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COVID-19 has many lessons for African civil society organisations

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Maurice K. Nyambe

Maurice K. Nyambe is Executive Director at Transparency International Zambia. Get in touch with him on mnyambe@tizambia.org.zm

The COVID-19 pandemic has been without a doubt the most pressing issue throughout much of 2020. Across the world, as infection rates and deaths rose, the effects of the pandemic were felt across all sectors of society. Medical services have been overwhelmed, businesses have been shattered and governments have struggled to deal with the crisis. Across the length and breadth of the African continent, civil society organisations (CSOs) have not been spared.

The emergence of COVID-19 served to worsen already fragile economic and social conditions in many African countries. Zambia, for instance, was already suffering from the effects of a local currency that was rapidly losing value against major convertible currencies, as well as a debt crisis that shows no signs of abating. The former in particular had a negative impact on many CSO budgets, undermining the critical work they do, including in relation to crises such as the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The emergence of COVID-19 has -plundered many African countries into an even worse state of affairs. Whilst the numbers across the continent – perhaps with the exception of South Africa - have not been as high as has seen in Europe and the Americas, the preventive measures that African governments have put in place have had an effect not just on African societies generally, but specifically on the operations of civil society organizations across the continent.

Several studies, by organisations such as the Zambian Governance Foundation (ZGF), have shown the extent to which the majority of CSOs have been affected by COVID-19. The most common challenges affects have been the complete loss of funding bringing operations to a dramatic end; reduced funding, leading to major operational and structural changes; and the inability to implement programme activities on account of governments’ preventive measures against the pandemic.

Probably more than anything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the false sense of security that CSOs have for many years covered themselves. It has revealed how extremely vulnerable they are to external shocks, particularly when it comes to financial sustainability.

In a June 2020 report by Epic Africa, co-founder, Rose Maruru, states: “COVID-19 further exposes many of the challenges that African CSOs have long grappled with, from unstable funding to exclusion from national policy processes.” It seems only logical then that CSOs have a lot to learn from this pandemic, more than can be covered in the few words of this piece. Still, there are yet critical lessons from which we can learn.

The time has come for CSOs to go beyond thinking about financial sustainability to actualizing it

Sustainability has, all too often, been taken seriously only in the pages of funding proposals, after which it has existed on the periphery of CSOs’ operational lives – until the time comes to write the next funding proposal.

COVID-19 has provided a sobering lesson that unless and until CSOs begin to implement interventions to enhance their financial sustainability, they may not survive the next big external shock . Whether exploring and implementing localised mechanisms of raising resources, or engaging in different social enterprises to raise resources, CSOs cannot afford for sustainability to continue to exist on the fringes of their operations.

COVID-19 has shown the necessity for CSOs to adopt adaptive management approaches

COVID-19 has been an unprecedented event, it has thrown up immense challenges in how CSOs can adapt to ensure the most effective use of human and other resources. CSOs have had to grapple with the effects of staff issues such as managing leave days and contractual working hours among others, with different models employed to cope with these challenges.

What this has shown is that in order for CSOs to continue their operations with some semblance of normality, is the imperative for them to be less rigid and more open to different ways through which staff can implement their respective tasks.

There is a continued need for flexibility and ingenuity in the way CSOs implement activities

This is possibly the one lesson for which CSOs are already primed. The dynamic nature of development work that the majority of them are involved in demands precisely this sort of approach. That said, the use of alternatives to implement activities – such as remote and virtual working reliance- on stable internet connectivity – has in some cases shown the disconnect in access and usage of internet between CSOs and some of the communities they serve.

This may reflect the general situation across Africa, where internet access and usage in far to reach communities remains a significant challenge. CSOs that invest in internet-related ingenuity to implement their activities need to set aside resources to provide stable access to the communities they work with, including training in those ingenious ways of working.

CSOs must step up collaborative advocacy to prevent corruption and general abuse of resources during emergencies

Research has clearly shown that emergencies provide significant opportunities for the misuse of public resources. As oversight is reduced to increase the speed of the response, impunity can become a normalized culture..

CSOs, particularly those involved in advocacy, promoting accountability and speaking out against corruption in all aspects of governance should be even greater during emergencies. This is critical to ensure resources reach their intended targets, and also to prevent the loss of colossal sums of money to corruption.

More alarmingly, as Transparency International June 2020 report on the Post COVID-19 context warns, emergency measures put in place by governments to prevent the spread of the pandemic may become permanent, restricting civil and political rights (and reducing civic space) well beyond the pandemic.

The long-term impact of COVID-19 on the work of CSOs is impossible to predict, yet it is clear that CSOs will be dealing with the fallout from the pandemic for the foreseeable future. This is the “new normal” of doing things both during and after the pandemic.

If we are to emerge more resilient and sustainable, it is imperative that CSOs continue to find ways to fulfil their mandates while being open to the lessons of the pandemic.

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