What can we learn from 200 case studies of ’emergent agency in a time of Covid’?

March 17, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

The ‘Emergent Agency in a Time of Covid-19‘ research project is churning out some interesting findings and a flurry of webinars. Here Niranjan Nampoothiri and Filippo Artuso give some headline findings on the 200 case studies Niranjan has analysed and coded. We aim to publish the database later this year.

Niranjan will present his findings on 6th April, 12.30 UTC – register for webinar here. Before then, on March 24th , 1.30pm UK time, there’s a chance to hear from those working on the different thematic clusters (youth, social movements, women’s organizations, peace-building etc etc). Background here. Register here.

A property owner accidently sends a mass email to his tenants demanding rent and the tenants use the list of addresses to organise a rent strike; rising inequality and the increasing number of people in need leads to the birth of multiple soup kitchens in urban peripheries; 400 Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) form a coalition to monitor the government’s COVID-19 response…these are only a few of the many stories of agency that emerged from the pandemic and that we felt were worth collecting in our database of case studies. Many have noticed how the pandemic has been disruptive to civil society – with halted projects, diverted funds, repurposed CSOs, etc – but this disruption has also spawned the emergence of new actors, issues, coalitions, and types of action. This post will unravel some of the patterns we discovered while reading the 200 cases in the database.

Where CSOs fell short, communities stepped up

Many CSOs and CBOs (community based organisations) have had to repurpose themselves and step into emergency relief mode during the pandemic to cover for people’s basic needs like providing food and shelter. With the wide scale of assistance needed, governments have been falling short and civil society have been filling the gaps. However, severe constraints on physical mobility, unequal internet accessibility in local communities, and the lack of flexible funding put several CSOs in a tough spot.

Responding to Covid

Informal networks and communities were not weighed down by these constraints and played a critical role in response to COVID-19 and the many economic and social vulnerabilities exposed by lockdowns and other disruptions. Grassroot organisations, mutual aid, neighbourhood associations, and community-based organisations could mobilise and provide assistance to the needy and themselves – as happened with the solidarity kitchens and many other examples. The physical proximity of locally-based communities helped them overcome problems faced by larger organisations, such as physical distance and dependence on the internet. These networks and communities were also able to develop new strategies for service delivery thanks to their knowledge of local communities – for example mapping vulnerability in an Indian village in order to make sure government budgets provided medicines and food to the needy; awareness raising in the Brazilian favelas;  and many other forms of mutual aid.

The pandemic as ‘social glue’ for coalition-building

The pandemic has pushed networks of activists and organisations to connect and work collaboratively, building coalitions within civil society and with businesses to organise a coordinated response. Coalitions allowed everyone to use their comparative advantage and fill in for others’ weaknesses. Initiatives like ‘Cape Town Together’ or ‘Frena la curva’ (Brake the Curve) are perfect examples of activists, organisations, communities, entrepreneurs, and urban laboratories coming together to organise a community-led response and raise awareness, build solidarity, and provide essential services. In all this, the lines between formal and informal civil society have been blurred.

We have also seen many examples of the state tapping into civil society’s networks to organise the response – or of civil society stepping up to cover for government’s shortcomings. In India, government’s Ministers have appealed to religious leaders and faith-based organisations to promote positive practices – referring to religious leaders as the real ‘Corona Warriors’. Elsewhere, where state facilities were unable to help isolating HIV positive persons,NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and communities were able to organize home delivery of ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) kits. .

The pandemic has also given an opportunity for civil society to reclaim its legitimacy in otherwise closed spaces, as in Zimbabwe, where the government’s failure to respond to the pandemic has allowed CSOs to develop new identities and focus on supporting the basic needs of the population.

Structural shortcomings exposed

Some of the key structural issues that underpinned the evolving crises were the lack of social security and growing inequality. The lack of social security and the economic consequences of the pandemic only worsened inequality, further feeding into much of the civic action during the pandemic, sparking healthcare protests, labour protests, women’s solidarity networks, and food riots.

Stirring change in the social contract

The pandemic is shaking up state-society relations. COVID-19 has seen rising authoritarianism, surveillance, and restrictions on freedoms. Simultaneously, this pandemic has been characterised by increased civic action in the form of protests, coalitions, strikes, and other forms of action. We could be witnessing a reconfiguration of the social contract, with a change in the relationship between the citizens and the state. People have asserted their expectation of a more contributing state in the provision of fair livelihoods, freedoms, rights, and social security, while states have failed in providing equally for everyone and aggressively attacked those who demanded change. The vacuum left by governments in providing emergency services has caused a competition between actors to claim new spaces. There are instances of disaster capitalism at work, activists pushing for radical change such as the Green New Deal, and the state clamping down on civil society. Overall, there has been a noticeable reduction in online and offline spaces for civil society, which begs the questions of whether state-society relations are fundamentally changed and of how we can harness this change to build better futures instead of lurching towards authoritarianism.

No change

Harnessing the flexibility of Digital – but with the risk of leaving some behind

A cross-cutting theme that has in some way shaped all others is the rising importance of digital platforms. Digital has been a valuable organising tool for both service provision and for organising, advocating, and protesting. Lockdown measures pushed more organisations and communities to work online, with several movements, organisations and communities using social media to mobilise people, advocate for change, raise resources, brainstorm and strategize – we have seen this in many forms, from the Nepalese activist broadcasting his 167km protest walk on Facebook, to domestic workers’ unionizing via WhatsApp in Brazil, and the Xinka people of Guatemala using online tools for organising coupled with other ancestral practices. This acceleration in digital adoption has simultaneously increased the need for digital literacy, access to the internet and technology, exacerbating the pre-existent divide and the risk of isolating specific people (read gender digital divide, but also older people) and poorer urban or rural communities. Some activists and organisations have responded to this gap with innovative solutions such as the #ShareTheWifi campaign in Spain, or the distribution of free solar-radios for educating pupils in Kenya. However, digital has also played a part in the reshaping of the social contract, with restrictions on the digital space becoming much more common to silence dissent .

Growing space for younger generations

Due to their advanced digital literacy, young people have been a key demographic in the COVID-19 response. Though digital activism is not new, different forms of digital activism have been witnessed such as people-less protests, solo online protests, and others.

The opportunity for CSOs (and society at large) is now to learn from the pandemic experience, becoming more resilient and impactful, adapting their practices to become closer to the communities they serve; and to highlight the exposed structural inequalities to demand change in the direction of more egalitarian societies.