Some governments are taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to abuse their powers, restrict freedoms, suppress critical voices, and accelerate anti-democratic projects. This column reports evidence from Mozambique, Nigeria, and Pakistan that civil society actors have responded to pandemic challenges with fresh impetus and new ways of working. Yet the civic space in which they are operating is acutely threatened. Changes in the nature of civic space and civic action have long-term implications for governance. They call for adjustments on the part of the aid agencies that support civil society.
Covid-19 has shown that civic space matters. Throughout the pandemic, civil society actors have responded practically to the health and livelihoods emergency, as well as engaging with authorities in critical debate about the pandemic and how it has been governed. Particularly for marginalized people and communities who suffer the impacts of crisis disproportionately, what has happened in civic space in these times has been crucial for survival.
Yet globally, civic space was shrinking even before the pandemic – and this trend has only accelerated and deepened under cover of Covid-19.
These experiences before and during the pandemic are typified in Mozambique, Nigeria, and Pakistan – countries where public health systems, the social contract, and governance relationships have been under strain throughout post-colonial history. As our research shows, when the pandemic added to the pressure, civil society stepped into vital roles in health promotion, service delivery, and public distribution of Covid-19 relief.
Yet while helping authorities to protect populations from the pandemic, civil society has had to protect populations and civic space itself from the authorities. Governments have taken advantage of the crisis to abuse their powers, restrict freedoms, suppress critical voices, and speed up anti-democratic projects.
To explore what has been happening in civic space and the implications for governance and development in the longer term, we have used observatory panels composed of civil society actors, set up by our research partners: the Institute for Social and Economic Studies (Mozambique); Spaces for Change (Nigeria); and the Collective for Social Science Research (Pakistan).
The panels were underpinned by event cataloguing based on traditional and social media reports, a continuous scan of global research and commentary, and regular collective ‘sense-making’ moments when we took cross-country and global perspectives. The data generated were therefore grounded, contextualized, and granular.
Civic space: squeezed, suppressed, and divided
On top of pre-existing assaults on civic freedoms, pandemic-induced restrictions on freedom of assembly, executive over-reach, and human rights abuses in enforcing regulations crowded in.
Governments moved fast, decisively, and sometimes violently to suppress critical debate about the pandemic and restrictions. In Nigeria, a resurgence of the EndSARS protest against police brutality, sparked by fresh abuses, led to targeted attacks on individuals and organizations. In Pakistan, women journalists critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic experienced harassment on social media, with the ruling party’s involvement.
Suppression and silencing extended opportunistically beyond criticism of government responses to Covid-19. The uncovering of a major government corruption scandal in Mozambique mid-pandemic by independent media group Canla-i was met with the torching of the group’s offices.
Offices of the independent media house Canal de Moçambique following publication of investigations into state corruption, August 2020. Credit: Lucas Meneses, Canal de Moçambique
Divisions deepened in societies along longstanding fault lines – based on religion, ethnicity, or livelihood. Tensions arose between different regions, and between central and sub-national authorities. Regions seen as troublesome found their regional autonomy curtailed, and in the case of Baluchistan, Pakistan, lost out on Covid-19 relief supplies.
The re-direction of public and international donor funds towards pandemic responses provided important opportunities for civil society actors to collaborate with each other and with governments in delivering services or relief. But they also diverted funds from existing programs, intensified competition among civil society actors, and upped the pressure on advocacy organizations which, increasingly framed as controversial, had already been suffering funding problems.
The changing complexion of civic action
Civic action changed during this period in terms of who took action, which issues mobilized people, and their repertoires of action.
In all three countries, the healthcare sector mobilized massively around pandemic-related grievances on top of prior grievances. In Nigeria and Pakistan, alliances forged in these mobilizations spanned the healthcare sector like none before – from senior doctors to grassroots health workers and medical students.
Many civil society organizations partnered with governments in delivering Covid-19 relief, and some also acted as watchdogs. Coalitions for monitoring government handling of relief sprang up in Nigeria and Mozambique, in places getting surprising levels of cooperation from the government.
Major disruptions to education everywhere saw staff and students mobilizing to protect the quality of learning and the health of students and staff.
Increases in gender-based violence under lockdown generated multiple forms of digital activism as well as practical responses. Unprecedented public condemnation of gender-based violence and harassment, online and offline, had some significant outcomes in terms of commitments to improve legal frameworks in Nigeria and Pakistan.
A spate of demonstrations defended basic livelihoods, as formal and informal workers struggled to survive under lockdown or rejected untimely policy changes threatening their livelihoods. Some actions were led by actors that had never previously been prominent in protests – celebrities; occupational groups such as small fisherfolk in Pakistan; and mixed, cross-class, cross-sector coalitions.
Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum holds a protest at sea in September 2020 against government plans that threaten their livelihoods. Credit: Khizer Habib
Governance after the pandemic
Our research adds to a growing body of evidence – from CIVICUS and V-Dem Institute among others – that while civic space is acutely threatened, civil society itself is responding to Covid-19-related challenges with fresh impetus and some new ways of navigating and operating.
So far, civil society’s response in Mozambique, Nigeria, and Pakistan has been to hold existing spaces while also staking out some new ones in which to continue challenging their governments as well as delivering services. But this often happens amid harassment and danger.
The moral indignation aroused by mishandling of the pandemic – particularly around over-reach of security forces, unaccountable management of relief supplies, and unfair fallout on livelihoods – may energize people for some time to come. It may also extend to other issues, and move activists towards more unruly and less co-optable forms of civic action.
The terrain on which relations between citizens and the state play out has been transformed by the securitization of public health and democratic governance unleashed by Covid-19. Once governments cease to need civil society to deliver pandemic responses, there is a risk of continued shrinkage of civic arenas and targeted attacks on both the underlying civic values necessary for resolving differences peacefully, and on the key actors espousing these values.
Our report resonates with others in arguing that aid agencies must attune their operational and political support for civil society partners to these new levels of risk, and take concerted multilateral action themselves in robust defense of civic space.
Rosie McGee is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and the University of Sussex.