From 12-16 October, CIVICUS’s group of national network organisations (AGNA), celebrated Global Accountability Week 2020 with other CSOs around the world. Participants joined the online exchange activities focusing on accountability, transparency, and legitimacy within CSOs, many organized by AGNA members, working and advocating on greater accountability practices. Facilitators and participants from Skopje, Berlin, Montevideo, Washington, Zurich, Buenos Aires, and New Delhi discussed the digital age, in times of crisis, multi-stakeholder engagement, self-assessment mechanisms, etc. On the second day of GAW 2020, BCSDN led a session on CSO Accountability in times of COVID 19.
COVID 19: Lessons learnt during a period of crisis
During crises, CSOs have learnt that they can influence the future by changing their present. All countries worldwide were caught unprepared to handle the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and its immediate effects. Struggling with the new reality, CSOs adjusted their work in order to address the stakeholders’ needs in the communities they serve. Despite the lack of acknowledgement by governments, or proper CSO inclusion in emergency response mechanisms and policies, CSOs have proved they can be a crucial partner to the state, even in such unprecedented times. They have reoriented their activities to help the most vulnerable categories, including women, children, people with disabilities, older people, etc. This contributes towards the resilience of civil society that is associated with principles such as solidarity and partnership. By embracing their achievements and successfully overcoming new challenges, CSOs have been regaining public trust, and thereby strengthening their future legitimacy.
Another powerful lesson learnt is about protecting civic space. This is particularly critical in a world marked by rising governmental pressures and measures that negatively implicate fundamental human rights. The pandemic has put the capacity of government institutions under the test, and states of emergency have been used to justify deficiencies in good governance, transparency, and accountability in most Balkan countries. CSOs were rarely involved in crisis response mechanisms. Governments imposed severe restrictions on movements aimed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Accountability is about the responsible use of power, especially power held by governments. While CSOs must themselves remain accountable to their stakeholders, and have to comply with state laws and legislation, they too need the space to raise their voice and partake in government decision-making processes. In times of crisis, CSOs more than ever need an enabling environment and a robust civic space to act and advocate on behalf of their constituents. By holding those in power to account (a.k.a. social accountability), CSOs can perform much needed checks and balance on state behaviour.
Taking into consideration that the world has diametrically changed in every aspect of our lives, the Covid-19 crisis has pressured CSOs to test their internal accountability in the Digital Era. The new situation opened the possibility of connectivity that enables more people to be connected simultaneously. People across the world are profoundly relying on the use of digital technology for their daily operations. Of course issues around connectivity and inclusion do emerge with an over-reliance on technology, however, new platforms are being created, and many CSOs have uncovered the potential of technology which were not entirely recognised before the crisis.
Future of Uncertainties and New Challenges
It becomes evident that the global health, social and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will have significant and long-lasting impact on the way civil society operates, with declined funding, and growing pressure to respond to societal needs. This means that CSOs will have to continue to operate under significant constraints, all the while trying to fight back the authoritarian trends and the shrinking of civic space all across the globe. CSOs need to re-create their narrative and simplify how they tell people what they do, in order to get closer to ordinary people – especially the grassroots organizations. The wider public has only general knowledge about CSOs’ work. More accommodating language will contribute towards broader citizens’ trust and support in CSOs’ operations. In this way, CSOs can get closer to the people they are working with and for, potentially even making themselves more resilient.
CSOs should continue to push their visibility, and further assert their work. CSOs can ask for feedback or suggestions and gain insight via citizens’ responses that will add to better credibility in the long run. There is a need for civil society organizations to better communicate the work they are doing. This also speaks to their relevance, along with promoting civic space and civil society’s value.
In the end, we should all accept we will continue operating in a period of uncertainty. The COVID-19 global pandemic is generating high pressure in all areas of society. Therefore, CSOs must learn how to cope with the new reality, while continuing to serve the people the best they can. However, to be able to do so, CSOs should always keep track of the developments around them: the state of the democracy, the basic freedoms and the environment enabling their operations.
On the other hand, every crisis can be also an opportunity to adapt, improve our work, to become more resilient and able to cope with the new challenges in the future. And one of the ways to do that is by open collaboration and strong partnerships, as we have demonstrated by coming together for this year’s Global Accountability Week.
Article written by Marija Vishinova
Communication Officer at BCSDN.