I’m a huge fan of the work of Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who regularly contribute brilliant pieces like this one to FP2P on issues of democracy and civil society. They (along with Richard Youngs) have just published a really useful survey of the impact of Covid-19 on civil society worldwide, drawing on insights from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network. If you have time please read the original, which is stuffed with great case studies and links. But for the tl;dr community, I’ve taken the liberty of chopping it down to something closer to blog length.
Government responses to the new coronavirus pandemic are disrupting civil society globally. Lockdowns and physical distancing measures are confining people to their homes and upending their ability to meet, organize, and advocate. Many civil society organizations have been forced to put planned activities on hold; others are scrambling to shift their work online. More worryingly, illiberal leaders in a number of countries are taking advantage of the crisis to tighten their political grip by weakening checks and balances, imposing censorship, and expanding state surveillance—all at a time when civil society groups are less able to fight back. Such measures pose a significant threat to civic activism. In many countries, restrictive laws already had been squeezing civil society before the crisis hit. The pandemic provides a convenient cover for governments to further tilt the balance of power in their favor.
Foreboding though this picture is, the crisis is also catalyzing new forms of civic mobilization. Civil society actors in many countries, democratic and nondemocratic alike, are rising to the pandemic challenge in myriad small and large ways. They are filling in gaps left by governments to provide essential services, spread information about the virus, and protect marginalized groups. In some places they are partnering with businesses and public authorities to support local communities strapped for economic relief. They are also forging new coalitions to hold stumbling or recalcitrant governments to account.
Of course, not all civil society initiatives are inherently prodemocratic, and not all civic groups will play constructive roles in the crisis response. Yet the current surge in civic organizing nevertheless provides an opportunity to highlight the vital role of civil society in sustaining vibrant and healthy communities and democracy more widely. International supporters of civil society should step up their efforts to bolster emerging local initiatives, amplify civil society voices in pandemic responses, and throw their weight behind efforts to preempt further government restrictions on democratic rights.
Activism in the Pandemic
Pandemic-related activism naturally varies widely across contexts, but several common dimensions stand out.
Across different cities and countries, citizens are coming together in new voluntary associations and mutual aid societies. In Tunisia, for example, more than 100,000 people joined a Facebook group bringing together volunteers to help fight the virus. The group now has 24 coordination centers across the country; its volunteers have raised money, collected medical supplies, disinfected public spaces, and worked with regional authorities to identify families with urgent financial needs. Although all of these groups aim to fill people’s immediate needs, some of the activists leading the charge in the United States and elsewhere also seek to advance a broader political mission: strengthening community resilience to future shocks and building the basis of new social movements for political and economic change.
In addition to new mutual aid initiatives, many established civil society groups have shifted their work from longer-term projects to emergency relief. For most development and humanitarian organizations, this is a natural shift. But even organizations that typically work on human rights and democracy issues are repurposing to address the immediate public health crisis, often with a focus on protecting vulnerable groups.
Civil society actors are also playing crucial roles in informing communities about the virus. Disinformation and false narratives about COVID-19 are spreading quickly, in some places exacerbated by political leaders. Such rumors can aggravate community tensions, spark xenophobic violence, or lead citizens to ignore sound public health advice. Civil society groups have rallied to counter this trend, drawing on their experience with community education in remote or underserved areas. In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro continues to downplay the seriousness of the crisis, civil society groups have joined together in a new national coalition to spread awareness of the virus in the country’s poorest neighborhoods using the hashtag #coronanasperiferias (#coronaintheperipheries).
Some civic groups have sought to push back against governments that are using the pretext of fighting “fake news” about the virus to criminalize online and offline speech and strengthen state control over media outlets—such as in Hungary, where a new law punishes anyone who publishes “false” information on the pandemic with up to five years in jail.
New Forms of Advocacy
Civil society groups are going beyond relief provision to spearhead efforts to hold governments to account for ineffective or undemocratic crisis responses. Organizations at both the international and national levels are monitoring and speaking out against cases of overreach and abuse of power. In Nigeria, the Action Group on Free Civic Space is documenting and analyzing coronavirus-related government measures as well as violence by public authorities. The group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights has launched a hotline to report human rights violations related to the crisis and has successfully filed a court application on behalf of citizens who were assaulted by police officers enforcing lockdowns.
