The fragility and precarity of civil society

By Noha El-Mikawy, Regional Director, and Yara Shawky, Program Associate, Ford Foundation Middle East and North Africa office.

The ability to organize, speak up, and engage is critical if underrepresented groups are to influence decisions that affect them and to hold governments and the private sector to account.  As Benjamin Bellegy argued in the “Fit for Future” piece, this is a function that civil society secures. Yet, civic space and civil society have been constrained by restrictive regulations and limited funding.  As well argued in the “Fit for the Future” article, there is a dire need to advocate for open civic space and to call upon regulatory agencies across the world not to use global and national crises to restrict the freedom of expression and organization.  ODA and philanthropy are called upon to increase funding for local civil society and do that as much as possible with unrestricted funds.

Alongside restrictions and funding, an increasing number of observers and civil society activists identify another serious problem: the precarity of working conditions in civil society.  The CIVICUS 2020 report[1] cites donor dependency and short-term project-based grants as key drivers of such precarity.   Beyond those drivers, civil society precarity is driven by the internal working conditions within civil society organizations and the levels of social protection enjoyed by civil society workers.  Both drivers tend to reveal the casualization of work in civil society.

The casualization of work in civil society manifests itself in many countries around the world.  Civil society organizations rely on consultants who are temporarily and seasonally employed and thus have no health insurance coverage, paid sick leave, etc.  In some cases, CSOs pay the staff part of the salary as marked in the budget of a project.  Furthermore, most of the CSOs that hire permanent staff give contracts with inadequate social protection coverage. In countries where local laws oblige civil society organizations to register onto the governmental social insurance coverage and oblige the employer and the employee to pay contributions into this plan, governmental coverage is often inadequate and of poor quality.  The precarity overlaps with a divide in civil society between international and local staff in the same NGO, between the development and humanitarian NGOs, and between urban and rural areas. 

The reality is grim and shows civil society as a precarious employer.  COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation.  Organizations opted for cutting salaries or renegotiating contracts, including insurance schemes as part of cost cuts.  If civil society is seen as a precarious employer, it cannot attract the best of talents; if the talented and passionate staffers cannot lead lives of dignity, they will be forced to leave or suffer demotivation and burn-out.  The loss of cumulative experience is thus huge. Furthermore, women are key members of the staff in many civil society organizations.  And yet, they are most affected by the precarity of working conditions and weak social protection schemes.  When they need to care for loved ones at home or to bear a child, women working in civil society face the lack of childcare, of maternity leave, or paid time for family care and these become drivers of economic uncertainty that may affect power relations in the workplace leading to harassment.  

The Big Idea: Social Protection for Civil Society 

An integrated global campaign to eliminate precarity for all, including for civil society workers, guided by the key principle that social protection for all those working in civil society will require adequate and sustainable coverage in partnership with governments, labor unions, community leaders, and media. Such a campaign/initiative could build on the following opportunities: 

– Existing Research: Most of the research on civil society focuses on what civil society does for other groups and issues in terms of providing services, evidence, and advocating for policy change.  Rarely does research on civil society acknowledge the precarity of jobs in the sector itself. CIVICUS Report 2020 is a good example that sheds light on the precarity of civil society workers. Another example is a participatory survey on workers in civil society that was done in 2019 by Oxfam and Lebanon Support, an action research NGO based in Beirut [2].  Though focused on Lebanese civil society only, the survey reached some globally relevant conclusions about the causal nature of work in civil society [3]. More such pieces of research are needed to provide evidence to inform campaigns and concrete initiatives for better social coverage for civil society workers. 

– Civil Society Protocols that Lift Up Own Staff Protection: During COVID-19, civil society workers have been on the frontline of awareness campaigns and medical service programs.  This has exposed them to danger and thus, a protocol of protection for civil society workers was developed in April 2020 [4]. Based on ILO’s policy framework to fight COVID-19, its civil society signatories across the world recommend for civil society workers (i) physical distancing, (ii) COVID testing and related treatment, (iii) protection of jobs and pay during lockdown, (iv) work from home, and (v) solidarity with other workers. It provides an example of concerted action, but this protocol is a rapid response, not a systemic solution.  

Intermediary organizations are designing collaborative funds with donors in order to meet the immediate financial and health needs of civil society activists.  For example, a handful of intermediary regional arts organizations in MENA have built two collaborative funds to address the needs of freelance artists and technicians as well as rescue arts organizations from the economic peril of COVID-19.  They are exploring how to go beyond the immediate rapid response to address systemic fragility of work.

Community-based organizations especially in rural areas that were hardly hit by the COVID crisis are putting in place innovative mechanisms for social protection. Those include reactivating “mutual benefit society approaches” and coordination to pool financial, human, and social capital through organizational planning and changes in staff hierarchies.  The learning experiences of community-based networks in this regard could be accelerated across regions and linked to governmental schemes. 

The Localization Movement: There is a growing global movement among humanitarian CSOs calling for increased direct funding from donors to local organizations.  This is a concrete commitment to fund local CSOs with multi-year and institutional grants that could help CSOs in the humanitarian field transition to development work with better social protection schemes for their workers.   

Economic Stimulus Packages: Economic stimulus packages for micro, small and medium enterprises have become a common rapid response around the world.  It is not clear that any of these stimulus packages include the non-profit sector. It could be important to advocate for their inclusion in future schemes.

The Key Message

The key message here is that the precarity of civil society is a structural issue in societies that requires collective long-term advocacy for systemic change to ensure social protection and dignity of work in all sectors of the economy, including the third sector.  This would also combat the perception that civil society is a casual and precarious sector or one where a person has to be a perpetual volunteer who is putting herself and her family in constant danger of poverty! This is a perception and a prospect that does not befit the sector that we all consider a “partner” in inclusive development and accountable, well-governed societies.

This article is part of the #LiftUpPhilanthropy Series, bringing together reflections and thought leadership from leaders across the philanthropy sector on how the sector can build itself for the future.  


[1] https://www.civicus.org/index.php/state-of-civil-society-report-2020

[2] https://lebanon-support.org/

[3] Marie-Noelle Abi Yaghi & Lea Yamine “Understanding the social protection needs of civil society workers in Lebanon” Lebanon Support and Oxfam, 2019

[4] https://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/news/4367-protecting-our-co-workers-during-covid-19-a-social-security-protocol-for-civil-society


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By Noha El-Mikawy, Regional Director, and Yara Shawky, Program Associate, Ford Foundation Middle East and North Africa office.

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