When the pandemic hits poor nations, focus on the role of civil society

Development Policy06 Aug 2020Marlies Moret-Verwoerd

While practically all nations in the world are suffering from the spread of the corona virus, it is becoming increasingly clear that people living in poor countries are hit hardest. In April this year, Oxfam Novib already warned that half a billion could be pushed into poverty due to the global economic backlash of the corona crisis. This could set back the fight against poverty by a decade, and in some regions as much as 30 years. One thing is clear: for many people Covid-19 is not the only threat they are facing in this crisis. The social, political and economic effects of this disease are forming a real danger as well. To create new perspectives for the people who are hit hardest by the pandemic, civil society could play a key role. In the following article, Marlies Moret-Verwoerd, media coordinator at Dutch NGO Woord en Daad explains how.

In May, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, gave an interview that was published in Dutch newspaper Trouw. “If we don’t step up and act now, we could be facing a plague of biblical proportions,” he said. “Because of failing harvests, extreme drought, locust plagues and civil wars, we have estimated that some 135 million people are facing acute hunger; which means they don’t have food for several days in a row. And because of corona this number of highly vulnerable people will double.” Additionally, in the aftermath of this pandemic the economic situation of many countries is likely to get worse. For people in poor countries, who are often employed in the informal sector, there is no social security available to soften the blow. As a result of the lockdowns that were declared by many governments, these day labourers have lost their incomes. And these incomes serve to put food on the table on that same day. Food reserves, if there are any, will only last a few days at the most.

In addition to the grave worries about food security, there is another pressing matter: healthcare. In the poor nations we are talking about, advanced healthcare systems are woefully lacking. In developing countries, the number of ICU-beds in hospitals is extremely low. There is a serious shortage of healthcare workers and, when the pandemic hit, many international healthcare workers have returned to their home countries. Moreover, many people are not sufficiently aware about hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus, or they simply do not have the means to do so. Social distancing is, unfortunately, only possible when people literally have space; a luxury that is not available to many people living in city slums or (refugee) camps. In many rural areas, clean (drinking) water is yet another scarcity that is cause for worry. Thus, in areas that are already dealing with these risks and scarcities, corona has added an additional and enormous threat.


In addition to the grave worries about food security, there is another pressing matter: healthcare.

Impact on the ground

Aforementioned developments have grave impact on the daily operations of development programmes as well. For example, a programme that made sure children received one healthy meal a day at school had to find new ways to reach these pupils. Entrepreneurs, whose businesses are supported by development organisations, are also facing severe obstacles. Often, they are not receiving their necessary products because of limited transport opportunities or, conversely, their supplies are piling up due to stagnations elsewhere in the chain. Local organisations are doing all they can to reach families with food parcels and support the entrepreneurs in getting through this crisis. With great determination and creativity, they are finding ways to keep things going.

Shaped by people

Similarly, in the so-called Global North all kinds of creative initiatives have seen the light of day to offer support to the most vulnerable people in Asia and Africa. In situations of crisis, ensuring that people’s basic needs are met should take first priority. At the same time, it is vital that the initiatives and support match with local needs. In their article Just wait for the request for help!in Vice Versa (in Dutch), Anika Altaf and Betteke de Gaay Forman argued: “To help people get back on track as soon as possible it is crucial to know exactly what their basic needs are. The closer you are to the people you seek to support, the greater the chance that your support is indeed relevant. We [the ‘Northern’ development sector] must look for a new role that is more focussed on identifying the right local organisations and building their capacity.” Such a new role also demands flexibility in budget allocation because contexts can change. Therefore, Altaf and De Gaay Fortman argue for “development shaped by the people themselves”, with “dignity and solidarity as core values”. Many development organisations, they note, fall back on old patterns in situations of crisis: determining by themselves what is needed in an area, without taking into consideration what is already being done by local governments and organisations. Northern development organisations do not always have to be present on the ground to have positive impact. They can also support those people and organisations that are already there to provide the necessary support effectively.

Strategic partnership

Sylvestre Tiemtoré is the director of SPONG in Burkina Faso, an NGO that represents 232 local organisations, making it one of the most important civil society partners for the Burkinabe government. Only recently did BENKADI, an NGO-consortium lead by SPONG, receive a subsidy from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the programme ‘Power of Voices’ – a subsidy that serves to give citizens a voice in climate policy in four African countries. Sylvestre underlines the importance of lobby and advocacy for civil society organisations, also in times of crisis. “Local organisations can amplify the voice of civil society in policy dialogue like no other”, he argues. “There is a relation between the level of development of an area and the quality of citizen participation in the political process. If we want inclusive and effective governmental policy making, in which citizens have a say in the decisions that are made and in the allocation of resources, having a civil society that participates in the policy making process is indispensable. To realise this and fortify the position of civil society, what we see in development approaches is a shift from traditional aid models towards relationships of strategic partnership, which allows us to address development issues together.”