In other places, civic actors are demanding that governments step up sluggish response efforts. In Brazil and Chile, citizens have shown their discontent with government responses by participating in pot-banging protests from their balconies. In some countries, medical professionals and associations have spoken up publicly against government incompetence.
Lastly, many civil society groups are highlighting the plight of vulnerable groups and pushing for targeted protections. In Singapore, for example, NGOs have successfully put pressure on the government to improve living conditions in a migrant worker dormitory where foreign workers have been confined to contain the pandemic. In South Africa, NGOs have pressured the government to stop evictions while the crisis lasts. Moreover, women’s groups around the world have been both organizing to provide help for those who may be locked down with abusive partners or family members and pressing governments to make additional services available.
New Kinds of Protest
In a number of countries, the crisis has also sparked new forms of labor mobilization in sectors that have remained essential during the pandemic and that often rely heavily on contractors, including delivery businesses, warehouses, and construction. In the United States, for example, workers in grocery delivery businesses and Amazon warehouses have protested against inadequate safety measures and insufficient pay. A similar trend has emerged in Turkey, with workers protesting increasing workloads and safety risks or mobilizing against unpaid furloughs and lay-offs. Although organizing among precarious workers is not a new phenomenon, the emphasis on health and safety at work is a noteworthy trend.
Several questions will be crucial in determining whether green shoots grow into trees—whether the pandemic ends up undercutting or rejuvenating civil society in many countries over time.
In recent years, many governments have been stoking mistrust in civic actors by framing them as unaccountable, elite, or foreign-sponsored actors disconnected from the communities they claim to represent. Yet as civic groups step in to deliver essential services to affected communities and fill gaps in government responses, they may be able to grow their constituencies and social networks and ultimately strengthen their legitimacy in the public eye. Newly forged alliances with businesses and community-based networks may help traditional civil society organizations reach wider networks of people.
From Local to National
Most of the emerging civic dynamism in the pandemic context is local as communities come together to cope with the immediate crisis. This pattern reinforces a shift from professionalized civil society organizations toward localized, informal civic activism, a trend that was already underway in many places. Yet it is still unclear to what extent local citizen initiatives can sustain their momentum after the immediate crisis subsides and whether grassroots-oriented networks can build broader reform coalitions around national political debates.
From Emergency Response to Political Reform
Many civic actors and their supporters note that the current crisis—and the inequities it brings to the fore—may present a unique opportunity to advance more ambitious reform agendas. The current global economic disruption could open the door to deep-reaching socioeconomic and political reforms by showcasing the need for stronger social safety nets, more robust healthcare investments, greater equity, and better global and national governance generally.
In the coming months, a key trend to watch is whether global and domestic civic actors are able to take up these broader reform priorities—whether they have the capacity to identify entry points for larger-scale advocacy in the current context. In some countries, government actors are likely to push back against civic groups that move from emergency service delivery toward broader political demands.
Pulling Together or Apart
Much of the new activism emerging at the local level appears to be collaborative. Groups are joining together and, in some cases, working with local businesses and government authorities. Yet some civil society groups already note that they are not being consulted by state authorities designing national responses, even though research on past epidemics has shown that government efforts are most effective when they draw on community action and input in order to decentralize responses. One question going forward is thus the extent to which governments will be willing to work with and encourage local initiatives, rather than try to maintain top-down control.
Around the world, the crisis is also reinforcing existing political fault lines—between the national and local levels, between opposing political camps, or between different religious and ethnic groups. It is possible that civil society will replicate these fissures, resulting in increasing polarization as different groups fight over scarce resources or use the instability arising from the virus to push narrow agendas. That said, some emergent forms of citizen solidarity may be able to transfer into the civic domain, encouraging new alliances across existing divides.
Surviving the Economic Crisis
Lastly, it is likely that even as new forms of civic mobilization and solidarity have emerged in a context of lockdowns and other restrictions, the looming economic crisis will hit all forms of civil society hard. Established organizations may lose important sources of funding as foundations and governments slash their budgets; independent media organizations are already seeing a rapid decline in advertising revenues. This trend may accelerate rise in informal activism as compared with formal activism and accelerate a consolidation in the formal NGO sector.
Bolstering Transnational Support
As public and private actors that are committed to supporting civil society transnationally hurry to adapt to the new global context, they should prioritize flexible assistance, connecting civil society actors to larger pandemic-related support packages, and fortifying policy stances on the value of civil society generally.
Featured image: Red de Cuidados Antirracistas, Barcelona