Insights and Analysis

Covid-19 Raises New Hurdles for CSOs

October 14, 2020

By Nicola Nixon

Civil society organizations count among the unsung heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic in Southeast Asia. Across the region, CSOs reacted swiftly in the early days of the pandemic, delivering food, clean water, healthcare, and essential resources to vulnerable populations in danger of falling through the cracks of government efforts.

CSOs such as YASMIB in Indonesia, the Isaan Land Reform Network in Thailand, and the Young Feminists Collective in the Philippines concentrated their efforts on the immediate needs of local communities. LAPAR in Makassar, Indonesia, and PACOS in Sabah, Malaysia, moved quickly to establish coordination mechanisms with governments and other CSOs to provide food and protective equipment to those with the least access.

Other CSOs, such as Malaysia’s Centre for Human Rights and Community Security and the Women’s Organizations Network of Myanmar, focused on communicating vital information to specific constituencies like displaced migrant workers. The National Rural Women’s Coalition in the Philippines provided information to local governments on the plight of isolated rural communities to be sure that these vulnerable populations weren’t overlooked. Women’s groups everywhere stepped up their efforts on behalf of women and girls as domestic violence rates began to climb under the growing stress of lockdowns and economic hardship.

People wait in line and maintain physical distance before entering the public market in Muntinlupa City, Philippines (Minette Rimando / ILO: CC BY-NC-ND/3.0/IGO).

Efforts like these have been repeated across Southeast Asia in recent months. For decades, Southeast Asian civil society has filled gaps in local governance by providing basic services to the poorest and most marginalized communities. Focusing on healthcare, food, and information, CSOs throughout the region have been working since the first outbreak of Covid-19 to reduce the pandemic’s impact. In many cases, they have responded to the crisis more nimbly and more effectively than governments.

At the same time, the health and economic crises caused by Covid-19 have raised new hurdles for CSOs. Many have had to creatively engineer their responses to fit the new realities of social distancing. In areas with little or no access to mobile phones or the internet, CSOs have faced even greater hurdles, struggling to maintain contact with their constituencies, especially indigenous groups, poor and isolated rural communities, undocumented residents, refugees, and women.

In March and early April 2020, researchers from Asia Foundation offices in Southeast Asia interviewed 47 CSOs about the challenges of the pandemic and how they have responded. The research covered Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Timor-Leste. Their findings, reported in the inaugural edition of the new quarterly publication GovAsia, show that CSOs are providing essential services to vulnerable and marginalized communities throughout Southeast Asia, often substituting for government. But civil society itself is also struggling to cope with the pandemic, and for organizations whose mission involves democratization and human rights, the political environment in many places has become even more constrained than before the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the crucial role of civic spaces at a time when shrinking funding and democratic backsliding have made vibrant and open civic spaces increasingly difficult to sustain.

Despite difficulties old and new, CSOs have managed to be tremendously helpful during Covid-19 lockdowns, serving both in the background and on the frontlines. As lockdowns produced sudden and catastrophic job losses, the first to be affected were low-wage, self-employed, informal, and migrant workers. Working women were especially hard hit, since many had insecure jobs in the informal economy or had to care for children who were suddenly out of school. Bereft of income, the newly unemployed received vital emergency help and sustenance from CSOs. CSOs have also acted as crucial intermediaries between vulnerable communities and local governments, particularly for populations who find it threatening to engage with authorities.

CSOs are also holding governments to account for their responses to the crisis. In some countries, they have questioned the accuracy of official pandemic data, and they continue to press authorities on the importance of testing and updating official numbers.

Holding governments responsible during the pandemic also means making sure that officials do not ignore human rights violations amid Covid-19 responses. Many countries have granted their governments emergency powers to counter the pandemic. A ministerial decree in Thailand, for example, allows the government to screen media reports for inaccurate information, and journalists now face prison terms of up to five years for spreading information that the government deems to be false. The Philippines, too, has instituted severe penalties for spreading false information about the pandemic, and anyone found to have done so can face heavy fines and up to two months in jail. Many CSOs have voiced concern that governments will take advantage of these emergency powers to silence critics, stifle freedoms, and increase control not only now but in the future.

In order to keep responding to the needs of Southeast Asia’s most vulnerable populations, CSOs will need support to cover the added costs of new and adapted activities.

As it enters its tenth month, the pandemic is clearly far from over. CSOs need sustained support from donors to continue their work and help their communities resist the ravages of the pandemic, particularly as poverty and inequality have already begun to rise. In many cases, social and economic lockdowns have greatly reduced CSO operational capacity, leading to canceled events, reduced salaries, and diminished services. CSOs that focus on human rights work have been especially hard hit as support for human rights advocacy has taken a back seat to more pressing health and economic concerns.

These effects, in turn, have highlighted the importance of donor flexibility during this time of crisis. In order to keep responding to the needs of Southeast Asia’s most vulnerable populations, CSOs will need support to cover the added costs of new and adapted activities, including the shift to online work.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the crucial role of civic spaces, yet the pandemic has arrived at a time when shrinking external funding and democratic backsliding in many parts of Southeast Asia have made vibrant and open civic spaces increasingly difficult to sustain. As Southeast Asia’s CSOs strive to represent citizens’ interests and provide resources during this time of crisis, they are proving themselves to be crucial components in a whole-of-society response to the global pandemic, and they are ideally placed to restore the fabric of social cohesion in a post-pandemic world. Whether they will have the opportunity to do so remains to be seen.

Read the full report, “Civil Society in Southeast Asia during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” in issue number one of GovAsia. This essay first appeared, in slightly different form, in the Devpolicy Blog as part of their #Covid-19 and Asia series.

Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s director of governance programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. Nicola is grateful to the colleagues who contributed to this work: Sann Socheata, Mochamad Mustafa, Sunita Anandarajah, Sumaya Saluja, Patrick Bolanos, Arpaporn Winijkulchai, Chris Bantug, Justino Sarmento Amaral, and Tran Chung Chau. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Civic Spaces


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