Joining forces with local civil society actors will ensure that the most marginalised groups are better supported to get through this crisis.

A key position

Jacob van der Duijn Schouten, political advisor at the Dutch development NGO Woord en Daad, recognises Sylvestre’s observation. “To effectively combat poverty and inequality, also in a crisis situation like this pandemic, individuals and organisations in civil society are vital. They know, better than anyone, what is needed in the specific contexts of their countries; they are able to reach the most excluded groups. That is why it is of such importance that the government channels its development funds through local civil society organisations. These organisations can take a key position in supporting people in their communities to be more resilient in future crises.” At present however, funds are mostly channelled through multilateral institutions operating at European or global level. Jacob: “They tend to work with ‘one size fits all’ models. Yet, different countries often have very specific needs […].” Organisations in the so-called global North should, Jacob advises, seek out partnerships with civil society in the areas they want to help, so as to ensure that activities actually match global needs and demands.

One branch of civil society that could play an important role in combatting the corona is the religious leaders and faith-based organisations. In many developing countries they have strong networks that can help reach the most vulnerable and marginalised communities, get a clear understanding of their specific needs, and ensure that funds are spent effectively. Charlotte Ariese, coordinator of lobby and advocacy at Prisma: “Religious leaders, because of their position in society, play a crucial role in spreading information and promoting behavioural change. Additionally, they can be of great help in addressing stigmatisation. This already became clear during the ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014. Religious actors could potentially make a significant contribution in our efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 as well.” Following Jacob’s argument, Charlotte suggests that governments should intensify their collaboration with these religious actors in developing countries. Joining forces with local civil society actors will ensure that the most marginalised groups are better supported to get through this crisis.

Support measures

This pandemic demands international solidarity. Yet, as research of the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) shows, in times of crises we tend to turn inwards. In April this year, the Dutch cabinet asked the AIV for advice on efforts to combat the corona virus in developing countries. The AIV advised the cabinet to compile a coherent framework of support measures, including health care, food aid, social security and a social-economic perspective. Jacob: “This advice shows that a crisis of this magnitude demands a significant budget for the short and the longer term. Moreover, the advice suggests that additional funding for development cooperation can be financed by the general budget. This way a situation can be avoided in which on-going projects must be stopped or long-term development policies are undermined. For the long term it is also vital that sufficient resources are made available. And interestingly, the importance of working together with local actors like religious leaders is explicitly mentioned in the advice as well.”

Budget for development cooperation

Around the same period that the AIV published its advice, some fifty Dutch development organisations signed a public statement in which they called on the Dutch government to allocate additional funds to countries in Africa and Asia (See this article for more information on this statement). Jacob: “Previous cabinets made severe cuts in the budgets for development cooperation (the ODA budget). Although the current cabinet did make extra funds available, it has not addressed earlier structural budget cuts. This means that the ODA-budget, at 0,54 per cent of the GNI, is at a historic low. Avoiding budgets cuts for development cooperation in this crisis, would bring us closer to the international norm of 0,7 per cent of the GNI. This would benefit the people in the crisis areas on both the short and long term. Additionally, it is important that the Netherlands takes a critical look in the mirror. How does our tax system contribute to global inequality? What can we do in our own country to reduce the CO2 emissions of which people in developing countries experience the most severe climatological effects? It is about more than just money. Dutch policy should contribute to global sustainable development in a broad sense. In that way countries become more resilient to absorbs shocks like this crisis in the future.”

Addressing root causes

In the countries where Dutch development organisations are generally operating, the situation is getting worse every day. Great efforts are made to ensure that projects, with some necessary adjustment, are continued so as to ensure that people get the support needed to pick up their lives. The corona crisis has clearly shown the importance of seeking out collaboration with local civil society and of building on initiatives already present on the ground. What is more, sticking to a clear and steady course in development programming is key. Inevitably, more crises will occur in the future. Rather than addressing each of them in an ad-hoc manner, structurally tackling the root causes of poverty and striving for systemic change is essential. This demands collaborations with actors outside the development sector as well, allowing for an approach in which all key stakeholders are involved. It is undeniable that COVID-19 poses a big challenge for the development sector and requires immediate and concerted action. However, this does not mean that entire strategies or long-term plans must be revised. These plans should be crisis proof, address root causes, make use of the capacities and initiatives of local civil society, and strengthen organisations on the ground with the resources and expertise present in the Netherlands. This way, we can overcome this crisis together, and continue our efforts towards building a more sustainable, equal and inclusive world.

This post is a shortened and translated version of an article that was first published in ZICHT, journal of the scientific institute of the Dutch political party SGP.