Part One in the “Solidarity of NGOs Facing the Pandemic” blog series by Evelyne Para, SI UN Representative at UNESCO.
The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis affects all citizens of our planet – health, economic, social, cultural and humanitarian, and particularly those with increased vulnerability. At the heart of this crisis, the mobilisation of civil society and UNESCO’s partner Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), appears more than ever to be a central pillar of the reconstruction to come for a peaceful and more equitable world.
How can civil society support populations exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic? What strengthened cooperation between NGOs and UNESCO should be promoted in order to better define future post-COVID priorities and take up the new challenges of this world undergoing forced change?
A network of solidarity carrying shared values
Several NGO partners of UNESCO have decided to jointly initiate a solidarity project to make the voices of the most vulnerable heard and to better understand the evolution of situations in the field. These NGOs have created a social media network of solidarity allowing them to interact with their local associations.
The initiative aims to share the realities of lived situations, alert to the needs, report examples of solidarity initiated by civil society on all continents, and propose a new vision for the post-COVID era. Thanks to feedback from the field, and fruitful intergenerational exchanges on a common vision of the tomorrow world, the group of NGOs formed was able to take a documented look at the crisis. It aims to enrich the current dialogue by highlighting the lived experiences and the relevance of the action of NGOs, for a multi-stakeholder engagement for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.
At the start of 2021, as a representative of Soroptimist International, I joined in this common solidarity project. I am convinced that an essential reconstruction of ‘living together’ cannot be done without undertaking social transformations driven by universal values of justice, equality and human dignity. To meet the specific needs of populations and in particular the most disadvantaged, strengthening partnerships with civil society, humanitarian actors and local NGOs is essential.
Several areas of UNESCO’s competence were reviewed: Social and Human Sciences (SHS), Education, Communication and Information, Culture, Life and Earth Sciences. In each area, priorities emerged from the exchanges between the various NGOs of this collective.
Priorities concerning Social and Human Sciences (SHS)
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically showed global disparities, revealing a fractured, highly discriminatory world. The humanitarian response of NGOs has highlighted several priorities:
The fight against the progression of poverty
The shutdown of entire economies ordered by governments to stem the spread of the virus, has wiped out decades of progress in the fight against poverty. The closure of borders, the restriction of movement between certain territories, as well as the closure of markets has seriously impacted the informal economy, particularly small businesses. Food prices and transport costs have risen sharply. Many families have found themselves unable to feed their children. In addition to fear of disease, it is above all a fear of hunger that worries populations.
From the start of the pandemic, NGOs reinforced their already existing actions and provided real support to local associations. For example in Lebanon, there was distribution of ready-made meals and food packages to poorer families as well as medicines; in Iraq, Bangladesh and Thailand, food baskets were distributed to disadvantaged and low-income families. Similar actions were developed in India, with the ‘little things matter’ project, and fundraising resulting from the project made it possible to provide families with food, masks and hydro alcoholic gels. In Peru, where the expressions of solidarity of the populations constitute a very strong value anchored in the way of life, the ‘common casserole’ project has been encouraged.
Inclusion of marginalised people
Encouraged by UNESCO, including through a series of international webinars against racism, discrimination and exclusion, NGOs have launched real groundwork to achieve an inclusive COVID-19 response, for example through The International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities (ICCAR). This commitment to respect the human condition of marginalised populations focuses on three groups: people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and displaced people.
The year 2020, which marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, was intended to be a pioneering year for gender equality. Instead, the progress made over the past decades may be curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Women remain the heroines in the shadow of this crisis’, recalled Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women. As essential workers, many are suffering from the growth of economic precariousness, mental stress, and an increase in domestic violence. The repercussions for women are multiple and profound.
To take up the challenge of the imbalanced impact of the virus on gender, and to strengthen the power of women to act, NGOs have piloted several projects:
In Bangladesh, the cascade closure of national factories following the announcement of confinement and cancellation of orders placed by major ready-to-wear brands has deprived hundreds of thousands of women workers of their jobs in the textile industry, mainly women from poorer villages in rural areas. The AWAJ Foundation, member of the NGO Make Mothers Matter, organised a fundraising campaign to support (with food, care, rents …), the workers and their families.
In Nepal, the NGO Business and Professional Women (BPW) coordinated the ‘Guntaba Sanjal’ project allowing women owners of small farms to benefit from microcredits to help them market their products. BPW Hong Kong also raised funds in collaboration with the NGO RainLily to support women victims of sexual violence. The funds were used to provide webcams and headsets to enable social workers to move the hotline toward a virtual consultation.
Young people have so far been relatively spared the ‘health’ impact of COVID-19. However, socio-economic consequences of the pandemic have a direct impact on their physical and mental well-being. In some cases, the measures taken to mitigate the effects will change the youth forever.
The observations are alarming:
- An increase in infant mortality linked to malnutrition, the disappearance of school meals following school closures, the disruption of child vaccination services.
- Increased insecurity amongst children: total or partial confinement is a period conducive to violence. In fact, children are more exposed to violence, whether they are witnesses or victims. This is particularly the case for girls, who will suffer severe and lasting repercussions (pregnancy, early and forced marriages, etc.). What is more, as children’s hyper-connectivity increases, so does the risk of exposure to inappropriate content or online predators.
- Worsening of the educational divide: more than two-thirds of countries have set up a platform for collaboration, exchange and distance learning advocated by the World Coalition for Education launched by UNESCO however, of low-income countries only 30% have done so. In order to reduce the educational divide, several NGOs (Montessori, the Blas in Africa Association member of the CCIC, ATD Fourth World volunteers), have carried out field actions with teachers and experienced young people in order to train other young people to entrepreneurship, to improve school results and social reintegration, in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
At the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, NGOs have chosen to favour mutual aid and feelings of solidarity alongside local associations, in the field, thus promoting the redefinition of our social ties, an essential element to achieve a common future that we will have to continue to build together.
The next part of this series of articles on “Solidarity of NGOs to face the pandemic” will be devoted to promoting the action of NGOs to defend the transversal role of education – which is crucial in the fight against the pandemic.