COVID-19, civic space and young people

Reversing the closing civic space trend.

Deborah Doane, Partner, Rights CoLab
22 February 2021

Expert perspective  |  4 minute read

It is a paradoxical truth that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society has risen handsomely to the challenge of supporting the most vulnerable while holding those in power to account, at the same time as their ability to function has been seriously curtailed. 

The case studies of the contributions of civil society emerging from even the most hard-hit communities are heart-warming. From the many women-led groups in Asia, who stepped up efforts on behalf of women and girls as domestic violence rates climbed, to Brazil, where civil society organisations stepped up to fill the void left by the government, providing not only a multitude of social services, but also directly combatting disinformation campaigns about the pandemic. In several countries in West Africa, meanwhile, young people helped to mobilise sanitation kits, and provide much-needed information via social media in their region.

It seems that no community was left untouched by the contribution of civil society to helping survive these challenging times. In my own community in South East London, civil society and mutual aid groups flourished. They stepped in to ensure that all homeless people could shelter; and that asylum seekers had adequate food, creating a spontaneous food bank when their usual services closed down. 

    Three young environmental activists stand together in Bolivia
    UNICEF/UN0364410/Aliaga Ticona
    Nina Py Brozovich (in the middle), 17 years old, is a college student and an environmental activist. She founded Fridays For Future in her country, Bolivia.

    Civil society under renewed attack

    Unfortunately, civil society, in many cases, has had to meet the needs of so many, in an operating context where civil society is seriously under attack. In many cases, rather than governments seeing civil society as their allies in the fight against COVID-19, civil society has been either ignored, or the object of derision. We have seen the types of restrictions that have been imposed over years – as part of the trend towards closing civic space – actually build steam. This includes funding barriers or administrative hurdles and digital restrictions, to vilification, threats and intimidation.

    The International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law has highlighted that in 2020 alone, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, 46 countries have imposed new measures that affect freedom of expression; 128 countries have added new measures that affect assembly. The trend has a significant impact on children and young people too, blocking international development and humanitarian actors , restricting participation in activism, or seeing children and young people facing direct attacks, both on and offline.

    While some of these could be seen as necessary curbs on freedoms in order to control the pandemic, others are simply nefarious: aimed specifically at stifling critics, imposing surveillance and restricting the legitimate role of civil society.  

    These are not limited to the provision of much-needed services. We’ve seen a tragic loss of participation by civil society in critical policy-making and democratic spaces. WACSI, the West African Civil Society Institute, for example, has found that COVID-19 reduced participation and fundamental freedoms would lead to a decrease of political engagement and lower voter turnout of young people in forthcoming electoral processes in the region.

    Can COVID be the catalyst to reverse the closing space trend?

    Whilst there are the myriad of new and serious restrictions that have been imposed, there are also some glimmers of hope that COVID-19 could act as the catalyst for positive transformation too. The Argentine government, for example saw civil society as a partner in its pandemic response and with active support from social movements was able to launch a policy of universal income paid each month to the poor.

    A government-supported initiative in Benin, helped young people organise information for local communities on hand-washing, social distancing and wearing face masks, while also developing digital innovations to help local hospitals.

    It’s clear that governments who see civil society as its allies are better able to respond to the pandemic, and can work towards building healthy and more equal societies, too.

      Volunteers load ration kits to a vehicle
      Volunteers load ration kits as part of a distribution to tribal villages and migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in Vasai, Maharashtra, India.

      Taking Action

      Our response to COVID-19 and its aftermath throughout the world needs civil society engagement and young people in particular.  Recently issued guidance by the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognised this, and included that, “Ensuring the participation of communities most affected by COVID-19 in national response and recovery plans is the cornerstone to fostering stronger, more resilient societies that leave no one behind.”

      There is much to be done. Organisations working with, or on behalf of, children and young people can take some practical steps forward. Some specific measures would also include:

      • Connect and campaign: The international community should follow the lead of civic actors, like the One Billion Voices for Education campaign which launched in January. The campaign highlights the tragedy that 1.5 billion learners had their education stopped or interrupted in the past year, and has rightly called on governments to “enable civil society to speak up” recognising that civic space is a foundation from which the rights of children and young people are built.
      • Providing access to resources: The fallout of COVID-19 is that funding is even more scarce than before for many civil society groups working with children and young people, both private and public, and for young people organising themselves. This is exacerbated by the years of growing restrictions on foreign funding faced by civil society, that makes it difficult to receive philanthropic or other funds. Calling out these challenges, and helping to provide much-needed funding is essential. Building community philanthropy, for example, can also help local communities mobilise resources domestically, too.
      • Digital Access and digital safety: Young people in many communities have been at the centre of providing information to people through digital means. They have also relied on access to the internet to continue their education. But a raft of barriers will impede this effort, from a scarcity of equipment, to internet shutdowns. Critically, young people also need the skills and tools to understand misinformation, and to be kept safe in digital spaces. Collaborating with groups who are focused on digital access, such as Access Now, and developing national strategies with civil society groups and UN agencies could help foster digital engagement by young people.
      • Participation in policy-making: The voice of young people in policy-making, including those aimed at ‘building back better’ must be prioritised. There are a range of options that have been recommended by research from WACSI including creating a younger voting age (eg. 16), or formalising internship opportunities for young people in parliaments and government. From a civic space perspective specifically it would be important to ensure freedom of expression and association for young people, ensuring opinions aren’t censored or criminalised, and that young people can form associations to engage more formally in policy processes. Those working with young people can help to strengthen youth organisations’ capacity and resilience, as Plan International has done in Latin America.