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Supporting civil society in the Global South, in its response to COVID-19

March 25, 2020

It is essential that international organisations continue to support, and where possible increase, their support for civil society in developing countries facing the ravages of COVID 19

Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society was an explanation of how civilisation had evolved, seen through an eighteenth century Edinburgh Enlightenment lens. 150 years later, Antonio Gramsci saw ‘civil society’ as the non-governmental dynamics through which consent was subtly obtained by the bourgeoisie to maintain their dominance of the political economy. More recently, especially in the international humanitarian and development sector, the term has frequently been used more functionally than analytically. It’s become a label for well-meaning citizens operating alongside but independently of businesses or the state. A thriving civil society is seen as critical to peace, development and humanitarian outcomes because of the services provided by civil society, and because of its importance in holding those in power to account, and providing a voice for citizens, especially in less democratic places.

As such, ‘civil society’ has often become the shorthand among humanitarian and development workers for civil society organisations (CSOs): the formally constituted NGOs and community-based outfits, often known by their acronyms, with whom international organisations increasingly work, and whose activities they fund. CSOs play an essential role in all societies where they are allowed to flourish.

As we know, as citizens ourselves, people often work together in less formal, more temporary ways that are essential, too. When I asked my colleagues in Uganda many years ago to come up with their functional definition of a ‘strong’ civil society they produced the following, which I still find helpful today.

  • Civil society includes all institutions and groupings other than government, political organisations, businesses or family structures.
  • These may be long-term or temporary, formal or informal.
  • They play a critical role in pursuing, defending, fulfilling and responding to the interests, rights, needs and responsibilities of their constituencies, and linking them to others in civil society, and to the private sector and government.
  • We regard our civil society as strong, when we are able to fulfil this role effectively and peacefully.

Civil society in the Corona pandemic

I am fortunate to live in a country with one of the largest economies in the world, with a highly competent civil service, and many decades of democratic practice under its belt. Nevertheless, working at home in the UK last week, where I had been ‘self-isolating’ due to the COVID-19 virus, I was reminded constantly in the radio and TV news, and from messages from friends and family, of the essential role of civil society here. People offering to collect elderly neighbours’ shopping or prescriptions, local residents’ associations setting up systems through which people can request and provide help to others, the local food bank ramping up its offer, doctors’ representatives on the TV demanding better protective equipment for their members, trades unions and business associations advising the government on how to support workers through the crisis: civil society is playing its role in myriad ways. Without it, no matter how effective our health service and other governmental services, we would be hugely worse off than we are. I’m certain historians of the pandemic will rightly judge that the UK’s strong and effective civil society made a major difference to the outcomes.

How much more important is civil society then, for citizens of poorer countries with less effective governments, in dealing with Corona? Citizens working together play a critical role where the ratio of hospital beds, doctors and nurses to people are far lower; where washing one’s hands regularly for 20 seconds with soap under warm running water is unattainable for most; where ‘underlying health conditions’ are the norm for people of all ages; where public services are underfunded, under-skilled and over stretched; where the tax take and public borrowing capacity are far too low to support businesses and workers the way rich world governments are trying to do; and where decisions affecting people’s lives are based on limited data, and too often influenced by ethnic affinity or corruption.

COVID-19 may not be as susceptible to the heat of tropical climates as was at first hoped. If so, it will spread across warmer, often poorer parts of the world fairly easily, despite such places being less ‘connected’ than Europe, say. One has only to imagine the over-crowded commuter taxis of places such as Nairobi or Kinshasa, or the homes in which too many Kenyan or Congolese commuters are obliged to live, to see how easily the virus could take hold, in communities where living conditions and livelihood options will make quarantine and health care extremely challenging.

In these circumstances, people will rely even more on civil society, than those of us who live in Europe. I have no doubt, having worked in many parts of Africa for more than 30 years, that people will rise to the challenge. I guess this will focus largely on the provision of services: health care where the skills, equipment and supplies are available; social services everywhere; and economic support too – which will rightly be seen as a social service in many communities.

Where governments have limited capacity to respond to crisis, civil society may be less effective than one would hope, in shaping that response and holding their governments to account. Nevertheless, that role will be important, too. Women’s organisations will no doubt have to raise their voices in support of women’s concerns. Associations of HIV-positive people are common across Africa, and may have to stand up for their members to ensure they continue to receive vital drugs and services during the crisis. Health professionals’ associations will try to guide their government’s allocation of resources and public information campaigns. And civil society organisations will be vital partners of governmental and international efforts to raise awareness and organise people locally to help them stay safe. A recent position paper by the Alliance for Empowering Partnership makes this point very eloquently in a recent position paper.

If crises often bring out the best in people, they can also expose our less attractive traits. Already, there is evidence that fear of COVID-19 is fuelling – and perhaps being whipped up to fuel – anti-foreigner sentiment in some countries.  This is the kind of situation where Adam Ferguson’s emphasis on the ‘civil’ in civil society comes into play. Citizens who deplore the virus of xenophobia that the biological virus has uncovered are quite rightly standing up against it, calling for people to pull together, and reminding us that everyone has a right to be safe, whatever their citizenship; and pointing out the political and conflict entrepreneurs who would take advantage of this crisis for their political ends.

The need to support civil society now

International agencies – donors, the UN, international NGOs – provide essential support in the countries where poverty and inadequate systems make them particularly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. It’s therefore essential that they include support to civil society as a major component in their programmes. This means not only getting funds and supplies, and technical know-how to the more formal organisations as soon as possible; but also providing support to citizens raising their voices for fairness and tolerance, and against discrimination; and channelling funds to CSOs who have a track record of supporting the less visible, small-scale, local neighbourhood initiatives of citizens who are simply trying to help their neighbours informally and temporarily, because that is the right thing to do.

Given the uncertainty and volatility which COVID-19 brings with it, it would also be helpful – as has been suggested to me by Rod MacLeod of the civil society support organisation INTRAC – for international agencies to loosen the terms under which they provide support to civil society organisations. For example by offering longer periods of support (a year seems reasonable), lessening some of the long-drawn out budget and planning negotiations that often seem to be needed before funding can flow, and committing larger proportions of their funding than usual to organisational costs and overheads, which may be harder for local organisations to fund from other sources during the coming months.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 25, 2020 2:02 pm

    Hii Phil,
    Happy to know that you are fine and in self-confinement. Thank you for walking us into the complex world and work of civil societies in developing countries, especially Africa. Indeed CSOs are already, to the best of their knowledge and capacities, mobilizing in several countries. However, given the nature of the peril (which nobody had foreseen) it will imply a lot of trial and errors. But definitely we SHALL overcome. The world has battled and won over more dangerous than Coronavirus. This time again, we’ll emerge stronger !!!

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