Lysa John is Secretary General and Mandeep Tiwana is Chief Programmes Officer of global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.
Despite a percentage point decline in trust in NGOs in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, these institutions actually delivered a strong performance during the COVID-19 pandemic — especially in comparison with the well-documented failures of many governments and businesses in dealing with the crisis. Should those notable contributions continue — and we believe they will — then NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) globally may well be in for a reputational rebound in 2022.
Our report, Solidarity in the time of COVID-19, includes many examples of the ways CSOs responded to the crisis with flexibility, creativity, and innovation. They did so in the face of a storm of misinformation and other forces that undermined civil society’s quest for justice and equality. Hostile politicians ramped up censorship and propaganda to mislead the public about their responses. Adding to the confusion, while some businesses loudly said the right things, many of them acted in ways that only increased the pressures on governments and civil society, such as prioritizing their profits and even pumping up their share prices (and billionaire wealth) by abruptly laying off millions of workers when there was no alternative work to be found.
Civil Society Steps Up
Many CSOs were sources of credible information about the pandemic to communities around the world and acted as determined advocates for rights-oriented policies and accountability amid state and market failures. As schools, daycare centers, and shelters were shuttered, government emergency support schemes were often inadequate given the scale of the needs. Existing social safety nets struggled to meet the sudden surge in demand as many people found themselves unable to pay for essentials; and many government emergency responses were poorly designed, hurting some groups even as they helped others. Civil society groups stepped in to provide vital assistance to excluded groups and those without their regular incomes, including stigmatised homeless people in Japan and abandoned trafficked sex workers in Italy. In India, in May 2020, government data indicated that NGOs had outperformed local governments in rapidly providing humanitarian assistance such as free meals to stranded migrant labourers.
Organisations that normally prioritise advocacy for rights rapidly pivoted to provide essential supplies and services to needy communities, including food, healthcare, and cash support. In Chile and Algeria, protest movements such as Movimiento Salud en Resistencia (Health Movement in Resistance) and the Hirak movement reorganised to provide food supplies and personal protective equipment to hospitals. In other contexts, numerous new neighbourhood-level mutual help groups formed, tapping into and enabling local resilience.
While civil society cooperated with governments wherever possible, it did not wait for them to act, and often moved more rapidly than state apparatuses could. CSOs around the world took responsibility, showed leadership and modelled responses that could be scaled up. In Zimbabwe, an urgent legal complaint brought by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights won a ruling that ordered state security forces to respect human rights and refrain from assaulting people during lockdown. In Brazil, a coalition of over 160 CSOs campaigned for the introduction of an emergency basic income, resulting in approval of the scheme ten days after the campaign’s launch. Over half of Brazil’s population is estimated to have directly or indirectly benefited.
Time and again, the civil society response was not simply a case of doling out charity that positioned people as the recipients of aid, but of reaching out to communities that were struggling, hearing people, and working to meet their needs in ways that upheld human dignity and rights while recognising the longterm challenges and histories of exclusion that the pandemic patterned onto.
Given all this, why then did trust in NGOs (apparently) decline? We see at least two reasons.
Civil Society Under Attack
Authoritarianism, polarising populist politics and unregulated markets have provided fertile breeding ground for disinformation — creating what Edelman and others have called “the Infodemic”. Our 2021 State of Civil Society report shows that, while the burgeoning of social media has created new opportunities for enhancing communications and organising by civil society, disinformation in the public sphere has exploded in parallel.
While civil society cooperated with governments wherever possible, it did not wait for them to act, and often moved more rapidly than state apparatuses could.
The pandemic has further increased the deliberate use of disinformation by divisive politicians and anti- rights groups to sow discord, distort discourse and enable attacks on civil society. Social media platforms are awash with sensationalist content driving stigmatising narratives about civil society, including baseless allegations of being foreign agents; anarchists; disruptors of law and order; or underminers of cultural values, economic growth, and national pride.
