Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Former Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

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Advocating for civil society post-Covid

We need more resources and champions for the backbone of society

25 June 2021

At the beginning of the pandemic crisis in 2020 billions were made available across countries globally to support economies and tackle to the impact of the crisis. At the same time civil society mobilised millions of people, and in many countries represented the backbone of an informal welfare and healthcare system. But how, if at all, did governments support civil society in these efforts? And was this seen as an integral part of the response to Covid? This is something we explored in last year’s CAF report ‘Giving Civil Society the Right Response’, which brought together insights and examples from around the globe to highlight how governments can and should support civil society so that it can play a vital role at times of crisis.

We observed a wide range of responses, policy actions and initiatives; with many governments making funds available and including civil society in their response. But overall the picture was at best mixed, with the clear sense that civil society more often than not came as an afterthought. Too often governments had not thought about it in their response to the crisis, taken its work for granted – or worse, they had used Covid-19 as a pretext to further constrain the space in which civil society operates.

It is clear from the findings that there is an increased need to advocate for civil society and make it more central to crisis response. If restrictions have been put into place, action is needed to convince policy-makers to roll them back so that the crisis does not become permanent. And for policymakers there is a wider opportunity to re-engage with civil society which should not be wasted. Recovery and crisis-preparedness will go further if civil society is involved and its value is being recognised.

Our partner CIVICUS is planning to launch a renewed campaign to further promote Rebuilding for Good – building on a set of principles that can be used for civil society actors and networks to build a common narrative about the value of civil society, and advocate for it to be more recognised as a partner in rebuilding efforts on the local, national and global levels.

In the conversations we have had so far, a set of key factors have emerged that need to be addressed to bring civil society more into the centre stage of policy-making. (This list is not exhaustive and also in no particular order – but it represents some points for reflection).

