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. Benjamin Bellegy (WINGS), Chris Worman (TechSoup) and 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 Chris Worman, Vice President at TechSoup
How do you see the role of civil society in such a crisis and how do you assess its global response so far?
I think the role of civil society in crisis is pretty much the same as at any other time – supporting and enabling the community to achieve their goals. What is obviously different is the stress and nature of challenges on our communities; and the challenge for those who seek to enable civil society and ensure operational space. From that perspective I would say civil society in the broadest sense – people taking care of people whether or not they are institutionalized as an NGO, whether or not they are paid to do it – is performing admirably and to their best ability.
Meanwhile, it is clear that organized civil society is struggling. There are dire predictions that many NGOs will disappear. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, this is not horribly surprising. COVID-19 has accelerated the inevitable – organizations who were, at the best of times, struggling to make ends meet for various reasons will disappear. I mourn the disappearance of their aggregated knowledge and community-level trust.
Yet others, rooted in this moment will rise to replace those lost and we may see a more community-based generation of civil society leaders emerge from this crisis. Pure, grassroots, social action seems to be responding admirably well. Most community based organizations seem to be making do.
Many institutionalized ‘NGOs,’ on the other hand, seem to be responding to the crisis and associated struggles by pointing at philanthropy’s failure to give them more money. But is that fair? Surely some philanthropic actors could be doing more but there was never enough philanthropy to cover all costs for all NGOs all the time; and there never will be. Foundation and government aid represents less than 1% of the total economic value of civil society – whether or not they should be able to save everyone, they cannot.
As we come through the crisis, I believe responding admirably (as Lysa, Benjamin and others have addressed in their own way) includes calling out the underperformance and weaknesses of a system that many like to call civil society – but by which they really mean philanthropically and governmentally supported institutionalized NGOs. The breakdown of that system, the power, institutional and infrastructure disparities within it are all on perfect display right now.
While we all work in the moment to take care of our communities, as exhausting as it is, we need to have discussions about the infrastructure we lack and need, rally around building it so that each in civil society – formal or not – is best able to help humanity recover and prepare for the next crisis. If we manage to do so we will have done so much more than respond, we will have grown.
What could have been different and what would it take?
From the technology capacity building and infrastructure standpoint it is probably not surprising that I would start by pointing out that COVID-19 is – amongst other things – a uniquely digital crisis.
Social distancing forced all who could, to work from home and pivot to remote services. As noted above, many will not be able to and some will disappear – taking their knowledge and social capital with them. Those who were able to make the shift are at risk of increased surveillance and data insecurity. What could have been different would have been a digitally mature civil society. While that sounds like (and is) an enormous concept, it is not unfeasible. There are organizations like TechSoup providing digital tools, training and services globally. There are many more with whom we could partner. There are others working on digital policy, building new tools and types of infrastructure with the sector. Yet others, like Candid, work to make sense of the data we create.
Imagine, for instance, if the world’s millions of health workers had tools like WorkerConnect, with its combination of notification and reporting functions. When COVID-19 burst into our reality, from the first identified case to the last, healthcare providers would have known what to look for and how to prepare based on what others were learning. If they saw symptoms, had specific challenges or needs, they could have gotten answers and raised their voices to crisis response coordinators (anonymously if needed). Media could have had more accurate information. Governments could have had community level data on spread, nature and needs. You and your family would have been safer.
We are not unimaginably far from such an example. Building the digital infrastructure we need to enable such will take a clear vision of the combined policy, infrastructure, skills and learning capacities we need – matched with appropriate financial models and support – for us to take off our fundraising hats and work together on the digital we need (vs the one we will otherwise get); lining up behind who is best at solving which problems and advocating to get them the support they need to solve their piece of the equation. We can ensure access, skills, and support. We have brilliant people who can lead policy with the community. We need shared vision and the will to work together.
How can the current crisis help change this status quo?
By taking the moment to have the conversations we need to have, the courage to admit we could all do better, and the will to deliver with and for our communities. When I was starting the Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation, I ran into a sociologist researching the intersection of individual philanthropy and natural disaster. He pointed out that during disaster and shortly after, people exhibit their altruistic best selves for reasons they have a hard time articulating. His research, centering on sociological imagination, indicated if you can get people to recognize their changed behavior you can get them to label it, value it, compare it to where they had been and if they wanted to go back to the way they were.
If so, this is our moment to change. We are in crisis. Many have labeled new behaviors, committing to change. We have all questioned the efficacy of our work and known we could do better in our complex work leading grantmaking and social change initiatives. The crisis has shone a light on behaviors we probably should have been practicing anyway. If we do not talk about and evaluate the new versus the old we will not be able to value the difference and we will return to the way things were. That would be a loss. While there are parts of how we operated that were well and good, there is much in committed new behaviors to maintain. We need to identify the difference, have the conversation and establish some new norms.
We should not easily slip back to the way we were. We owe it to ourselves to do better. And we owe it to our communities. As environmental, economic, political and demographic (mega)trends converge, we will face increasingly challenging crises and we will need civil society in its most holistic sense – our formal and informal selves, our resiliency and deliberative capacities – to maintain space and build voice for our most vulnerable as we navigate through. This crisis has shown us how much we lack and what we need to build. We must take heed and build it.
(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?)
Vice President at TechSoup
TechSoup equips changemakers with transformative technology solutions and skills they need to improve lives globally and locally. Read more on their website: https://www.techsoup.org/