Key insights from the discussion organised with BCSDN on participatory and multi-stakeholder approaches in responding to the COVID-19 crisis
CSOs (civil society organizations) and the public were unable to meaningfully participate in the emergency response to the pandemic and even more so, their ability to take part in the decision-making processes worsened during the pandemic. The states imposed different limitations over the right to participation in certain countries and closed existing formal avenues for inclusion (e.g., by urgent procedures for adoption of measures and laws, non-functional Parliaments). In addition to these limitations, the states failed to meet different societal needs. Despite these challenges CSOs remained resilient, collaborated with open governments and found ways to ensure their voices are heard.
ECNL and BCSDN recently facilitated a discussion about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on public participation in the Balkans. Together with the guest speakers from the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe and the Open Government Partnership we explored how to promote participatory and multi-stakeholder approaches in the relief of the crisis. Below we summarize three key insights from the discussions, which show how the CSOs, community organizations, informal initiatives, and other stakeholders thrived in response to the crisis.
New ways for promoting public participation and a multi-stakeholder approach
CSOs explored and used existing and new digital spaces for citizens engagement. Since the beginning of the crisis, CSOs transitioned their everyday work (meetings, webinars, provision of services, even protests) to the online space. This opportunity brought CSOs closer to the citizens, as more and more of their lives started to take place online. CSOs increased the involvement of citizens in their work and mobilized their support. This was possible through better communication and visualizations of their work on different issues (including law and policy changes, crisis measures, etc). In some cases, CSOs reported that the pressure to operate in the digital realm, opened space for closer communication with national governments and local authorities.
Community organizations and informal initiatives rise and mobilize. The limitations over public participation in the decision-making to tackle the pandemic, lead to creation of measures that do not always respond to the actual needs on the ground. To cover for those needs, we witnessed the rise in activity of existing community organizations and mobilization of local initiatives. These initiatives came in the bloom through social media to organize and provide for social protection services for women and children in need, the elderly, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. There were numerous initiatives to protest different issue such as violations of human rights, workers’ rights, urban policies harmful to the environment, etc. Formal and professionalized CSOs also seized the opportunity to cooperate and supported these initiatives on the ground in promoting issues of mutual interest, e.g., by recruiting and organizing volunteers and providing humanitarian services.
Different societal actors seek influence through new avenues of cross-sectoral partnership. Both CSOs and the private sector, (mainly the small and medium-sized businesses from certain industries that were heavily affected by the crisis), struggled to be heard and involved in shaping appropriate economic and other measures. These new circumstances in which states are making fast decisions on substantial measures without the involvement of different stakeholders, led to cross-sectoral mobilization, for example between human rights advocacy organizations and service providing organizations, such as health care, education. Moreover, cross-sectorial platforms were built between private businesses, CSOs and citizens.
A genuine opportunity to prioritize the right to participation
CSOs seized the opportunity that the crisis presented before them to explore new ways of collaborations and seek influence beyond formal channels for participation. Still, the states rarely included the CSOs and the public in decision-making processes and as part of the mechanisms for management of the crisis. This failure to respect their participation rights and the inability to properly address their needs on the long run might have detrimental consequences for the operation of CSOs.
A long standing right to public participation requires all states to ensure that every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the right to vote and to be elected and the right to have access to public service. Therefore, states must ensure there are concrete standards and structures integrated in the legal framework and practice, allowing for CSOs and public engagement during emergency situations to ensure appropriate, proportionate, and effective response.
We need to build a more stable institutionalized public participation infrastructure, relying on existing and by utilising new models and tools (e.g., digital deliberations), linked to these new emergencies. A starting point for the states is to shape a multi-stakeholder approach in the battle with the COVID-19 pandemic by bringing together CSOs, businesses, international donor organizations, grassroots and smaller organizations and other relevant stakeholders. The European Commission has already led by example, by asking its member states to report on how they have interacted with different stakeholders (including CSOs) in the design and implementation of the national recovery plans.
More concretely, the states, local authorities, CSOs, and other stakeholders in the Balkans can take the following steps to enable participation in crisis:
- Build upon, use and promote existing electronic platforms for public participation processes.
- Support consultative processes through different online tools, such as questionnaires on the draft proposals, webcasting, videoconferencing, smart phone applications, and chats.
- Facilitate through structures (e.g., councils for response on pandemic) and financially support the cooperation between CSOs and local community organizations, and informal movements to support and voice the citizen’s needs, particularly the most vulnerable (women, children, elderly and other).
- Provide full access to relevant, accurate and timely information to citizens on draft documents, background papers, which are proactively disseminated online and through traditional media and post.
- Bring together and give equal access to CSOs, businesses, grassroots and smaller organizations and other relevant stakeholders in multi-stakeholder consultative mechanisms.
- CSOs should remain careful to the risk of deepening the digital divide of the vulnerable groups of citizens (Roma, women, LGBTI, etc).
This article was published on the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL) website. Read more HERE.