Preserving and Protecting Civic Space amid COVID-19

Mott program officers discuss pandemic, protests, and the future of civic engagement

Infographic depicting the elements of Civic Society necessary for a healthy world: the illustration has the image of the world represented by a picture of Earth, justice represented by a judge's gavel, access to information represented by a mobile phone, access to the internet and technology represented by a laptop, people power represented by a fist, security represented by a lock, and a face mask to represent the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Illustration: Craig Kelley Jr.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a flashpoint for an already stressed global civil society. There have been rapid changes to civic space, and the full ramifications are still evolving. As people and organizations grapple with operating under constantly shifting circumstances, the pandemic is highlighting the need for civil society organizations to address both the public health crisis and the underlying, systemic issues of inequity it has exposed.

A few of Mott’s Civil Society program officers recently came together from different parts of the globe for a virtual discussion, taking stock of the pandemic’s broad impacts to the sector, and reflecting on how the current moment may permanently reshape the future of civic space. Nick Deychakiwsky and Carlos Rios-Santiago joined the conversation from Michigan, Walter Veirs joined from London, and Mamo Mohapi offered her perspective from Johannesburg. They were interviewed by Jessica Jones, communications officer for the team, who is also based in Michigan.

Zoom meeting window that displays three male and two female team members discussing the challenges and triumphs of the current civic apace environment.
Members of the Civil Society team gather online to reflect on the current moment and future of civic space.
Photo: Jessica Jones

Here are some highlights:

Mott: What kind of challenges has the COVID-19 pandemic created for global civic space?

Walter Veirs: First, it’s clear that we are in uncharted territory as we navigate civic space in the context of a global health emergency. On a basic level, the pandemic has restricted and limited civic space simply by curtailing our ability to meet and interact face-to-face. The physical aspect of coming together — which is really at the heart of community and civil society — was largely taken away. We can’t forget how vital participating in, and monitoring, government activity is to a functioning democracy, and those activities are difficult to carry out in an era of physical distancing.

Carlos Rios-Santiago: I think at the heart of any crisis, people demand action. Many times, that has unfortunately resulted in governments having the approval of their citizens to enact restrictions and create new laws without considering the long-term repercussions. In times of crisis, many people don’t really care about tomorrow if they think they’re going to die today. So, some may be willing to sacrifice future liberty for current security. We’ve already seen evidence of many governments using the pandemic to expand their powers, crack down on dissent, and limit or control access to information — all under the guise of protecting public health. But such measures could far outlive the emergency. The U.S. Patriot Act that was passed after 9/11 is an example that comes to mind.

Mott: How is civil society working to respond?

Veirs: Many civil society organizations reacted quickly to identify and highlight risks to civil society and civic space from the pandemic. For example, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and the European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law immediately launched the COVID-19 tracker, a great tool for monitoring government responses globally and identifying the ways governments’ reactions to the pandemic are shrinking space for civil society. This kind of work will be crucial to pushing back against overreaching restrictions and ensuring that temporary measures do not become permanent.

Nick Deychakiwsky: Even in the face of an uncertain future, we’ve seen an extraordinary response from nonprofits and other civil society groups. Many immediately jumped into action to do all they could to help people in need weather the storm. Neighbors are helping neighbors, and countless community groups have mobilized volunteers and raised and distributed funds to lessen the pandemic’s most severe effects — often at the expense of their primary missions. So, while the pandemic and the government responses to it have in some cases challenged civic space, there’s also been a lot of energy, creativity and solidarity arising from it. We need to build on this and take the opportunity to emphasize and reinforce the important and vital role of civil society — locally, nationally, and globally.

Mamo Mohapi: Mott grantees in Africa are working hard to respond to the challenge. One example is the Community Immunity campaign launched by Southern Africa Trust and the Africa Philanthropy Network, in partnership with Trust Africa. This campaign will respond to the immediate and long-term needs of those at the margins of society in Africa and will raise awareness and funding to support communities across the continent that are most at risk due to the pandemic. Funds raised also will be used to support policy initiatives to provide long-term solutions.

Mott: What about the sector’s infrastructure organizations? How are they working to help nonprofits and philanthropy navigate such a difficult time?

