Ally Voices

Our ‘Ally Voices’ is a new series of blogs that will chronicle the stories and views of WBA’s diverse and global Alliance.

Written by: Andrew Firmin, Editor, CIVICUS 

Pandemic and protests show the essential value of civil society

The latest State of Civil Society Report from CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, describes how the pandemic offered a rare test of systems of national-level governance and international-level cooperation – and how existing systems largely failed that test. Too many states left people behind, particularly excluded groups, in the decisions they took, and too many seemed to see the pandemic not as a problem demanding solidarity and compassion, but rather as a pretext to enact repressive measures and further limit already imperilled fundamental freedoms. Economic inequality soared while the super-wealthy cashed in. Meanwhile international cooperation was largely lacking and vaccine nationalism became the order of the day.

Offering inspiration in contrast was civil society, stepping up to meet the essential needs of those left without the basics as economies ground to a halt. In country after country, civil society groups scrambled to distribute food, medicines and sanitary supplies, and new community-led initiatives sprang up to mobilise mutual assistance.

Civil society didn’t just supply help; civil society organisations instinctively connected their humanitarian response with demands that rights be upheld, for migrant workers, women and LGBTQI+ people at risk of gender-based violence and Indigenous groups homeless people, among others.

The need for civil society was made clear; many people’s experience of this global emergency would have been much worse if civil society hadn’t acted. This made it all the more shameful that many states intensified restrictions on civil society and sought to prevent civil society holding states to account for their pandemic actions and omissions.

The pandemic also proved no barrier to protest, as people continued to mobilise to demand justice, taking where possible precautions such as masking and distancing. The resurgence of the global Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police murder to George Floyd reframed conversations and shifted discourse, just as the global climate justice movement had done a year before. Women’s and LGBTQI+ rights movements mobilised against an anti-rights backlash while providing protections against gender-based violence, and even managed to make some progress.

Protest movements showed they could also be part of the essential social fabric of pandemic response too. Algeria’s Hirak protest movement mobilised to provide PPE and in India, when a deadly third wave struck earlier this year, the farmers’ protest movement continued to occupy its protest camps but also worked to provide food to migrant workers heading home.

What are the lessons for any hopes of rebuilding our societies, once the pandemic has eventually passed, in ways that are more socially just? What could help us get back towards progress on the SDGs, stymied under the pandemic? For a start, there’s a need to recognise the sources of agency and community resilience that exist distinctly from the state and the private sector. There’s a need to understand that all the range of civil society responses – from providing essential services to mobilising in protest – are equally legitimate and necessary.

The private sector has a role to play here too – some of civil society’s essential responses to the pandemic relied on private sector partnerships, and some of the big protest events of recent years have won private sector acknowledgement that businesses need to play a bigger role in challenging racism and acting on the climate crisis.

But the added value and indeed irreplaceable essence of contemporary civil society is in its role of modelling alternatives. Civil society is developing new forms of power, pushing the boundaries of the possible and bringing new realities into being. Protests have changed the conversation and achieved impact around the world. from Chile to Malawi to Sudan. Protest has driven change, promoted rights and freedoms and held states accountable for the social justice commitments embodied in the SDGs. It’s time to recognise this, and urge states to hold a strongly enabling line on protest rights.


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