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A New Order for Civil Society Organizations?

¿Nuevo orden para organizaciones de la sociedad civil?

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María Baron|

Amid uncertainty over the advance of COVID-19, the only thing for sure is that nothing, or very little, will stay the same. For civil society organizations working on transparency and open government issues, the challenges are monumental. From how we go about redefining our missions to the new actors emerging and chains of engagement, the fallout will be felt at various levels and affect us profoundly:

1. Organizational Missions and Visions

The inescapable new reality of coronavirus has already prompted many of us to refocus our missions and objectives. Some traditional approaches and initiatives will no longer do in this scenario and its new rules of the game. Instead we must take stock and rethink our strategies, though that won’t happen overnight. Moving forward, we need to be clear on what exactly the new challenges will be for open government and re-calibrate our strategies accordingly.

For example, Directorio Legislativo, the organization I lead, and other partners  had to suspend a training on open government to Mexican Parliament officials this month. What is more, there is a need to face down slowly emerging threats to the openness agenda in the Americas. In the last two weeks alone, at least four countries have tried to curb rights to access information (Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras). So, how do we not back slide on old challenges while we adjust to the new one?

2. Organizational Structure

This is complex because it concerns issues that were pending before coronavirus, namely challenges in working remotely and online for civil society organizations in developing countries, which often display significant infrastructure gaps. Cell phone signals not always registering, staff lacking their own Wi-Fi or with poor connections, frequent power cuts: these and other obstacles make working from home hard to adapt to, slash productivity and often see tasks and projects go undelivered. So with this in mind, how can CSOs work to mitigate and bridge this digital divide with other regions?

3. New Actors

 Key difficulties emerge around this. Because the ministries, agencies and other government bodies with which we have interacted are, at present, either shut for business or have turned their attention to dealing with the crisis. Many are thus blurring from the scene or disappearing altogether. For example, the region’s Congresses have barely begun organizing for virtual meetups, with only those of Chile and Brazil holding formal plenary meetings thus far.

 This leads to another alarming aspect. For those of us who work on matters of transparency and open government, it is concerning how in some countries individual rights and freedoms are being eroded through ‘exceptional measures’ to address the health crisis. 

From an uptick in the persecution of independent media or journalists (expectedly in Venezuela and Bolivia, while Honduras eventually backtracked on a decree to limit freedom of expression) to intrusive surveillance (Ecuador authorized geolocation tracking of citizens not complying with the quarantine), to excessive police force (reports of police lynchings in Argentina), it is the most fragile democracies that are the most vulnerable to this. Though other states have also, opportunistically if more subtly, pushed through contentious provisions (alcohol bans in some states of Mexico, for instance). The task facing our organizations is how to prevent such ad hoc measures staying in place – and worse, becoming the norm – once the crisis passes. What role should CSOs play, then, to safeguard the healthy functioning of our institutions and their protagonists?

4. Decision-making

Decision-making processes have changed dramatically and have been reduced to a narrow band of individuals, not necessarily limited to public officials or other recognizable figures. In other words, decision-making is no longer pre-established, even moderately transparent, and respective of different normative levels and procedures.

Many of the countries’ responses are not being backed by official signatures or supporting documentation: they are utterly informal “unofficial measures”. Often they are shared publicly such as in press conferences, but not always. Some are minor (such as decisions to reorganize public transport in Argentina), while others have major consequences. For instance Mexico restricted non-essential travel across its border with the United States, but this decision has not been registered in the Official Journal of the Federation. This runs wholly counter to years of efforts by organizations worldwide pushing for the opposite. So how can we contribute to restoring formality and transparency in decision-making? How can we  regain legitimacy and openness to processes that are becoming so distorted?

5. Donors and Funds

Amid the economic and social unease another challenge raises its head: how to retain donors’ trust in our organizations in the aftermath of the pandemic – providing, that is, they at all plan to continue backing pro-transparency work and are interested in our projects in principle. Beyond this, however, we also need to work with our funders to jointly rethink and refit our activities to the new context. A big question mark thus hangs over the very sustainability of our organizations. Will donors desert us? Will their priorities change, and with that those who receive their funding?

 

Perhaps, in this new and uncertain order post-COVID-19, civil society organizations will have the chance to reaffirm ourselves, our strengths, and draw on the great many battles and achievements we have won over the years, and to reassert our present day offer: what we possess, our resources and expertise, and our huge allround value. Aside from our shared agenda of principles, which we are all guided by, what is most important, I believe, is the strong community of activists that has been built up in the region and beyond, committed to making our societies fairer and more equitable. That, we do have. Undoubtedly.

Comments (4)

Lucas Orlando Reply

Excelente aporte como siempre.-

Lester Reply

Bueno análisis. Gracias por hacerlo. Muchas OSC prefieren ver afuera, sin analizar dónde están parados.

Mohammad Qader Mesbah Reply

It is precisely; our organization that a national organization in Afghanistan agrees with the challenge you have posed.
We believe Minimises power problems, Internet, mobile phones, the war crisis, insecurity, coercion that had transparency, information and accountability.

Alicia Fasta Reply

Buen análisis, sobre todo al señalar el problema que tienen gran parte de los países de América Latina, que no se cuenta con acceso a internet o peor aún a una computadora y esto debilita la participación ciudadana. Considero que se deben reconsiderar los planes de acción y apoyar a nuestras comunidades desde nuestra trinchera.

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