Campaigning and advocacy: the impact of Covid 19 and the impact to come

By Jeremy Smith and Jean-Martial Bonis Charancle

Advocacy Hub members spoke with 12 advocacy directors or their equivalent from international development and human rights NGOs and trade unions to gauge what the impact of Covid 19 on advocacy and campaigning has been and what the longer-term impact on advocacy and campaigning might be. Our analysis is summarised here.

The prevailing impression is one of uncertainty. The actual and potential effects of Covid 19 are not susceptible to a simple analysis and there is no simple path forward. What the Hub offers in a series of three blog pieces is (1) a description of the current state of the sector as affected by Covid 19; (2) an analysis of what the various uncertainties arising from Covid 19 may mean for the future of advocacy and campaigning; (3) a resumé of a debate held in October 2020 with many of those interviewed.

The state of the sector

Covid 19 is having profound effects on the space in which advocacy and campaigning is conducted. It is a cause of, or cover for, restrictions on civil and political rights and / or for cuts in regulations. At the same time, the pandemic may encourage populations to look to their state to ‘save’ them. Where a state has performed well, this may engender a revalorisation of the interventionist state. Where a state has performed erratically, this may heighten cynicism and mistrust towards either a particular government or to public institutions as a whole.

Attacks on civil liberties and human rights which use Covid 19 as an excuse, a reduction in access to decision-makers and a sense that the solutions that they were advocating for have been shown to be inadequate may lead NGOs to adopt more radical positions to compensate for lack of access, vent frustration at the limits of online activism and use Covid 19 as a cue for raising the bar in terms of policy demands.

While Covid 19 should be – and perhaps is to some extent – a driver of closer cooperation between states, it is also proving to be a source of tension between states as some focus on ‘looking after their own’ or squabble over funds for economic recovery. As such, the pandemic may reinforce nationalist-populist trends all the while it demands effective global action.

This same tension between collaboration and competition marks relationships among NGOs themselves: civil society could spin off into competitive groups driven by self-interest or Covid 19 could engender more of a collective approach: to campaign together or pool resources, for example. Covid 19 may also reinforce a trend to localise advocacy as international NGOs already responding to the need for complementarity between local and global actions and for elevating Southern advocates step back and devolve more responsibility to local branches or partners. International NGO structures and power dynamics may level out as a result. The Northern branches of international NGOs, already unnerved by a crisis that has a direct impact on them, may feel more vulnerable as a result.

In part because of the particular effects of Covid 19 on large, international NGOs, it is possible either that looser movements and / or organisations set up with lighter structures prove themselves better equipped to respond to an ever-evolving situation. Black Lives Matter actions and political protests in Hong Kong are examples of activism that is more organic, less organised and less susceptible to NGO ‘control’. This may represent an alternative model to institutional NGO campaigning in a post-Covid 19 world, one that gains more ground as established NGOs show themselves to be less agile.

Constraints on direct activism heighten the importance of online activism – but also bring its limitations into sharp focus. There is a corresponding need to find ways to improve the ‘online arsenal’ and to develop a wider range of effective and engaging online and / or remotely organised actions.

The cancellation of meetings and summits has led to a dramatic drop in opportunities for informal lobbying. With many lacking direct access to decision-makers, new inequalities may emerge as individual groups are invited to be the only NGO representative at a scaled-back physical meeting while others exploit their privileged status as part of policy-makers’ WhatsApp groups.

While few NGOs may be on the verge of collapse, there are signs of a funding timebomb. Institutional donors have to date allowed the reallocation of funds, but cuts in funding will start to kick in soon, if they have not done so already. And while few individual donors may cancel their donations, longer-term sustainability will be affected as lower levels of recruitment mean that the natural loss of donors is not made up.

The need to be agile and responsive has been part of the NGO discourse for some time, but has been rendered acute by Covid 19. To show themselves to be responsive, NGOs may need to tilt the balance between being mission-driven and being opportunity-driven towards the latter as they are obliged to follow a lockdown – unlockdown – relockdown rhythm.

The impact on ways of working may initially have been positive with stronger collaboration than ever within and between NGOs. But what people imagined themselves putting up with on a temporary basis may be harder for them to accept as more or less permanent ways of working. All the while most recognise that Zoom meetings can be effective, and that there are benefits to cutting travel for international meetings, the lack of face-to-face time hinders creativity and prevents the forming of personal connections that underwrite effective coordinated international advocacy.

Here in miniature though is the challenge for the NGO response to Covid 19 – to put up with a temporary impact on the grounds that at some point everything will go back to normal, or invest in developing the best ways to adapt to what will be enduring changes to how to conduct advocacy and campaigning.

Read Part II of this series here and contribute to the debate by giving your reaction in the comments.

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