By Rod MacLeod
The world is facing an unprecedented challenge. What started as a health problem is now affecting education, work, businesses and the wider economy. It touches us as individuals, families, communities and wider society – right across the globe. While urgent and decisive action is required, the ramifications of this crisis are likely to be felt for many years to come.
Given the almost overwhelming competing demands, it is possible that some sectors may get left behind. INTRAC’s concern is for civil society – particularly in the Global South. At this time, it is needed more than ever, as states struggle to support the most vulnerable through this crisis. Civil society organisations (CSOs) need to keep monitoring and championing human rights so that they are protected as much as possible and marginalised groups are not ignored. As a primary means to reach local people, it is essential then that funders and supporters of CSOs in the Global North act promptly and decisively at this critical moment.
Southern Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are vital in providing services to communities and advocating for change with influential decision makers.
As a primary means to reach local people, it is essential that CSOs are not overlooked in the understandable rush to address pressing health and economic issues closer to home.
Many are facing existential threats right now. If they do not adjust and receive the support necessary to maintain themselves as organisations, they could well collapse. What can be done to address this? From my experience as an organisational development consultant, here is an initial agenda for action.
Guaranteeing the necessary financial support
What a Southern partner would most want to hear is that funding is guaranteed for the next year, which will cover operational and staff costs, even if they are unable to carry out previously planned programme activities. There are different ways to do this (changing deadlines, accepting re-allocations to operational costs), but this needs to be done urgently to reassure and head off panic measures, like laying off staff. This may mean INGOs negotiating with their upstream donors for more flexibility at this unprecedented time.
At the same time, no one wants to be seen to be throwing money around recklessly. If donors can give provide such a guarantee, a condition could be that partners have a reasonable, but shortish amount of time (e.g. a month) to come up with a realistic plan as to how they can use the next year productively. This might be a mix of revised programme activities and capacity development through online training and workshops. Such a plan can contain could contain two or three different scenarios, for when the situation improves to underline the need for flexible thinking.
Help leaders of CSOs to make the right decisions
Even if some donors are able to show such flexibility, others will not. It will therefore be a real challenge for many local organisations to keep their heads above water financially. While fixed costs like salaries and rent continue month on month, if income dries up, Southern CSOs can rapidly find themselves in difficulties.
There are no easy answers in such situations, but organisations are likely to look at cutting unnecessary costs, freezing salary increases and asking for actual reductions in some cases. If this is necessary, then the pain should be borne across the board, creating a sense of being ‘in this together’. Ultimately staff will want to keep their jobs, rather than lose them completely and it is in everyone’s interests that capacity is retained to be able to scale up rapidly in the future. Landlords can be asked for rent holidays – and will probably have few other options for tenants at the moment.
Staff and communities will understandably be frightened and concerned for their futures. Reassurance and contact are vital in these circumstances, even while maintaining physical distance. This can be more important than more tangible forms of assistance. This is a time when real leadership skills are needed to maintain morale and make the right decisions. Hard choices may be necessary, but it is vital that they are taken to further the mission of the organisation in the longer run, rather than being the most expedient option. The ‘heart of the onion’ – the mission, vision and culture at the heart of any organisation – remains as important as ever, however challenging the times.
International support institutions can also play a role in leadership coaching and mentoring, facilitating and sharing ideas and learning so that leaders can access support to tackle thorny questions in a fair and responsible manner.
Support creative programming that is safe but effective
In the first place, this is a health problem, so the first concern is how to protect staff and communities. INTRAC is not a health organisation, so would defer to others such as the World Health Organisation and the relevant authorities in each country.
Such guidance is aimed at steps to avoid becoming infected. But many CSOs are on the frontline with communities. In South Sudan or North East Nigeria, local organisations have continued to work in war zones through the most difficult times. So, Southern CSOs may well feel that they want to continue to work with their communities, even at risk to themselves and their staff and volunteers. Such work cannot always be done from the safety of self-isolation. Clear guidelines are therefore required to be able to work directly with people, while minimising risks.
But beyond this, thought needs to be given as to what types of programme work are most appropriate in this context. Ideally, hospital intensive care provision can be scaled up, but this is not realistic in many contexts. It may be that volunteer home care support (as developed during the HIV and AIDS crisis in countries like Zambia and Uganda) should be revitalised.
There are likely to be rapidly developing socio-economic needs emerging as borders close, businesses shut down and supply chains are interrupted. Existing means such as cash transfer might need to be upscaled. But if markets become overstretched, there may be a need for more direct provision of aid.
This new scenario can lead to exacerbated protection issues that need to be addressed. Creative programming ideas should be rapidly developed to deliver support, while minimising risk to all involved.
The impact on Southern CSOs might not be the first thought on people’s minds as they hear the latest figures on COVID-19 in their country. But in dealing with the consequences – both in the short and the longer term – the continued good health of CSOs is also vital. This needs both a solid commitment from international supporters (at a time of many competing demands), but also creative thinking. With this, Southern CSOs will not only survive, but also play a vital role in meeting immediate needs and accompanying communities on the long road to recovery.
More on INTRAC’s COVID-19 response