Maverick Citizen: Op-ed

Covid-19: the impetus for civil society to do things differently

Covid-19: the impetus for civil society to do things differently
Civil society groups called for a revision of increases in social grants and the special Covid-19 grant. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

Coronavirus has exposed the deep inequalities that we may have been living with but more than that, for those of us working in the development sector it has also exposed our great privilege in relation to the communities that we work in and purport to serve.

The Communications, Media and Telecoms sectors have seen that being connected to the internet and accessing information cannot be a luxury. In this time of a Coronavirus outbreak, having accurate information literally can make the difference between life and death. Education and learning is no longer confined to the classroom. Access to quality healthcare has been proved to be a right, not a commodity that one has access to because of their socio-economic status.

The world as we know it has changed.

And with this change is an opportunity to do things differently. Radically. What can we do differently as civil society?

Perhaps the first step would be to acknowledge that Coronavirus is the “democratising factor”: breaking down unrealistic, artificial barriers – false factors that help to drive inequality. It is laying bare the falsely constructed determinants that have created socio-economic status as the premise on which people have access to basic services and enjoy their rights. Bringing about a new sense of order. Deconstructing classism, elitism and hopefully many other “–isms” that have been used to marginalise people and create vulnerabilities.

As civil society organisations, we say we stand for human rights;  for democracy; for equality. We claim we are being responsive to the needs of our communities and where possible, filling in the fault lines to ensure people have access to basic education, health, legal services. But this has not been enough. It can no longer be work as usual: what will civil society organisations do differently – now and after the outbreak is under control?

As civil society organisations, we need to re-look the way in which we work, and be bolder. Below are five (5) areas where we can start: 

First, civil society organisations need to change their ways of working, and will inevitably need to consider working more with other players and forming strong partnerships, for instance, with the private sector. There are opportunities to strongly influence business social practice and social engagement and an opportunity to implement more transformative, responsive programming, particularly CSI programmes. After all, NGOs are closer to communities, can respond quicker and have better insights into localized interventions that can be scaled up.   

Make friends with data. We need to invest time into documenting our practice, collecting and analyzing information that is available to us through our work and the communities that we work in. We need to invest in collecting information and noting lessons to improve our responsiveness and our programme design. Could this be an opportunity to be better accountable to our communities? 

 As coronavirus morbidities are more likely in older people, particularly those that have underlying conditions and Non-Communicable Diseases such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc., older people are most vulnerable. What does this mean for planning for social services – do we take into account the life-cycle approach to development, recognising the needs of older people in every stage of development? Holistic programming across the human lifecycle needs to become the norm: when we do our programming, we need to look at the impacts on people’s lives not at their current age, but into the future, when they are older. We also need more programmes that look into the specific needs of older people.

Fourth, we need to look into the sustainability of our work: if we are looking at making an impact in people’s lives, will short term projects work? We know that the socio-economic effects of the Covid-19 outbreak will take years to overcome – it will take years to rebuild our health systems, for people to recover financially, for those in the informal sector, entrepreneurs and those undertaking precarious work to re-establish themselves. Is it prudent therefore to continue to invest in short term projects? Is it possible to look at medium to long term interventions over, say three to five years to provide some level of stability, and provide a more realistic opportunity to actually transform people’s lives?

Finally, and perhaps the biggest area that the Coronavirus outbreak forces us to reflect on and change, is to be honest and real about implementing programmes that boldly confront structural, systemic issues, and not just addressing the symptoms. We need to move away from a band-aid approach to development. If we are going to change things for our children and their children’s children and make a real, inter-generational impact, civil society needs to get together and confront “power” and “normalcy” with truth: the outbreak has bared the inequalities, highlighting the privileged position that many of us hold even as we work in the sector.

Is it not time we start boldly advocating for systems that work for us, as Africans? This means as we fight for democratic, open spaces, we also challenge and demand debt cancellation, fair investments and trade. We need to demand transparency in the way our national wealth is generated and utilised. Demand transparency in the way mineral wealth is distributed. We need to start building movements for sustainable resource development, including businesses that fit into mining value chains. We need to support agro-beneficiation value chains, movements for sustainable agriculture, including subsistence smallholder farming that builds food security and enables our communities to have access to healthy, nutritious foods. We need to look at how we can disrupt what has been accepted as the role of development agencies.

Coronavirus can be a democratising factor that we, as civil society, need to take advantage of. This might be the game-changer in our lifetime – a real chance to do things differently, change the ways that we work. Make a greater impact. DM/MC

Nikiwe Kaunda has a background in Social Work and Labour Law, and is an advocate for the implementation of high impact, scalable, socio-economic and human rights programs. She is the Human Rights and Access to Justice Team Leader at Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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