Maysa Jalbout | Saturday, April 25, 2020
The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as governments try to slow the spread with varying degrees of success. The current restrictions on movement are largely accepted as necessary, despite the significant blow to the region’s economies. Much less understood, however, is how the pandemic will affect the region’s most vulnerable communities and civil society organisations that cater for them.
A recent survey of 26 organizations from across the region reveals severe distress among refugees, low-income families and other vulnerable individuals who are struggling to survive with the cut on their daily wages due to the lockdown which has stretched over the past weeks. This had led many of them to turn for cash assistance and vouchers for prescription drugs and food. Without additional support, civil society organizations in MENA are at risk of buckling, just when they are needed the most.
“Long before COVID-19, civil society organizations in MENA were over-extended. Persistent crises such as the long war in Syria, the frail economies, and the dysfunctional social services in countries like Lebanon and Iraq placed a tremendous responsibility on small organizations to cater for the lowest income communities.”
Civil society under pressure
Rapidly falling funding is the first challenge facing these organizations. Many civil society organizations traditionally secured donations through approaches that have now been cut off: Fundraising events, in-person sale of their products and services, as well as individual donations. For many of them, it will be impossible to carry on with their critical programming, let alone meet the surge in demand for relief.
Long before COVID-19, civil society organizations in MENA were over-extended. Persistent crises such as the long war in Syria, the frail economies, and the dysfunctional social services in countries like Lebanon and Iraq placed a tremendous responsibility on small organizations in the lowest income communities. Many of those same organizations are now operating in communities who were hit the hardest by the economic impact of COVID-19.
Civil society now faces an existential challenge. While in developed countries such as Canada and Australia, the government sponsored COVID-19 relief packages and provided salary subsidies, grants, and other benefits for non-profits, civil society in MENA are struggling to maintain their staff levels and cover their basic operational expenses.
“Post-COVID-19, civil society actors will need to remain innovative to grow stronger but this can only materialize granted that their donors and supporters would also adjust accordingly.”
Adapting their services is the second challenge. Civil society actors are recognising that they must digitize their operations in response to the immediate fallout of COVID-19. Some are offering tutoring and counselling online, while others are trying to send cash assistance to “unbankable” beneficiaries through mobile payments and raising funds through crowd-funding campaigns.
Yet, just as these organizations make these admirable efforts to adapt to the current challenges, there is recognition that at least some of these changes have long been overdue and are here to stay. Post-COVID-19, civil society actors will need to remain innovative to grow stronger but this can only materialize granted that their donors and supporters would also adjust accordingly.
New ways to support civil society
MENA is in urgent need for new collective and innovative approach to civil society, one that rises to meet the scale and magnitude of this pandemic. While governments focus on reducing the spread of the disease and the pressure on the health sector, private individuals, foundations, and corporations must also do their part. They must come together on the national and regional levels to provide urgent funds to civil society and help them reduce the pandemic’s devastating impact on the region’s most vulnerable people.
“The MENA region’s capacity to withstand the impact of COVID-19 on its most vulnerable communities, and face up to other challenges, is conditioned by how significant its support to civil society will be. Millions of Arabs – orphans, refugees, elderly, people with disabilities, widows, and the unemployed – are depending on it.”
While civil society organizations and the communities they serve need financial aid above all, cash strapped donors can also make valuable in-kind contributions in the form of skills transfer and products. Corporations, for example, can loan their staff to help solve critical new operational challenges, offer digital skills trainings, and donate computers, software, or internet access.
Once the crisis subsides, the private sector can continue to have an important role to play in supporting civil society and making the changes needed to strengthen their institutional capacity to ensure their long-term sustainability. Civil society needs their financial support and equally their know-how, networks, and technology. Together, they should begin a new chapter of exploring financing mechanisms that leverage pooled funding and are result-driven. Every effort should be made on both sides to avoid returning to the existing fragmented short-term funding approaches that keep civil society organizations on the brink of collapse.
The MENA region’s capacity to withstand the impact of COVID-19 on its most vulnerable communities, and face up to other challenges, is conditioned by how significant its support to civil society will be. Millions of Arabs – orphans, refugees, elderly, people with disabilities, widows, and the unemployed – are depending on it.
The author would like to thank the following organizations for completing a survey that helped shape the recommendations in this article: Ana Aqra Association, Anera, Collateral Repair Project, Creative Space Beirut, Better Tomorrow for Child Protection, DOT Lebanon, FabricAID, Jordan River Foundation, Jusoor, Moumken NGO, NaTakallam, Lebanese Alternative Learning, PCRF, Questscope, SANADY FOUNDATION, SEED Foundation, SEP Jordan, Sitti Social Enterprise, Thaki, Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club, Unite Lebanon Youth Project, Wataneya Society for the Development of Orphanages, We Love Reading, women program association, Yadawee, Youth Africa Foundation.
Maysa Jalbout, Senior Policy Fellow at the AUB Issam Fares Institute.
This article is part of a new series launched by the AUB Issam Fares Institute to reflect on the impact of the #COVID-19 pandemic on various levels: the economy (global, and national), globalization, multilateralism, international cooperation, public health systems, educational system, refugee response, among other topics.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.