Deychakiwsky: The pandemic dealt a major blow to the financial resource base of nonprofits and other civil society organizations. Infrastructure groups have been working hard to respond to this issue and find ways to help much needed resources flow back to the organizations that need them most. It’s great to see the sector’s infrastructure doing what is was set up to do: mobilize, network, and lead members and the field on important issues. In the U.S., groups like the National Council of Nonprofits carried out intensive advocacy efforts to ensure that the CARES Act stimulus bill included important provisions to provide relief to nonprofits, which will help many organizations continue to serve their communities throughout the crisis. The nonprofit sector in the U.S. employs 10% of the country’s workforce, but economic stimulus policies are often only tailored to for-profit entities. So, it’s clear why the “social economy” needs this advocacy voice.

Veirs: One thing infrastructure organizations worldwide have in common is they recognize their important role in stepping up as advocates for the sector. Like efforts seen in the U.S., many groups throughout Europe are working to protect civil society organizations by making sure they are included in recovery and stimulus efforts that governments are considering in one form or another.

Mohapi: Traditionally, it’s been difficult for networks in Africa to make the case for their existence because the need for infrastructure is still a relatively new idea. But the pandemic has created a situation where many organizations for the first time are looking for a space where they can come together with their peers and colleagues to figure out how best to respond. We’ve seen a lot of national and regional networks stepping up to help coordinate their members’ response and leading discussions on how the pandemic has affected the sector.

Mott: How is the sudden increased use of digital technology affecting civic space?

Veirs: We have all become keenly aware of just how dependent we are on the internet and digital technology not only for public health, but also for education, civic engagement, and development around the world. At the same time, the pandemic has shined a light on the vast digital divide that exists throughout society. Many people and nonprofits don’t have access to much needed technology or don’t know how to use it effectively. But I think we’re seeing interesting innovation and experimentation with how civil society actors use online spaces to make their voices heard, demand their rights and hold decision-makers accountable. Many of our grantees, including Access Now, TechSoup, Stanford University and ICNL, see this moment as an opportunity to advance digital rights issues and policies that will steer innovation to solutions that address current challenges and enhance basic freedoms, civic engagement and democratic values.

Rios-Santiago: I hope this shift toward operating almost exclusively online will serve as a bit of a wake-up call that digital technology isn’t a separate issue for civil society to grapple with. In 2020, it is core to our existence. Digital issues permeate all aspects of the work of nonprofits and philanthropy, and digital access to information is critically important. Issues such as censorship, cybersecurity and data privacy — they all profoundly affect civil society. Increasingly, the bigger, more established infrastructure organizations realize this should be part of their core work, which is a good sign.

Mott: The pandemic has shined a light on the vast levels of injustice and inequity that continue to plague our society. And in the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed a groundswell of protest activity and civic engagement from people who want to effect change. As someone whose work focuses on protecting and preserving civic space, how does this moment resonate with you?

Mohapi: Recent protests in the U.S. have highlighted the importance of protecting the space for civic action. In many parts of the world, we have seen how organized civil society has fought against inequality and other injustices. In South Africa, civil society organizations were an important part of the anti-apartheid struggle, and they will be just as important to addressing inequities in the U.S.

Veirs: I think it is a powerful reminder of why protecting and preserving civic space — even in the midst of an extraordinary public health crisis — is so critical. We need this space if we are going to address racism in the US, and we need it if we are going to address climate change, inequality, and other injustices and challenges our societies face. We need to work to ensure people have space to protest and demonstrate peacefully, and to organize and advocate for change.

Rios-Santiago: I feel that police brutality is one of the most overtly cruel and obvious displays of the systemic racism in America. And with the death of yet another Black man at the hands of the police, it seems that many in our society have reached a breaking point and are rightfully protesting. We see racism in all aspects of society, and a depressing number of Americans want to keep it that way. It’s not all bleak, however. Most nonprofits and philanthropies want to see progress and are trying to address this issue head on in their programming, internal structures and grantmaking. I’m also pleased to see young people recognizing the power of their voice and, in many cases, leading the charge on civic activism. Their passion and sense of urgency to tear down old systems and build up better ones is encouraging.

Deychakiwsky: Witnessing recent events has caused many of us to ask ourselves if we are doing enough and what groups we should be engaging on issues of race — particularly the anti-Black racism that continues to pervade American society. While I’m pleased to see many infrastructure groups paying more attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I also see it as a challenge for them to play a more specific and greater role in dismantling structural racism. As a funder and a participant in these organizations, we at Mott believe it’s important that infrastructure organizations lead efforts to transform the sector’s engagement.