Some of these are long-term issues, exacerbated by the pandemic. Charles Gay, Governance and Human Rights Advisor for Christian Aid, provides an overview of the findings and recommendations for CSOs, donor governments and international agencies.
This study aimed to find out: how has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted civic space? What has changed, who has been most affected and why? How are communities, partners, and staff in Christian Aid programmes responding? What must be done to protect and expand this space? Our country teams in Nigeria and Bangladesh gathered primary data from individuals, communities and partner organisations while teams in Colombia, Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and UK developed case studies.
- For civil society groups and Human Rights defenders across the world with the least power, civic space has shrunk due to governments’ Covid-19 restrictions.
- These restrictions were hard to combat due to reductions and changes to funding schemes by donors.
- Some campaigners and Human Rights defenders have found alternatives while others remain weakened and digitally excluded.
Civic space has shrunk for those with least power
In Nigeria one of our partners noted, in response to the government restrictions:
'During Covid-19, we saw a lot of rights violations. Because of the measures put in place, the security agencies took advantage of that and killed some people just because they saw them outside – these people weren’t even armed.'
In Colombia, a history of suppression of public protest worsened under cover of Covid-19, with a marked increase in killings by paramilitary groups of community leaders, activists, human rights defenders and journalists. This State-backed violence has also affected civic space, as activists and journalists self-censor in order to stay safe, especially in rural areas where there is more criminal and paramilitary control.
In the UK, there have been restrictions on the ability of civic scrutiny organisations to hold governments to account, for example, on Covid-19 budgets and procurement.
Freedom of assembly and association was curtailed for example, in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (IOPT) our partners’ work supporting human rights defenders was limited as movement of people was restricted, for example, the Palestinian human rights monitoring and accompaniment organisation, EAPPI, had to be suspended. Under the cover of the need to track Covid-19 patients and movement during the lockdown, the Israeli government increased its mass surveillance of Palestinians. Legal challenges have been used to review this restrictive legislation and behaviours, for example, the Adalah human rights organisation in Palestine won a court case stating that the Israeli Shin Bet intelligence services couldn’t track citizens without legislative authority, even during the Covid-19 pandemic.
We spoke with members of the Dalit community in Bangladesh who spoke of their isolation and fear of the use of restrictions to discriminate against them and gave the following example:
‘Due to a localised lockdown, the Rishipara Dalit community lost access to a public tube-well. When they and their NGOs attempted to negotiate access to the well, they hesitated, due to fear. What especially drove their fear was that the lockdown and then this tube-well incident can also be a pretext for land grabbing – a threat that has been lurking for some years. They were afraid that if they created too much noise over the corona-related backlash, this may lead to a concerted effort to oust them from the neighbourhood, culminating in land-grabbing consequences.’
Funding changes and Operational risks
Our research with CSOs and analysis of donor aid cuts reveals that millions of pounds of funds for strengthening civic space were cut and often Covid-19 responses were channelled into humanitarian relief and social protection projects rather than protecting rights.
In the countries where we carried out research there was a shift taking place towards powerful private sector interests becoming close allies to the government and providing support/receiving funding, for example, in Colombia the government favoured private sector allies as a route for aid funds rather than CSOs, who have often been critical of government actions.
Alternative organising has sprung up
For some activists the pandemic has benefited them, for example, those who had physical difficulty attending meetings in person have been able to take part more due to increasing civic space collaboration online. This has led to increased online audiences for some and new opportunities for certain groups. Yet it has also brought new inequalities of access and participation for those who are digitally excluded because they can’t afford the equipment or to connect to the internet in the first place. For example, poor rural women in Zimbabwe or rural Adivasi communities in Bangladesh couldn’t ‘move online’ to have their voice heard to report a loss of services, accountability and influence. They are the ones that continue to find it harder to assemble and organise, to enjoy free speech and free media, and activism and have effectively lost their voice.
What can be done to improve this situation?
- For this learning to be applied in practice, the international donor community must support civil society actors and state institutions to expand and protect civic space and make it more inclusive.
- CSOs, weakened and isolated by Covid-19 and increasing regulation of activities should be supported to build broad alliances between the most vulnerable groups locally and regionally and globally to seek to reverse the ‘power shift’ by collaborative fundraising, making better use of a more inclusive online space and, where possible, legally challenging government abuses to challenge this trend to greater restriction.
- International institutions must prioritise reversing the long-term negative trend to shrinking civic space. Major donors, including the World Bank and the UN, should increase funding to global civil society organisations representing the most vulnerable groups given the risks they are facing in line with the OECD DAC call for support to Civil Society
- International institutions, donors and civil society coalitions should call for states to make progress to be accountable, effective and build ‘inclusive societies’ using Voluntary Review processes – specifically to meet their SDG16+ commitments. Those countries in the G7 who signed the Open Societies statement in 2021 should live up to their words with actions. This includes the UK government whose plans to restrict civic protest through the Policing Bill proposed currently run counter to their commitments.