signed the Call to Action urging governments to choose the more open path.
- A Perfect Storm: Domestic violence, economic hardship and COVID-19 in Latin America (Care International)
We are faced with a historic responsibility to help shape whether COVID-19 is remembered as a moment in which global solidarity is forged and political will is mobilised in support of a more equal, inclusive, sustainable and just world order where women and girls are central to the response – or whether gender equality (in Latin America) is set back by decades.
- Corruption risks in Southern Africa’s response to the coronavirus (Transparency International)
Six Southern African chapters from Transparency International and the Botswana Center for Public Integrity are urging the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to accelerate governments’ response to the global pandemic and ensure that additional lives are not lost to corruption.
- COVID-19 and mixed population movements: emerging dynamics, risks and opportunities (UNHCR / IOM)
In this discussion paper, the UN agencies UNHCR (refugees) and IOM (migrants) take stock of what they are already observing and anticipate developing as the COVID-19 crisis evolves in countries of origin, countries hosting large refugee and migrant populations, countries of transit as well as countries of destination.
- Rethinking anti-corruption for COVID-19 (From Poverty to Power)
In many countries, corruption and governance constraints will limit the rapid scaling up of responses to COVID-19. This will not only undermine treatment responses but result in cycles of unsustainable lockdowns and massive economic deprivation.
- The COVID Crisis Is Reinforcing the Hunger Industrial Complex (MIT Press Reader)
In the United States, miles-long lines of motorists waiting for a few sacks of groceries have become seared into the public imagination demonstrating that charity has become the governing metaphor of the pandemic response, replacing justice, which itself has been placed on a ventilator.
- World leaders unite in call for a people’s vaccine against COVID-19 (Oxfam)
More than 140 world leaders and experts have signed an open letter calling on all governments to unite behind a people’s vaccine against COVID-19. The letter, which marks the most ambitious position yet set out by world leaders on a COVID-19 vaccine, demands that all vaccines, treatments and tests be patent-free, mass-produced, distributed fairly and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.
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.