- The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systemic flaws and drastic inequality.
- Civil society has a critical role in global pandemic and economic recovery.
- In the wake of the crisis, civil society can serve as an advocate, a watchdog and a trusted authority.
As countries begin easing COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures, calls to not “go back to normal” are getting louder. The pandemic has exposed systemic flaws and highlighted the drastic inequality in our global neoliberal system.
For example, a privileged minority of the global population has been able to work from home, while the majority of workers have risked their own health and the health of their families to keep food on the table. The virus has revealed the essential value of under-paid positions in the health and food production sectors. These socio-economic impacts are felt even more by women, who make up the majority of the essential workforce and are more likely to do unpaid domestic and care work. Indigenous and rural communities without running water for regular and careful handwashing are also disproportionality affected. Moreover, the most marginalised and poorest populations are hit hardest not only by the virus but also by the global economic crisis.
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Glaring inequality and the threat of an exacerbated wealth gap fuel the desire for a global socio-economic transformation – a new social contract. We now have the chance to build it.
This call for systemic change is coming from all corners of the globe, from citizens and advocacy groups to some of the largest global companies. But for change to be effective, all sectors of society must be involved – especially civil society.
What is civil society?
Often called the “third sector”, civil society is a term frequently used but rarely fully understood.
The World Bank defines civil society as “the wide array of non-governmental and not for profit organizations that have a presence in public life, express the interests and values of their members and others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations”. This includes big and small NGOs like Amnesty International, labour unions like ITUC, idigenous groups such as AFPAT, religious communities and multi-faith organizations such as Religions for Peace and activists and social movements rallying around a specific cause.
Civil society is an essential stakeholder in the global ecosystem and democratic states – and civil society must be a core part of the international coronavirus recovery. Here’s why.
As much as celebrities like to say “we are all in this together”, we are not all experiencing COVID-19 in the same way. (Social inequality strikes again.)
While the most privileged have been able to isolate without worrying about future income, a huge number of people have experienced hardship, forced to isolate in small spaces and in difficult conditions, if they can isolate at all. Civil society organisations provide important aid; as one example, with families in lockdown, domestic abuse hotlines are lightning up. Around the globe, other organisations advocate for people without running water, without internet access, for minorities and for the poor.
Civil society acts as the democratic watchdog. This is a crucial function in times of a pandemic when governments adopt emergency powers to act efficiently to combat it. Nationwide lockdowns and restrictions can be justified by the severity of COVID-19 but must be proportional and time-bound. Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have spoken out against human rights violations under the guise of national protection. Access Now and Transparency International highlight restrictions on media and journalists and call for digital rights protection in governmental tracking systems.
Civil society’s experience in scrutinising government and private sector action and demanding more transparency and accountability is needed to build a fairer, more just and more rights-respecting post-pandemic future.
3. Communication and trust
From the start of the pandemic to the ease of the lockdown, efficient communication and trust in government have been critical so citizens follow national emergency orders like wearing masks and staying inside. In Iran, lack of trust in the government led to citizens ignoring governmental advice, thereby undermining the efficiency of its measures.
As the 2009 H1N1 pandemic showed, when public health emergencies are politicised and government communication is conflicting, trust in national administration is undermined. Here, civil society provides an essential link between the government and citizens. In many regions, civil society has more trust and moral authority than the government, as well as a wide network that reaches the most rural areas. This is especially the case for faith communities, which provide aid but also solidarity to vulnerable parts of society, acting as both information channels and first responders. This trust is crucial when recovering from the pandemic and resetting the global economy.
What is civil society?
Whether you call it “third sector”, “social sector” or “volunteerland”, civil society includes an array of different causes, groups, unions and NGOs. Their combined aim is to hold governments to account, promoting transparency, lobbying for human rights, mobilizing in times of disaster and encouraging citizen engagement.
Ranging from small online campaigns to giants such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, civil society employs around 54 million full-time workers and has a global volunteer force of over 350 million.
The World Economic Forum is committed to accelerating the impact of civil society organizations. With a view to this, it created Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a multi-sectoral platform to support the transformation of the social sector and its inclusion in the governance of emerging technologies.
Civil society is a key stakeholder for driving public-private collaboration and advancing the Forum’s mission. Through dialogue series and platform initiatives, civil society actors from a wide range of fields come together to collaborate with government and business leaders on finding and advocating solutions to global challenges.
Despite being severely restricted in their mobility and activity, civil society groups like humanitarian organizations, advocacy groups, development organizations, religious communities and multi-faith organizations and community-based organizations have met the needs of local, regional and global communities during the crisis. The pandemic has revealed how our unequal global systems make us vulnerable to future system-level challenges: economic crises, climate change, future pandemics.
To increase global resilience, we need the “new social contract” called for by citizens, civil society organisations and even businesses. And civil society’s networks, experience and knowledge are indispensable for it to succeed.