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Supporting civil society during Covid-19

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TAKING OVER?—Digital space

By Grey Kalindekafe:

The Covid-19 crisis poses several problems for development generally, not least in the health sector, and there are momentous corruption risks during a pandemic. As the current pandemic takes hold around the globe, donors and multilateral organisations are planning large payments of funds to confront the crisis.

Yet there is apprehension that these funds are at risk of corruption that will extremely impact health outcomes. Amongst the host of accountability and anti-corruption measures available, the use of civil society organisations has become part of the conventional practice of donors’ anti-corruption efforts.

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There are several ways in which the civil society can be roped in anti-corruption programmes that play to its professed strength when acting as a watchdog. The civil society has an important role to play in ensuring funds to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic reach their terminus.

Civil society-led, bottom-up accountability (like any anti-corruption approach) is not a panacea. As with any intervention, it is imperative to contemplate the context, capacity, the motivation of actors (civil society included) etc.

However, civil society has had some accomplishment in playing crucial roles – from watchdog to informing citizens about their rights and entitlements – and improving service delivery and development outcomes.

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During the current pandemic, bottom-up accountability approaches are essential in guaranteeing that funds allocated for pandemic responses reach their intended destinations. We understand civil society to broadly be the space between the public and private sectors, as stated in a 2019 UNODC report.

Whilst such definitions can be found in numerous policies or practice documents, a closer look at aid financing to civil society is significantly biased in favour of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) rather than the civil society organisation (CSO).

During the on-going pandemic, the civil society is facing several constraints on its ability to carry out its work, as a result of lockdowns, distancing and quarantine measures. Despite these challenges, bottom-up accountability approaches are crucial to ensuring funds for the pandemic reach their intended destinations.

NGOs, donors and multilaterals can support such approaches by drawing on several examples of online civic engagement. There are wider risks related to the accountability of governments and private companies.

In normal times, civil society organisations SOs would be well placed to monitor and report on governments and private companies, as well as hold them accountable for their actions. The current crisis poses several challenges to the roles of civil society: monitoring, accountability, advocacy and promoting citizens’ participation as follows:

  • Asymmetry of power between the Executive and accountability mechanisms in some contexts, the legitimacy of Executive power may increase. It is the Executive that is largely responsible for setting policies and an agenda for action to deal with the crisis. Executive rhetoric that emphasizes that now is a time for action may resonate with the public. This could make it more difficult for both vertical and horizontal accountability mechanisms to carry out their functioning and gain momentum.
  • Restriction of movement prevents activities that require meeting physically. This is particularly the case for civil society’s social accountability role, as most social accountability tools require engaging local communities to come together to participate in initiatives. This is not possible when social distancing measures are in place. Community meetings, social audits, and group sessions – the mainstays of most social accountability initiatives – are difficult to achieve under strict distancing or quarantine measures. Similarly, demonstrations or protests are hindered by such measures.
  • Lockdowns also prevent access to information if this access was previously available from work, an educational institution, a library, or an internet café. Thus, the ability to engage digitally is reduced to access via mobile phones
  • Online services are costly in countries which impose ‘social media’ taxes. As education, faith-based gatherings, and social interaction have moved online due to lockdowns, there is a strong pressure to waive such taxes during the Covid-19 crisis. This has been exemplified by the protest against the OTT tax in Uganda.
  • Gaining momentum for civic initiatives is difficult. During times of crisis it can be very difficult to gain momentum and participants for a cause are focused on the emergency. Methods for reaching out have also moved online, which may reduce the potential for broader engagement.
  • Many governments around the world are implementing distancing and quarantine measures and civil society networks warn of the potential for curbing civic engagement and restricting fundamental rights. For example, Hungary, Philippines and Bangladesh have introduced emergency legislation that is being reported as an excuse to restrict human rights and further reduce the space for civil society. Similarly, according to Civicus, a global alliance of CSOs, internet restrictions are in place in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Five opportunities for civil society during the pandemic as ‘half’ the global population is under some form of lockdown or restriction of movement, it is tempting to view the current situation as a global paralysis.

But seen differently, the lockdowns may stimulate creativity and offer new opportunities for civil society. It is tempting to view the current situation as a global paralysis; but the lockdowns may stimulate creativity and offer new opportunities for civil society.

  • Potential to increase legitimacy of civil society in recent years, questions have been raised regarding the legitimacy, accountability, and relevance of CSOs. A 2017 report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies provides examples of some of the challenges facing civil society. The current crisis may offer opportunities for CSOs to respond to some of these criticisms through building broader participation by a network of online reporters and activists with strong links to the communities in which they live. This may counter the tendency of NGOs to be driven by donor demands and the need to secure funding.
  • The current situation has released an urge to participate in civic activities using other means as demonstrated by the hundreds of Facebook groups or crowd-sourced mapping projects sharing information or organising assistance. Some of this engagement could be channelled into constructive support and alternative forms of civic engagement to combat corruption, if the framework to do so is created and made known to the right audience.
  • Increase in information as ‘whole’ societies begin to interact digitally, information is more likely to be available online, either through official web portals and social media or distributed via closed networks. Tech giants have joined forces to, for example, filter out misinformation and remove advertisements for fake protection gear. Such interventions from the platform providers are of some help, but do not remove the need for the specialised skills needed to harvest and properly verify and validate information. There are NGOs engaged in such projects, and many of them are organized under the Humanitarian2Humanitarian network. In a global crisis, giant corporations, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, gear up to be present and active. These networks facilitate information sharing and monitoring options, but only to a certain extent.
  • Building of new alliances the current situation provides opportunities to engage with other types of CSOs beyond NGOs, such as churches, scouting groups, professional associations (e.g., nurses unions), and other membership-based organisations.

In the Philippines Textbook Count case, local scouting troops were engaged to check the quality and quantity of textbooks and helped ensure that the books reached their intended destination. In that case the scouts were willing to engage, as their action corresponded with the service ethos of the Scouting Association and was directed at an educational aim rather than an anti-corruption one.

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