In a so-called “normal” emergency, a cadre of aid workers hop on a plane and head off to “save” the locals. Like Captain America or Wonder Woman, they heroically step in to protect the piteous masses from imminent death and despair.

Putting aside the misguided superhero image of aid workers, these are not “normal” times. COVID-19 exposes the cracks in the idea of Northern-delivered aid as flights are shut down and aid workers shelter at home, trying to deal with the fallout remotely via Zoom. How we support the response on the ground should be about following the advice to “utilise all opportunities to support the lead response of national and local partners.”

If only I could channel Bill Murray from Groundhog Day right now. This pandemic feels new and different, but haven’t we been here before? And couldn’t we have predicted and perhaps prevented this? If they weren’t so tied to American/British exceptionalism, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson could both learn a lot from Liberia or Sierra Leone about how best to respond to a pandemic.

The Ebola crisis demonstrated the efficacy of local responses if the right tools are in place. This response, however, didn’t translate into the genuine change required for the aid system, where locals are rightly seen as the leaders of any crisis response.

On March 24, Indian activist Harsh Mander tweeted about the collapse of local civil society, with homeless people flocking to find food aid, “risking mass infection.” In these circumstances, international civil society feels somewhat redundant. We have comparatively large staff and resources in the North, with smaller partners with scarce resources in the South. Turn this pyramid around, and we might be able to handle this crisis.

One problem is that past emergencies have been considered “exceptional” and have failed to catalyze the shift needed for the long-term. A shift that shrinks and refines the role of Northern civil society, and grows and empowers Southern civil society. For some years, rather than enabling the local civil society to prepare for such an event, INGOs may have inadvertently been weakening them.

Earlier this March — in what already feels like a different era — in an open letter to INGOs, over 150 groups in the global South pointed out how misguided attempts to set up “local” offices were actually undermining their ability to serve their communities. The efforts of INGOs to set up shop in the South, they argue, led to competition for funding, crowding out space in local markets, and perpetuating the master–servant relationship. Even three weeks ago, it wasn’t clear how relevant this failing would be to the current crisis.

While COVID-19 should be very much about enabling an immediate, hyper-localized response, it should also serve as a blueprint for how civil society must shift global relationships for the long-term, because this is the new normal. Some helpful things have already been written about a true humanitarian response to the crisis.

But far more is needed than just shifting financial resources to the South. Solidarity is more pressing now than ever, and will continue to be. Groups like Civicus have already raised the alarm about heavy-handed suppression of human rights during the pandemic, enabled by severe (though necessary) ways to control population movements in order to control the virus. But controlling people is also being extended to the ongoing global trend to shut down civil society, as despots and populists seek to silence their critics.

Until now, humanitarian and development groups have kept a low profile in debates about civic space and human rights — mainly to keep serving their target populations. The virus has brought to the fore the deep divisions between humanitarian service delivery and human rights advocacy organizations. Those who prefer to work in their own silos render themselves incapable of responding in a coordinated, coherent way.

In the shadow of COVID-19, can we maintain this divide between human rights and humanitarian action? What would this mean in Mander’s India, or the slums of Kibera in Kenya, considering the devastating, rapid spread of the virus? Localized responses must be coupled with international solidarity focused on ensuring the rights to provide information, to act with compassion, and to call out government and social failures.

How we respond now forms the groundwork for the future — one that could see even more intense nationalism and de-globalization, with more closed borders and “strongmen” leaders promising to “protect” their people. How else will Western governments afford the billions in COVID-19 subsidies they promised except by cutting aid and obligations to those beyond their borders? Global civil society is more important than ever, not less so, as we struggle to manage a crisis that will test us severely.

Now, we have two possible scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: We ignore what we’ve learned and instead look forward to watching our own de-globalized version of Groundhog Day on perpetual repeat.
  • Scenario 2: We use this opportunity to finally respond to the growing calls for more locally led civil society, supported by international networks, not dictated by them.

An erasure of the North/South divide, alongside stronger systems of international solidarity, can help us build a better civil society post-Coronavirus. Our response to COVID-19 could even spell the end of the patronizing discourse of “development,” shifting it towards a more inclusive understanding of “global civil society.” COVID-19, like climate change, is universal — it impacts us all.

We’ve definitely been here before. But must we go back to this future?


Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash