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All hands on deck: three reasons why civil society is needed in the response to COVID-19

All hands on deck: three reasons why civil society is needed in the response to COVID-19

Promoting transparency and accountability are important goals in themselves. But the current crisis has also shown how much government decision makers stand to benefit from open and inclusive governance.

The health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are unfolding day-by-day. It is having a dramatic effect on the economic contribution of the extractive sector, and creating wider social impacts that governments and companies cannot tackle on their own. At the international level, the UN has called for collaborative leadership and multilateralism. At a community level, social cohesion and cooperation are critical to mitigate the health, economic and social impacts of the virus.

In the extractives sector, experience from the EITI’s multi-stakeholder approach has shown that civil society can contribute knowledge, networks and diversity to policy debate. But civil society organisations can only play this role if they have the freedom to operate. Faced with the pressure of handling a crisis, some governments may be intolerant towards criticism, leaving civil society further isolated or under threat.      

Safeguarding space stays on the agenda

To control the spread of COVID-19, governments have had to adopt drastic and extraordinary measures. In some cases, these responses have included limitations to basic rights, such as the freedom of movement and assembly. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s COVID-19 tracker is monitoring these responses, detailing legislation that can affect freedom of expression, assembly and privacy. Restrictions on press freedom and sweeping emergency laws have been further highlighted in analysis by Civicus.    

While urgent and decisive actions are necessary to control the pandemic, caution is required to ensure that overly broad responses do not constrain civic space, beyond measures necessary for the preservation of public health.

How governments stand to benefit

There are at least three ways civil society can play a meaningful role in mitigating the negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.

Tapping insight

Civil society organisations offer deep expertise and insight. A recent example from Zimbabwe shows how grass roots community campaigns can have far-reaching consequences, by applying the knowledge and skills of civil society activists.

Harnessing such expertise can help governments understand a fast-moving and complex situation. Inputs from civil society can support government assessments and inform collective, community-based responses. An example is a recent briefing from the Centro de Integridade Publica, which highlights the potential implications of COVID-19 for the extractive sector in Mozambique.

In a similar vein, Colombia’s Alliance for Responsible Mining and Solidaridad has analysed the impact of COVID-19 on artisanal and small-scale mining in that country, and offers concrete recommendations to support an industry that employs close to half a million people. It also offers an alternative perspective on the future of the sector, calling for a rethinking of our consumption habits and greater focus on responsible production. 

A barometer for society

In responding effectively to the crisis, policy makers also need to be able to understand the perspectives of citizens and respond quickly to their concerns. Because they operate at a community level, civil society organisations can act as a barometer for gauging the mood of communities and their response to measures introduced by governments. An example is South Africa’s Corruption Watch, which has documented sentiments from mining communities. In the Republic of the Congo, Publish What You Pay is calling on government to stabilise the economy and protect vulnerable communities.  

A platform for dialogue and inclusion

In these uncertain times, responsible actions are needed from all stakeholders. As the extractive sector rebuilds from a period of volatile commodity prices, lockdowns and demand shocks, civil society organisations can help rebuild the confidence of international partners. Effective control of the pandemic will require public trust, cooperation and the acceptance of measures necessary for limiting the pandemic. Civil society organisations have a role to play in disseminating information to communities and building support for balanced approaches from government.  Publish What You Pay Indonesia is increasing awareness on how to avoid spreading COVID-19.

What next?

In these and many other ways, civil society organisations across resource-rich countries are already contributing to our collective response to the crisis. A heavy-handed approach which includes government crackdowns on dissenting views and the excessive use of force is likely to antagonise the general public rather than build trust and aid recovery.

Members of EITI multi-stakeholder groups know the value of discussing around the same table. The pandemic is limiting interaction, but we have a few tips for stakeholders:

Governments: Uphold freedom of expression and share data. While the pandemic may justify temporary restrictions related to physical gatherings, public debate should continue in the media and through other virtual means.

Civil society organisations: Check facts. Civil society actors have an important role to play in contributing to fact-based public debate and weeding out misinformation.

Companies: Communicate decisions and projections to affected communities, community-based organisations, media and policymakers. COVID-19 is affecting many oil and mining projects, and companies can manage stakeholder concerns by communicating clearly about the implications.