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COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world, says ISS researcher Dorothea Hilhorst, who recently participated in a webinar organized by Humanitarian Knowledge Exchange platform Kuno to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled and what could be done differently. Here’s what she had to say.

Covid Checks in IndiaCOVID-19 is sweeping the globe and widely triggers top-down and centralised emergency measures. I don’t recall another crisis that has created such a response, even though the actual numbers of people affected have been very modest compared to many of the other crises we have in this world, including the lack of access to clean water, resource competition in mining areas, conflict and refugee problems, and climate change. In the beginning, I often found myself thinking if only the world would muster the courage to also address these other crises, and give them more priority than short-term economic gain.

However, it is also clear that there are strong limitations to the bold and robust responses of top-down emergency management. Firstly, I really resent how we seem to conflate the hazard of COVID-19 with subsequent risks. Yes, COVID-19 is a nasty and infectious virus. But it is not a virus that dictates that it should lead to widespread food shortages or increased marginalisation of the poor and vulnerable populations. These are spillover crises that relate to but are not directly caused by the virus.

These spillover crises are not just happening, they are let be by policy. When we signal the risk of food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19, I see agencies jumping to raising funds and stockpiling to feed the world. However, why don’t we talk about preventing this crisis? Why not focus on diplomacy to continue food exports from surplus-producing countries? Why not ensure that markets stay open and continue to function? Why not give peasants free range to go to their fields (at distance from other human beings) instead of locking them down in their houses?

Secondly, we have to be really aware about the many instances where governments have instrumentalised COVID-19 for other purposes, such as to curb the freedoms of civil society, to silence the media, or to undermine political opponents. Hungary is a case in point, where the government, under the pretext of misinformation about COVID-19, has closed critical media outlets. Authorities in many areas are seen to instrumentalise COVID-19 to increase surveillance and control, at the detriment of human rights and civil society, with rumours increasing the mistrust between people and their state.

Thirdly, while there is no doubt that top-down policies and expert knowledge is required to address the crisis, there are also indications about the limitations of this approach. Top-down approaches may ignore, stifle, or expire local coping capacities, social networks, and small-scale formal and informal institutions. Based on previous experiences and research, this may have grave consequences and render the COVID-19 response counter-productive:

  1. Local institutions are people’s first and very often only line of defence against crises. Where top-down policies don’t reach out to communities to provide services and when people cannot rely on local institutions, they become increasingly vulnerable. Why close schools instead of mobilising teachers to help spread messages about personal hygiene in relation to COVID-19?
  2. In areas where state-society relations are already characterised by mistrust before the crisis, there is a high risk that people will not believe the messages about COVID-19 coming from the authorities and will try to circumvent policies aiming to prevent the spread of the virus. A notorious example was found when the Ebola pandemic erupted in Sierra Leone: people sometimes hid patients to avoid their hospitalisation.
  3. One-sided top-down policies can contribute to spillover crises at the local level, including crises of livelihoods and food security. This can lead to adverse coping mechanisms that actually increase the risks of COVID-19. There are signals that some women in the Eastern DRC who are prohibited to cross the border with Rwanda for their petty trade now resort to transactional sex to feed their families.

Let’s stay alert, or as we say nowadays, let us be ‘woke’ about these consequences of responding to COVID-19. The virus is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world. Top-down measures need to be linked up with bottom-up initiatives and coping mechanisms to effectively deal with the crisis.

Hilhorst’s discussion was part of a webinar titled ‘How COVID empowers local civil society organizations’. Other speakers included Hero Anwar, Program Director at REACH Iraq; Gloria Modong, Executive Director, Titi Foundation South Sudan, and Deputy Chair, NGO Forum South Sudan; and Feliciano Reyna, Executive Director and founder of Accíon Solidaria in Venezuela and representative of Civilis.

The entire webinar can be (re-)watched here:

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

Thea Hilhorst

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

Title Image Credit: Gwydion M. Williams on Flickr

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What is happening to civic space in India? by Nandini Deo, Dorothea Hilhorst and Sunayana Ganguly

We were fortunate to be part of a two-day workshop on civil society relations in India, organised in the framework of a research on advocacy in the Dutch co-financing programme. There were fascinating presentations of research on civil society and civic space with a loose connection to the Dutch development programme of ‘Dialogue and Dissent’. In the fantastic company of some of India’s most outstanding civil society activists and scholars, we discussed the diverse realities of organisational life in today’s India. Here are some take-aways…

Is Civic Space Shrinking or Changing?

