Ann Marie Smith
Julien Landry

How are Civil Society Organizations adapting in the pandemic?

Guest post by Julien Landry and Ann Marie Smith

What is possible today that was not possible before the pandemic?

In early April, we brought together (on Zoom, of course) over a dozen seasoned activists, advocates and governance practitioners working on the ground in ten countries to share how COVID-19 is affecting them, their work, and their own learning as practitioners.

In a recent article, we lay out what we heard in response: For the tl;dr community, here’s a summary of our findings.

Seven of these practitioners, who are graduates of the Coady International Institute and contributors to Participedia’s growing global database of case studies in public participation, have written up snapshots of their work and reflections from the ground: from coordinating advocacy by landless farmers on adequate responses to COVID-19 (CSRC) and taking citizens’ pulse through novel channels (Sharecast) in Nepal, to organizing Community-based COVID-19 Task Forces in Ethiopia (LIAE); from rethinking emergency preparedness in Cameroon to using innovative channels to promote children’s and youth’s voice in Kenya (MCCRN), community-based rights awareness in Nigeria (PWAN), and women’s rights advocacy in Ghana (NETRIGHT).

What do these diverse stories tell us about the roles of civil society and civic agency during the pandemic? While many actions focus on the basic and immediate needs that an emergency response requires (see previous post), many others hint at gradual shifts and emerging areas of agency.

Integrating COVID-19 alerts and drama in GBV and menstrual hygiene sensitization programs. Credit: CAGEAD

Information, transparency and trust: national challenges and local solutions

First, the crisis highlights the importance of transparency, as a bedrock of trust and accountability between citizens and governments. Sharecast’s work in Nepal reminds us that understanding citizen trust and satisfaction, based on accurate and timely information, is key to an effective response. Where trust and transparency are lacking, practitioners have had to contend with misinformation and misconceptions related to the virus, as in Nepal and Kenya, where people turn to alternative sources of information and traditional and religious practices for guidance.

At the national level, the lack of trust and transparency has had far-reaching implications for democratic institutions and politics. For instance, disruptions to the electoral process in Ethiopia and the post-electoral politics playing out in Cameroon, where a lack of trust resulted in alternative and parallel governance and service delivery in the pandemic.

Collaboration, relationship-building and shifting social contracts

The strategies that work are based on collaboration, both new and pre-existing, and often across sectors. New collaborations have been forged by NETRIGHT in Ghana and the children’s organizations in Kenya to address the crisis, while in Nigeria, it was PWAN’s prior advocacy with law enforcement agencies and community leaders that was critical in pivoting their COVID-19 advocacy. Even previously ineffective relationships are now improving – in Ethiopia “government leadership, faith-based organizations and community actors are working hand in hand unlike previous times.”

The shifting nature of collaboration and relationship-building is connected to broader questions about the roles, rights, and responsibilities of states and citizens. The crisis is affecting how social contracts are evolving and, in Nepal for instance, making evident the key intermediary role of civil society organizations (CSOs) and member-based organizations (MBOs) to facilitate this relationship in emergencies.

These stories also underscore the longer-term risks to civic agency posed by emergency measures. In Ghana, legal measures have further closed civic space, marginalizing some citizen groups and CSOs’ efforts to engage them. In Cameroon, the pandemic has compounded other crises facing the country, in particular in the English-speaking regions, where “the COVID-19 curfews do not represent a new phenomenon for […] residents,” who for the last three years spend about a hundred days per year in lockdown.

Digital technology, media, and mediated governance and advocacy

There are numerous stories about the adaptable, creative, and innovative use of technology to drive access, provide information, make and maintain connections, deliver services, foster transparency, enable participation, and seek accountability. Even the telephone has been key in Nepal and Nigeria, enabling Sharecast to conduct a novel nationwide survey, and PWAN to connect with communities through home-based rights awareness campaigns.

Virtual dialogue sessions between children, Members of Parliament, the Mombasa County Children Coordinator, CSOs and community leaders. [original photo altered to ensure anonymity]. Credit: Namadi Saka-Masika

Sharecast shows how technology-enabled data generation and accurate community-level perceptions and public opinion polls serve as a foundation to design appropriate, targeted messages for public awareness and safety, as well as for advocacy. PWAN’s work reminds us that a shift to technology-mediated engagement, while perhaps expanding the breadth of participation, comes with less depth in engagement. As in Mombasa County, where technology provides a virtual space for children’s voices at decision-making tables, the media becomes an intermediary in governance and accountability relationships, bringing with it implications around power, responsibility, and the ability to limit (e.g., prohibitive costs) or enable (e.g., access to a wider audience of rights holders) participation and advocacy.

Many practitioners have felt empowered by technology, embracing and expanding channels for their work and enhancing their resourcefulness and confidence in using virtual environments to pursue their accountability and engagement work. That said, there are ongoing challenges as virtual (and home-based) engagement comes with the increased potential for digital surveillance, a significant digital divide, other family obligations, and gender-related risks.

Gender dimensions and intersectional vulnerabilities

Finally, these stories confirm what is already widely acknowledged: the virus is not gender blind and governance around this issue cannot be either. Where government fail in an equitable response, many civil society groups are trying to address gaps through intersectional and gender-focused interventions.

In Ghana, “women constitute the majority of primary caregivers [and] face [an] increased burden to provide for their [families]” while in Kenya, the scaling down of some child protection services and school closures has left many parents unable to carry out their roles as duty bearers – in providing “proper nutrition, safety, healthcare and education for their children.”

In Ethiopia, high-risk groups (e.g., street children, commercial sex workers, people living with HIV/AIDS) have been disproportionately affected by the virus and at the center of LIAE’s community-based response.

In Nigeria, Physical distancing has curtailed PWAN’s advocacy for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, as they can no longer conduct confidential interviews and represent survivors in court.

In Nepal, delayed communication between remote communities and the government is affecting the responsiveness, effectiveness, and quality of services provision. 

These snapshots and stories show us a glimpse of what might be possible, as the avenues for civic agency and community-engaged responses shift. Certainly, strengthening collaboration, owning the local, navigating a mediated engagement landscape, and applying an intersectional and gender focus will be central as we continue to ask the question.

Ann Marie Smith is a Learning and Organisational Effectiveness Consultant with over thirty years of experience in Jamaica and the Caribbean. She currently leads the Government of Jamaica Public Sector Learning Framework Project.

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