  • Highlighting outcomes with decision-makers: Often policy asks are focussed on technical changes and the benefits for civil society organisations, and come at additional costs to the public purse. But decision-makers might care more about benefits to wider society (as well as being able to link efforts to their own political projects). A lack of data on specific impacts is often a barrier (and it also requires decision-makers to listen and have a disposition to look at evidence presented when it is available in the first place). But advocates can perhaps make a stronger effort to lead with a narrative that centres around outcomes.
  • Using existing frameworks: We all need more and better data on how civil society’s work improves lives on the ground. There are powerful examples of recording the impact of charitable giving and the work of civil society at large. The Yetu Initiative in Kenya, for instance, has collected Stories of Hope from Kenyan communities during the pandemic. WACSI, meanwhile, has conducted research on local giving during Covid-19 in Ghana, looking at the potential of domestic resource mobilisation in Ghana to tackle the crisis. There are plenty more examples out there. Showing how this work contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a globally known framework–- could provide further opportunities to build common narratives across public and private sectors; and help educate other actors about the value and impact of the work that civil society is doing on the ground. There are also existing cross-sectoral collaborations aimed at achieving the SDGs, like Catalyst 2030 which could be tapped into.
  • Narrative building around a collective agenda: Collaboration among civil society organisations has in many increased during the Covid-19 crisis according to many organisations we have spoken to. For example, in the UK the ‘Never More Needed’ campaign has brought together a wide range of charities and umbrella bodies, and enabled better coordination around common asks and more aligned messaging towards government. When it comes to supporting similar processes in other countries, making a set of minimum principles available that can be can be translated into the national context and adapted locally is probably the best way forward (CIVICUS is working on such a set of principles at the moment). Story-telling is another powerful tool for shaping public opinion, but often the language used to describe the work of civil society is not adequate enough to describe the real impact it has; being very jargon-y and technical. (And this blog is not necessarily an exception to that rule! Read more here on why the ways in which we talk about philanthropy & civil society could hold us back).
  • New alliances and working in partnership from the get-go: Covid-19 has brought about new ways to collaborate and also new alliances between new actors. There is now an opportunity to keep this momentum, to explore gaps in collaboration and to expand alliances. For funders that support network building, there might be also be an opportunity to look out for new collaborations that have emerged during the crisis and strengthen, expand or deepen them with additional support and funding (while being wary of not causing mission drift of networks or collaborations through their involvement).
  • Capitalise on changes in government: One outcome of the crisis could be a restructuring of governments and public administrations. New units could be emerging, working for example on foresight, public health and wider disaster and crisis preparedness. They could represent new entry points, to have a seat at the table for future decision-making or highlight the importance of civil society in general. There might be also a renewed focus on local government which has often proven to be central to the crisis response. Local and city governments are also organised in regional and global networks, know the value of their civil society ecosystem, and often sharing expert knowledge on pragmatic solutions in ways that are less political.
  • Advocacy techniques and working on system change: The term capacity building has probably been overused – but we saw a real gaps in the ability of local civil society to advocate during the crisis. Where capacity lacked, civil society was disadvantaged in making sure that their concerns are being heard by busy governments trying to keep economies afloat. Systems change frameworks and tools are available to influence governments’ perception of the role of civil society in decision-making and recovery efforts. But their application in a meaningful way requires strong capacity on the ground. Networks like WINGS (for philanthropy) and CIVICUS (for wider civil society), as well as a range of INGOs and foundations have been working on building up enabling environments for years, but the pandemic has shown that more players (that also bring in additional funds) should (re-?)enter in this space.
  • Long-term investments and more funders entering the space: Funding a very broad goal of ‘strengthening civil society’ is a difficult topic to engage with – success is hard to measure, investments need to be long-term, and achievements are difficult to communicate, and can work can easily lead to run-ins with governments. Funders like the Aga Khan and the Mott Foundation are doing exceptional work in this space. Some funders are also taking a principled stance and advocating for protecting civic space (even when they are not active in that space with their own programmes). But there are many different gaps where funders can step in: advocating on behalf of civil society, protecting civic space, and funding an enabling environment. This requires a new narrative that centres on the idea that civil society is a public good, and that strengthening it needs to be an essential part of building back better after the pandemic.
  • Links to for-profit sector: Many businesses are starting to redefine the discussion around purpose; in part to keep their “social license to operate” in communities. This is a discourse that goes beyond regulatory compliance. Engagement with charities and community groups as grantees or long-term partners are part of the focus. But businesses will also benefit more broadly from being embedded in wider ecosystems that are underpinned by a healthy civil society and protected civic space, as well as a stronger recovery due to better involvement of civil society.
  • The role for cross-border giving: In a recent report, researchers from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy looked at 2018 data on cross-border resource flows coming from 47 economies that cover 85% of global GDP. They identified USD 834 billion coming from four cross-border flows; including philanthropic outflows, ODA, remittances, and private capital investment. Private sources contributed USD 658 billion in 2018, which is nearly four times the amount of ODA (USD 175 billion). This included USD 68 billion in philanthropic cross-border giving and USD 481 billion in remittances. Remittances fulfil a different role than philanthropic funds. But the data shows that when it comes to funding local civil society and the infrastructure that underpins it, private funders and individuals can be a powerful force. Reducing barriers to cross-border giving is crucial in this context. Governments still set and enforce the rules for how civil society organisations can be set up, registered, operate and receive funding (including foreign donations). Organisations like CIVICUS and ICNL monitor developments and benchmark regulatory regimes globally. But donors and funders also have a vested interest in rules being fair and transparent, and should support efforts to keep civic space open and flows of cross-border donations going.
  • Global commitments to protecting civic space: There is a huge benefit in going through existing platforms and working with globally accepted norm-setters. OECD-Development Assistance Committee, the Open Government Partnership, UNHCR Rapporteurs, UN Global Compact, the World Bank and reginal development banks, the African Union and European Union – all represent established systems, processes and engagement points. Many civil society organisations and networks successfully advocate within them and can make representations. But global commitments to protect civic space are rare. Institutions could work more towards them, become more responsive and dedicate resources and funds to the needs of civil society. To make this happen, there might be a need to foster ‘networks of networks’ to bundle more actors together and put civil society higher up on the global agenda. Collaboration across sectors around thematic areas and agendas that require civil society support for successful change and implementation (like climate change) could be another avenue.   

Where to go from here?

Covid-19 could be an inflection point. 10+ years from now we might look back and see it as starting point for a further deterioration of rule of law, civic space, democratic rights, openness and the proliferation of top-down approaches in decision-making. But the opposite is equally possible. We could also see that the impact of the pandemic led to renewed international interest in civil society and protecting civic space. The end of the crisis could bring new motivation on the part of different public and private actors, new momentum for collaboration and new avenues for engagement. Institutional funders can play a big role in this process, but philanthropic giving more broadly will also have a part to play. The ‘menu’ option of what can be invested in and the actions we can take has been well described by many actors working in the field, so it is now time that we move on to take steps to shape the future for civil society.