Civil society was not ready for COVID-19. In this, the first of a series of articles aiming to assess changes needed to ensure a stronger supporting environment for civil society, Benjamin Bellegy (WINGS), Chris Worman (TechSoup) and Lysa John (CIVICUS) discuss the investments needed in civil society and its philanthropic and technical infrastructure, and the actions we must take to emerge wiser and stronger from the current crisis and to be prepared for crises to come.
It seems ironic that only a few months ago, we were celebrating 2019 as the ‘Year of People Power’ and a mass global uprising against autocratic regimes across the world seemed achievable. At a stroke, we have experienced the abrupt removal of fundamental freedoms that human rights defenders have fought to protect. And yet, civil society across the world has found new ways to respond to the outbreak. Organisations around the world have provided food, health care and other essential services to those in need. They have shared information, undertaken analyses and coordinated the actions needed to reinforce accountability and pursue responsive policy outcomes, all at a scale that we haven’t seen in years.
However, the pandemic is forcing us to tackle some glaring distortions in the way we operate as a sector. One such distortion that is painfully visible as a result of the pandemic is the extreme fragility of our support systems. The CIVICUS Monitor points to several alarming trends underlying the measures taken to contain the pandemic including unjustified restrictions on access to information; detention of activists for disseminating critical information; crackdowns on human rights defenders and media outlets; violations of the right to privacy and sweeping emergency powers.