Leaders of civil society networks & platforms shared their observations and thoughts, identifying possible opportunities to face COVID-19 in a series of articles facilitated by ICVA (International Council of Voluntary Agencies) called The Future of civil society,  You can check the complete series our articles here 🔗 https://bit.ly/3dzm26M

By Tanya Cox, Director, CONCORD Europe, Forus' member

International cooperation – of which notably development cooperation – has been evolving over many years towards a more mutual-benefit-oriented approach. Admittedly, the benefit accruing to donors was often quite significant. In the EU context, those changes seemed to speed up with the new ‘geopolitical’ European Commission which took office in December 2019. Development cooperation became ‘international partnerships’ with an emphasis on strategic investment providing ‘value for money’. Civil society was left wondering where it fitted in to this picture. At CONCORD, the European Confederation of civil society organisations working on development, we immediately decided to get our heads around this. 

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit us and threw our best-laid plans out of the window. Major threat? Or huge opportunity? 

Civil society and governments (or collectives of governments like the EU) don’t generally find ‘partnership’ that easy. Civil society organisations are mission-driven, not profit- or economic growth-driven. We are value-based and rights-based, not interest-based. We focus on reaching the hardest-to-reach, the most marginalised – which does not necessarily offer ‘value-for-money’, nor is it very ‘geopolitical’. So we tend to get labelled as unrealistic utopian dreamers - or as a thorn-in-the-side that needs to be, at best, ignored, or at worst silenced. If this weren’t the case, why would civil society space be shrinking? And even more so now that COVID-19 has struck. 

However, if civil society is challenged, so are democracy and participatory decision-making; if civil society is challenged, so are equality, social cohesion and non-discrimination; if civil society is challenged, so are transparency and accountability, especially as regards those in position of power. That cannot be allowed. 

Europe and the world have been facing a life-threatening crisis. Many countries, regions and cities have declared a state of emergency or called for extraordinary powers to help prevent the spread of the new Coronavirus, speeding up the decision-making process and the allocation of resources. However, this concentration of  power should in no case lead to abuse of power. It is essential that the powers conferred under emergency are exercised only for the specific purposes for which they were assigned. It is therefore ever more important that civil society continues to play its role as a defender of human rights and freedoms. 

This particular crisis – or at least our response to it - also challenges our way of life. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic raging across Europe, governments are having to envisage massive support to save jobs and livelihoods, to prop up struggling health systems and strengthen social protection for those who will be most affected by the crisis. Why the sudden urgency? Because, over the past two or three decades, rather than investing in our social systems, governments have preferred fiscal discipline – which in practice equates to cutting back on public service delivery and increasing innate inequalities in societies. We are, in many countries in Europe, now paying the price for those decisions. And so will governments elsewhere, if COVID-19 takes hold there as it has in Europe. The difference is that, in other regions, as in Africa, decisions to focus more on private delivery of services instead of public were often imposed by others, such as the World Bank and the IMF. 

So, as governments are having to urgently change tack and invest in our social systems, now is more than ever the moment for civil society to be Propositional. Political. Opportunistic. And to go beyond our natural role as providers of support to communities in times of need. Now is the time to call for a transformation of our political, economic, and financial systems. We can no longer accept that governments put economic growth and the accumulation of great wealth for a minority before the well-being of all people and the planet. Little by little, people’s awareness is also growing of the fact that risk is not a simple "side effect", but the result of specific policy choices made by people in power. Societies themselves may be more aware now of the dangers of the current system and therefore more receptive to ideas for change. Civil society should build on their awareness, stimulate critical thinking, offer solutions, and foster active citizenship. Now is the moment for civil society to come together, to build common ambitions. 

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