Giving civil society the right response
By Sameera Mehra, Head of Global Alliance and International Networks at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF)
We enter 2021 still grappling with third waves and different strains of the virus, the evolving economic ramifications deepening inequality, whilst facing complex global challenges like the climate crisis.
Civil society’s unique role and value has never been more evident. It has stepped up to plug critical gaps in the response efforts, operating on the frontlines of the Covid-19 response. In comparison with other sectors, civil society is often uniquely placed to be extremely attuned to the shifting needs of vulnerable communities.
How have governments responded to these efforts?
Our recent report – Giving Civil Society the Right Response - created a detailed snapshot of good and bad policy practices, for supporting civil society and leveraging philanthropy, being introduced across countries. Some examples include (more can be found in this framework where we are crowdsourcing examples):
Positive steps on tax relief in countries such as Russia, Belgium and South Africa to encourage individual giving, whereas reform plans in Brazil will increase tax on donations, potentially adding financial pressure to the sector.
In Tunisia and Indonesia, governments have collaborated with civil society organisations (CSOs) to distribute food and get information and advice to track Covid-19 cases.
In Malaysia, CSOs have successfully lobbied the government to allow them to distribute food aid, where during the early stages of the crisis only the army could provide relief. CSOs have also noted a general improvement in communication from the government.
Countries such as Algeria and Uganda have been accused of using the crisis to clamp down on civic action that is critical of the government.
In India, the 2020 Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) has made it harder for CSOs to access foreign funds whereas Nepal has altered its cross-border regulations to stimulate foreign funding and create an enabling environment.
Civil society and government: an undervalued relationship
Overall, we still came to the conclusion that (despite a few laudable exceptions), civil society has largely been an afterthought in official government responses around the world: sidelined as a strategic partner, overlooked as needing support to survive and exposing serious fault lines around a shared understanding of the role of civil society in building strong, stable societies where our freedoms are protected.
Whilst some governments have introduced stimulus packages (albeit after heavy advocacy by the sector itself), they were “retrofitted” for the sector, with few tailored responses that really strengthened its position. Where present, support packages do not seem to fully address the level of financial need and reflect a misunderstanding of the fundraising ecosystem and the value of civil society, assuming services can just ‘stop now and resume later’.
Some governments, such as India and Turkey, have created Covid-19 funds which are diverting resources away from civil society when it is needed the most, funnelling it through opaque bureaucracy. Others have not provided sufficient legal definitions for civil society to receive support and created new regulation which prevents access to funding. Introducing states of emergency during the height of the pandemic in many countries has led to serious concerns around protecting civic space and rights, with little to no government guidance.
The need for a protected and enhanced operating environment
Measures required to tackle the impact of a crisis should be time-bound, not amount to government overreach or be used as justification for limiting civil liberties or create a frustrating operating environment for CSOs. Some good adjustments of systems are being made and there is a real opportunity to capitalise on the good and see how that can be set in place for the longer term. Many governments are adjusting regulatory systems and providing more flexibility for CSOs, reducing reporting and administrative burdens in the UK, and improving tax relief measures in Belgium – this has the advantage of freeing up resources for CSOs already under financial strain and setting a positive precedent for strengthening the enabling environment for civil society.
Growing giving in a broader sense
The crisis continues to highlight the generosity that exists in countries and that giving is not just about financial giving, but that there are other currencies – volunteering, skills, gifts in kind (such as clothing and food) and more. For instance, Kenya’s “informal welfare system” is an essential part of the social fabric and has acted as a safety net, especially during Covid-19. It is underpinned by a philanthropic ecosystem, including individual giving and mutual aid. Growing mass engagement in this broader giving has larger benefits such as greater accountability, a source of unrestricted income, providing legitimacy and credibility to the sector and helping protect and keep civic space open.
The lack of infrastructure is revealing its important role
As INGOs also feel the financial crunch and move operations out of countries; with cuts to aid budgets and millions expected to be pushed back into poverty as a result of Covid-19, the pressure on local CSOs will be intensified. Who and what infrastructure is going to be left behind to ensure that things carry on, that inclusive development remains a priority? The crisis has shown the need for stronger, well-resourced civil society and philanthropy infrastructure, particularly in the Global South where there is chronic underfunding. Infrastructure has innovated, collaborated and created new platforms to increase funding, share insights and work towards a unified voice to improve advocacy efforts. Civil society’s strength has often been in its self-organising ability and coordinated voice, but it requires more support to maintain this. Investment in the very infrastructure that champions and advocates for civil society is needed to remove barriers, strengthen civil society resilience and grow giving.
To find and share more examples of good and bad policy practice, you can find our global policy framework and toolkit here.
Sameera is Head of Global Alliance and International Networks at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). She works with the Global Alliance of partners across 10 countries, a network of locally led organisations, to encourage effective giving and support the development of an enabling environment for civil society. She leads on strengthening and co-ordinating the work of the CAF Global Alliance, and CAF’s involvement in and engagement with relevant international partners and networks.