Wolfgang Jamann, International Civil Society Centre (ICSC)
We are yet to see the full implications of the global pandemic, its health, social and economic consequences, and the longevity of its impacts. Corona is a crisis on top of many crises for many around the globe. It exacerbates economic and digital inequalities, accelerates societal divides and has brought conditions in which populists thrive. And it challenges the international community to find solutions for big threats like climate change, in a faster and more radical fashion.
There are many good things happening. Solidarity and empathy are on the increase, particularly with those that have little means to protect themselves. Appreciation of caring for another has risen. Civil society actors are seen at the forefront of many responses to the crisis, particularly actors who are rooted in local communities. And the value of cooperation and collaboration when facing big threats is becoming clearer and clearer.
Civil society is in the middle of all this. Organisations, movements, initiatives and people are actively addressing the crisis, help people and substitute for failing state institutions. And yet, they are being pushed to the brink of their capacities, and often being demonized by anti-liberal forces for the work they are doing. And very notably, resources for global civic actions are getting scarcer with the economic downturns and a growing tendency to serve national interests.
Over the past years, the space for civic organisations to operate in difficult situations has been reduced, often because they are seen as inconvenient actors and watchdogs who shed light on irresponsible behaviours by power holders. Attacks on them have been manifold, from legal restrictions to physical attacks and discredit. The trends are being documented regularly in numerous places, e.g. in the CIVICUS state of civil society report or the ICNL civic freedom monitor, and are subject to further deterioration in light of Corona.
One good way of dealing with this is increased transparency and accountability. While most civil society organisations are not formally mandated, they are legitimised through the contributions they make towards the people they serve, and to those who support them. Exercising such ‘dual accountability’ is a powerful means to counter attacks on the legitimacy and operating space of civil actors. Besides making sure that accountability has a 360-degree lens, there are some other aspects that make it powerful. The concept of ‘dynamic accountability’ as practiced in the Global Standard for CSO Accountability holds a number of aspects that matter, from constant dialogue to deep listening and addressing power relations as described here.
So, while meaningful ‘dynamic’ accountability is a value in itself, it also helps dealing with the crises and major developments affecting civil society. And there are many – the safeguarding crisis from 2018, the debate around ‘decolonising’ aid and addressing discrimination and racism, and the increased move towards localisation and shifting power in the sector are just a few big trends. No doubt, many civil society organisations are already operating in high transformation mode, trying to adjust to a changing political and social environment, which also means increased exposure to public scrutiny.
Those who want to change seriously need to accept such scrutiny and criticism, but must not be subjected to political pressures coming from anti-liberal and populist agendas. There is a fine balance between radical transparency towards stakeholders and the risks associated with public or political attacks. A dialogue-oriented, self-reflective and self-conscious use of accountability, coupled with active solidarity, will help civil society organisations thrive in times of crisis, and ensure the necessary transformations will happen. It takes courage, the willingness to deal with consequences and agility.
The Corona crisis accelerates many developments – it might be the opportunity to overcome trenches between civil society actors, increase the dialogue and mutual accountability and make the sector fit for the future.