AAS Open Research

Civil society organizations (CSOs) and COVID-19 response in Africa

Covid-19 image

“Human rights”, “advocacy” and “empowerment” were repeated themes in a recent stakeholder discussion of civil society organizations (CSOs) from Uganda, Malawi, South Africa, and Ghana. The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new world order, temporarily limiting freedoms, calling on people to sanitize, wear masks, and maintain social distance. Across Africa, CSOs struggle to be recognized as a critical first-line constituency among those providing resources and services and offering checks and balances on governmental powers to manage COVID-19 funding.

Civil society sits at the nexus of the “haves” and “have nots”, the powerful and powerless, as they work to reduce socio-economic inequalities and the direct impact of the pandemic in slums, suburbs, towns, and cities across Africa. As each new wave of the pandemic impacts local populations, CSOs draw attention to precarious tenancy and evictions in both urban and rural communities, lack of housing, inadequate water and electricity, lack of access to healthcare, delays in transportation, disruptions to education and employment, gender-based violence, and social and political insecurity. CSOs seek to build preparedness, including highlighting the limits of reactionary and responsive policies under different governments.

Thirty-six countries south of the Sahara, including Malawi, South Africa, Angola, DRC, and Uganda [i], declared states of “emergency, calamity or national disaster”, including the implementation of curfews to control the mobility of people and ban public gatherings, with army and police forces managing enforcement (African Union 2020) [ii]. CSOs were at the forefront to mitigate restrictions on the most vulnerable groups arguing the need to ensure food and health security for all. Gender-based violence increased two-fold across communities due to temporary closure of schools, employment, and business, and has included reports of an increase in rapes, very early marriages, unintended pregnancies among young women, and divorce (UNFPA 2020) [iii]. Task forces have proliferated across regions, working with multi-sectoral teams (health personnel, CSOs, legal aid, police, social workers) to expose rights violation, and to help meet subsistence and psychological needs.

In most African states, many existing CSOs were reorganized, and others formed multi-sectoral teams to advocate for improved service delivery and to strengthen resilience. Individuals, communities, regions, hospitals, universities, and other professional and business associations formed alliances to raise awareness, expose fake information and corruption, express dissent, and motivate local people to access vaccines, food, and technology resources.

The UN, government ministries and other specialized agencies improved communication and procurement, and monitored and evaluated COVID-19 response. In addition, NGOs improved the flow of information, resources, technologies, and decision-making centrally in West, East and southern African countries to improve resource and organizational processes (African Union 2020). Even so, the command-and-control approach to pandemic management continues to fail across countries. The increasing and in some cases total dependency on donor funding for pandemic response was heavily criticized by the discussants who believed that this approach is unsustainable. A multi-sectoral effort which encourages alliances with governments allowing CSOs to exercise their critical role in the COVID-19 response was called for.

African nations are struggling to balance food, health, and human security in the third wave of infection. Despite improved coordination by CSOs and governments, it is unclear if CSOs will be able to continue to protect and promote the power of the people, by the people and with the people across Africa.       

[i] International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law (2020). https://www.icnl.org/post/analysis/african-government-response-to-covid-19. [Accessed 8 July 2021].

[ii] African Union (2020). Africa’s Governance response to COVID-19. https://au.int/en/documents/20200724/africas-governance-response-covid-19. [Accessed 8 July 2021].

[iii] UNFPA (2020). As Pandemic Rages, Women and Girls Face Intensified Risks. https://www.unfpa.org/news/pandemic-rages-women-and-girlsface-intensified-risks. [Accessed 8 July 2021].