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[EN] Innovation Hub Blog

Behind hard data: the impact of COVID-19 on CSOs

Author: Lau Schulpen (Radboud University)

15 februari 2022

On 13 January, my colleague Rose Maruru (from EPIC Africa) and I bombarded participants in a Partos webinar with hard data on the impact of COVID-19 on Southern Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). In both our presentations (in the case of Rose based on research among 1.039 CSOs in 46 African countries and in my case on research among 136 Southern partners of Dutch INGOs in 28 countries) we came with comparable findings. Together we showed, among other things, that ’68.1% experienced a loss of funding since the start of the pandemic’, ’63.2% now offer part of their activities online’, ’87.1% reported increased anxiety and stress levels among staff’ and ‘61% have reduced the salary of their staff’. 

Presentation Lau Schulpen

Presentation Rose Mararu

Interesting and relevant as these data are, three other findings are way more important.  

The first relates to the flexibility and creativity of Southern CSOs. Many not only do things differently (e.g. move to online activities) but also do new things (e.g. emergency aid) and have expanded the groups they are working with and for. COVID-19 then also reinforced the relevance and credibility of CSOs. 

This CSO flexibility, secondly, was partly made possible by donor INGOs showing flexibility. And not only by occasionally providing additional funding but mainly by backing down in terms of conditionalities and providing more room to manoeuvre to their Southern partners. It allowed CSOs more autonomy and ownership.  

Finally, whereas donor INGOs were often seen as ‘constructive partners’, the same cannot be said of (local) governments. Governments are often seen as lacking knowledge and interest and not offering much support. And, even worse, governments use COVID-19 as a (further) means to crack down on organisations and (further) reduce civic space. 

Following these presentations, participants in the webinar were keen to share some obvious ‘missings’ in both studies. Why did we not, for instance, pay more attention to the ways CSOs worked together with governments in tackling the consequences of the pandemic for ordinary citizens? And what about the consequences of COVID-19 for mutual learning or the interaction between different organisations? And what could we tell about the way CSOs managed to tackle or circumvent a reduced civic space? 

Well, frankly: not much. At least not on the basis of the studies we did. In that sense, it was stimulating to see many emphasise the need for further research (I am a researcher so don’t blame me for finding this stimulating). More research is needed, for instance, for understanding best practices in dealing with the crisis by CSOs, INGOs and donors. And, perhaps even more important, participants felt more research was needed in understanding the COVID-19 induced shift of power to Southern CSOs much better. This then includes, and certainly not in the last place, whether we are talking here about a temporary or a sustainable power shift from North to South. As one of the participants stated: ‘The change in power relations as a result of COVID needs to be documented and discussed now (before we “go back to normal”)’. 

I couldn’t agree more.


The next Civic Power Lab will take place on the 26th of April.

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