Could COVID-19 have severe effects for Civil Society?

CIDT has worked with civil society organisations for over 40 years, most recently in the context of a large EU and DFID funded four year programme in the Congo Basin. This project Citizen Voices for Change supports non-governmental organisations in Cameroon, Gabon, Central Africa Republic, Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo to strengthen their capacity in independent forest monitoring and more recently the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

We are particularly concerned about the unfolding impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on civic space and the enabling environment for civil society. Some effects may be superficial or short-term in nature, but others may have profound and potentially long-term implications for civic space and the potential of civil society actors to occupy and defend it.

One profound effect could be calibration of citizen-state relations and impacts on rights. Citizens across the world are inevitably looking to governments for strong leadership in responding to the Coronavirus pandemic. The need for fast and decisive action, which in most countries includes the passing of emergency legislation, has entailed fundamental changes to the rights and freedoms previously enjoyed by citizens.

All of us hope and most of us assume that the loss of rights will be temporary. However, some may rightly fear that ‘states and security sectors will find emergency powers attractive because they offer shortcuts’ and that in some cases such powers will, therefore, tend to ‘persist and become permanent.

Additionally, the postponement of democratic elections in countries across the world and the suspension of political debate in response to the crisis are a threat to the civic space, who reply on these to achieve their goals. At the date of writing (14thAugust 2020) at least 69 countries and territories across the globe have decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to COVID-19.

A further concern is the likelihood of a worsening funding environment for civil society. The global economic recession which will inevitably follow the pandemic is likely to have a devastating impact on the funding opportunities that NGO platforms and their members depend on for their survival.

Coordinated efforts within and between countries will inevitably remain difficult, threatening positive initiatives such as those demonstrated in the Citizen Voices for Change (CV4C) project stories of change, which show regional advancements in independent forest monitoring. Sharing successful practice and lessons across between countries is crucial to the advancement of civil society activities.

There is a risk that the pandemic will further weaken forest governance and law enforcement systems in project countries in the Congo Basin. Whilst national civil society organisations must remain vigilant, international agencies must ensure that resources are available during and after the pandemic so that forest illegalities remain in check and organised crime groups held to account.

The CIDT team supporting partners to counter trade in illegal wildlife are cognisant of a potential watershed moment, provoked by the links between illegal wildlife trade and the virusThere is no going back. In twelve weeks the world has changed completely.” Cristian Walzer, Wildlife Conservation Society.

With these and many more issues coming into view, we will be watching and acting vigilantly as the effects of the pandemic no doubt continue long after lockdown restrictions are eased.

Sarah Thomas, CIDT


Photo: Civil society led forest monitoring is crucial to ensuring legality of timber in the Congo Basin. Credit: CIEDD.

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