This is definitely a period of the shrinking of civic space.  Some argued that it is simply a part of the normal cycles of opening and closing space, while others suggest that there is something particularly worrying about the current moment. One of the participants stated that there is hardly any space left to talk about human rights or to criticise the government. But the picture remains varied. The Indian government selectively provides civic space, inviting NGOs to co-create policies, that may or may not be implemented. However, other parts of civil society are oppressed, and jail-time or violence against social activists is no exception. ‘It takes a lot of sacrifice today to be an activist’. Newspapers worldwide observe how central identity politics have become in India and how religious minorities face increasing discrimination. What was interesting in this respect were the testimonies of participants of the workshop who explained that the harshest treatment is not for the identity movements, but for those movements that fight to protect their natural resources against national or multinational companies aiming to exploit forests, water reserves or mineral deposits.

However, civil society is also changing. NGOs adapt and find different roles, varying from facilitating or implementing government schemes to groups that retain more confrontational strategies. While participants of the workshop grieved for the loss of space for critical development discourses, they conveyed a sense of determination to make the best of the space that was still available and some were even optimistic about the transformative power they may have. One of the dualisms that was questioned in the workshop was the distinction between co-optation and autonomy. One of the participants made a strong claim that  one can always seek transformative power, even if one is merely contracted to implement a welfare scheme of the government. ‘In every policy it is the implementation that matters, and showing a different practice is already transformational’.

With the government retreating from the key areas of governance, civil society’s role becomes even more crucial at a time when their operational space is shrinking. It was also felt that despite the need to defend the constitution and to uphold dissent in public life, civil society must engage with policymakers in order to not only promote people-friendly policies but also to prevent a policy-hijack by the powerful. There was a lively debate on civil society’s legitimacy and its role as a representative or a translator between marginalized groups and policy-makers.

Importance of Case Studies and Context

A recurring message from the activists was that the research on civil society needs to be embedded. On the one hand, the case of India is unique, with millions of  NGOs, many of them with a long history of commitment to social transformation. But India can also be analysed as a case of several ‘somethings’. India is a case of a diverse and strong civil society. It is also a case standing for the many countries where civil society needs to operate in a shrinking space and a controlling government. It is also a country facing the pressures of neoliberalism to adopt ‘business-friendly’ policies while trying to reduce poverty and create environmentally sustainable practices.  To study these broader phenomena, participants argued that it is most powerful to do case studies. In that way, ‘readers are invited to picture and even smell the local realities’, and most people learn more from a case than from a pile of aggregated, dislocated data.

Hate is in the air

In between the fine-grained presentations on the roles, complementarities, and everyday practices of development agencies, the conversation kept drifting back to civic space. When we say that civic space is shrinking, this usually refers to legislative measures, human rights violations, and other oppressive practices to curb the space for civil society. But what we see today in many places, including India, is a change in atmosphere. People seeking social justice find themselves increasingly operating in restricted spaces, where populist speech demonises reformers, and legitimises opinions that were until recently unsayable in public. As someone said: ‘Hate is in the air, in many ways and against many‘. Hate of all kinds of ‘others’ extends to hate for people who promote inclusion. How to survive as an ‘NGO’ in a time when the Indian government excludes millions of Indians with Bengali roots from citizenship, when the US president shamelessly advertises his white American dream, and when increasing numbers of Europeans opine that those rescuing drowning Africans in the Mediterranean should be imprisoned? One coping mechanism is simply to make sure that we keep seeking out the company of the likeminded. Ending the workshop with an evening of songs, poetry and beauty was a healing experience indeed, refilling us with the courage to invent new spaces and redefine our roles in a changing world.

Image Credit: SiamlianNgaihte on Pixabay

About the authors:

photo nandini

Nandini Deo is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University.  She is working on a book about  corporate influence over civil society in India.  Her previous books are Postsecular Feminisms: Religion and Gender in Transnational Context, Mobilizing Religion and Gender in India: The role of activism, and The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India: Tools and Traps (written with Duncan McDuie Ra).  She has been collaborating with a group of researchers on a study of representation and collaboration by civil society organizations in India sponsored by the Dutch foreign ministry.  She is spending a sabbatical year in Mumbai and can be reached at

TheaDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here

photo sunayana

Sunayana Ganguly is currently Assistant Professor at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore. She has previously worked with the Industrial Ecology Group, University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and the German Development Institute (Bonn). Her work explores environmental governance, civil society, deliberative democracy and sustainable consumption with a focus on South Asia. Her book ‘Deliberating Environment Policy in India – Participation and the role of Advocacy’ was published by Routledge in 2015. She can be reached at