Fit for the Future: Can we emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis? Part 1 / Lysa John (CIVICUS)

Perspectives on investing in civil society, philanthropic and technical infrastructure.  

Civil society – both in its more and less institutionalized forms – has organised extensively to respond to the health, humanitarian and governance challenges unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our space to do so varies hugely thanks to the diverse regulatory, reputational, philanthropic, and technical infrastructures available to those who seek to support their communities through this challenging time. 

It is vital that the global recovery effort includes measures to protect, strengthen and sustain civil society itself – and, importantly, investments into the infrastructure upon which we stand. Civil society was not ready for COVID-19. Lysa John (CIVICUS) speak to the actions we must take to emerge wiser and stronger from the current crisis and to be prepared for the crises to come. This collection of viewpoints is the first of a series aiming to assess changes needed to ensure a stronger supporting environment and enabling infrastructure for civil society.

By Lysa John, Secretary-General of the CIVICUS


How do you see the role of civil society in this crisis and how do you assess its global response so far? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shock to the system for civil society the world over. It seems ironic that only a few months ago we were seeing a wave of civic activism around the world.. 2019 was being celebrated as the ‘Year of People Power’. A  mass, global uprising against autocratic regimes across the world seemed very real and very achievable. In one fell stroke, we have experienced the abrupt removal of fundamental freedoms that human rights defenders have fought to protect at great cost. 

And yet, even as we cope with severance of a collective struggle, it seems apparent that civil society across the world has not stopped finding new ways to respond. As often happens in crises, organisations around the world have come forward – providing food, health care and other essential services to those in need. They have organised extensively to share information, undertake analyses and organise the actions needed to reinforce accountability and pursue responsive policy outcomes; all of this designed to connect issues and transcend borders at a scale that we haven’t seen in years. 

What could have been different and what would it take?

The pandemic is forcing us to tackle some glaring distortions in the way we operate as a sector. These are not new challenges – but the effort needed required us to to have immersed ourselves in an uncomfortable course of reflection and reform. 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 that have accompanied the measures that are being taken to contain the pandemic. This includes unjustified restrictions on access to information and censorship; detentions of activists for disseminating critical information; crackdowns on human rights defenders and media outlets; and, violations of the right to privacy and overly broad emergency powers.

As outlined in this Open Letter to Donors, the availability of flexible funding to sustain core operational costs will determine which organisations will survive the adverse economic effects of the crises. We are inspired to see a wide range of philanthropic organisations embrace these principles. This emergency, however, must ensure that we remain committed to sustaining civil society through diverse and flexible forms of resourcing.

What is needed to strengthen this infrastructure? 

There is an urgent need for us to act together to stop governments from using the pandemic as a pretext to restrict civic space, as this statement to world leaders supported by over 600 organisations underscores . Even where an official proclamation of emergency has been made, fundamental rights such as the right to life and freedom from torture and inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment must remain uninfringed.  These compliances must be accompanied by a systematic effort to design and effect a comprehensive global recovery effort. Fundamental shifts are needed to make the world fit for future generations. 

For civil society more specifically, the change we need to see is greater levels of direct investment in organisations of the global south. While much has been said about the ‘localisation agenda’ in past years, little has changed by way of resourcing trends. Four years after the international community committed to increase investments in local organisations, the percentage of official development assistance (ODA) reaching them remains at the same level: less than 1 percent. This  means that while community organisations are best placed to respond to a complex crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the infrastructure required to ensure their sustained intervention remains pitifully inadequate. Resource flows to southern civil society can no longer be an afterthought for the international donor community.

How can the current crisis help change this status quo?

Soon after the pandemic was declared, close to 200 civil society organisations signed up to a ‘Social Security Protocol’ developed in line with the ILO’s COVID-19 policy framework. The Protocol requires organisations to deliberate a 6-point framework for social protection and ensure a transparent and time-bound communication on measures that will be adopted. The fact that this list includes only one major international organisation is deeply disturbing. Large, global NGOs must be bolder and adopt the social security measures that we are demanding from governments and businesses. Without this, frontline civil society workers – a majority of whom are women – will be disproportionately affected by the loss of jobs and incomes as a result of cost-cutting measures. 

Six years ago a group of leaders put out an open letter to civil society exhorting us to ensure that our primary accountability is ‘to everyone that is or has been on the losing end of globalisation and inequality and to the generation that will inherit a catastrophic future’. Sharing power and strengthening accountability cannot be left to chance. Coming out of this pandemic, we must agree that correcting inequity of access within civil society is a challenge we can no longer ignore. 


(An abridged version of this reflection, going by the same title, has also been published at Alliance Magazine: Fit for the Future: Can we emerge stronger from the Covid-19 crisis?)




Lysa John

Secretary-General of the CIVICUS



CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Read more on their website:

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