Such disinformation has contributed to a significant decline in civil society operating environments. This was under way long before the pandemic, though authoritarian governments have used emergency measures to further tighten the screw of censorship, surveillance, and anti-civil society propaganda. The December 2021 annual report of the CIVICUS Monitor, a participatory research platform that measures global civic space conditions, laments that nine out of ten people now live in countries where civic freedoms integral to the ability of NGOs to achieve impact are severely restricted.
In parallel, groups that attack fundamental human rights are on the rise (as we showed in a 2019 report on the impact of anti-rights groups). Authoritarian and populist leaders along-with their supporters among anti-rights groups who oppose civil society’s focus on social justice and human rights are most likely contributing to negative perceptions of, and lower trust in, NGOs.
Given this, the link is revealing between the 2021 Edelman Barometer Report’s data on the protection of individual freedoms, health, and cyber security. Fear of losing cherished citizens’ freedoms (32%) is almost as prevalent as the fear of contracting COVID-19 (35%) and being attacked by hackers (35%). This points to the growing need for civil society’s role in defending fundamental freedoms.
New Frontiers For Civil Society
But there is a second, far more hopeful reason why trust in many minds may have declined — too few observers are aware of an ongoing and profound transformation in the civil society landscape. This shift is being driven by an upsurge in popular protests and social movements coupled with the rise of social enterprises spurred by technological innovations. As a result, today’s civil society is about so much more than NGOs. Although a few international NGOs enjoy name recognition on a par with major corporations, they constitute a tiny sliver of the civil society sphere — and recent scandals at several of them have rightly triggered calls for greater accountability and focused attention on more dynamic alternatives to the big NGO model of charitable, service-delivery or policy-influencing organisations. Our analysis of trends in the period between 2011 to 2021 clearly points to the emergence of these new frontiers for civil society.
New platforms and forms of civic engagement are emerging that enable more direct action, collaboration, and sustained opposition to systemic injustices. Civil society mobilisations during the pandemic have consistently thrown the spotlight on fundamental challenges within prevailing social, economic, and political systems, often resulting in significant shifts in public discourse and policy.
Even as a few international NGOs continue to draw significant public and media attention, ensuring that civil society is trusted as much as it deserves will require the recognition and amplification of a much wider spectrum of civil society efforts.
Even as a few international NGOs continue to draw significant public and media attention, ensuring that civil society is trusted as much as it deserves will require the recognition and amplification of a much wider spectrum of civil society efforts. Candidly, many CSOs are not strong at communicating in ways that resonate with the public. Unlike governments and businesses, civil society invests surprisingly little in communications and public relations.
Many CSOs that operate with limited resources have relied on the integrity and rationality of their messages to make an impact. As disinformation is spread by anti-rights and authoritarian forces, there is an urgent need for approaches beyond conventional modes of outreach to influence public opinion and build trust in more compelling ways.
The pandemic saw innovative uses of social media to engage communities and the public that may point a way ahead. For instance, in Malawi, the Centre for Social Concern and Development used a combination of online and offline means to share messages with girls and young women about strategies to protect themselves from domestic violence while under lockdowns. In Argentina, civil society developed a web platform that geo-referenced local resources for inhabitants of slums and informal neighbourhoods, and enabled them to identify their needs, backed by a virtual assistant to answer questions from people in those neighbourhoods and communication through community social media groups.
The future of civil society lies in being able to fulfil its historic role of promoting rights, defending democracy, and asserting accountability. Our ability to respond to new and increasingly complex societal challenges requires the emergence of newer and more dynamic forms of civil society. In recent years there has been a spotlight on increasing internal mechanisms for accountability and inclusion. In particular, the #AidToo exposés have proved to be moments of reckoning for several NGOs around the world. As we enter a third year of pandemic-related restrictions, a similar process of introspection around opportunities to galvanise the trust and partnership of publics will be critical to the future of civil society and civic action.