COVID-19 and African CSOs – Tracking the Pandemic’s Impact on the Sector

by David Barnard and Rose Maruru

Why another survey? 

It’s been slightly over a year since @AfricanNGOs and EPIC-Africa conducted the first survey on the impact of COVID-19 on African civil society organizations (CSOs). At that time (29 April – 15 May 2020), there was no data available on how the pandemic impacted the sector. The two surveys available in the public domain were global, with only a handful of African groups represented. As a result, our survey filled a critical knowledge gap by providing actionable insights to African CSOs, their funders, and other stakeholders. 

Since then, several country and sector-specific surveys have been conducted, adding to the growing understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on African CSOs. However, the evolution of COVID-19’s impact on CSOs has not been tracked even as the end of the pandemic remains out of sight.

Although the number of COVID-19 infections and the mortality rate in Africa is still relatively low, the situation remains fluid with occasional spikes in infections and the threat of a “third wave”. At the same time, as the economic fallout reverberates, with poverty levels rising, demand for the services that African CSOs provide is increasing, as is the need for civil society’s voice on social and economic justice issues. 

Therefore, it is crucial to continue tracking the impact of COVID-19 on African CSOs and sharing emerging lessons and experiences to inform strategies and interventions that will enable CSOs to continue doing their critical work while securing their future.  

Moving forward, EPIC-Africa and @AfricanNGOs will conduct a second pan-African survey on the impact of COVID-19 on African CSOs from 1-30 June 2021. Beyond tracking the ongoing impact of the pandemic, the survey findings will also contribute to a deeper understanding of various critical dimensions of the African CSO sector.

What’s different about the second survey?

We implemented our first survey during the two months following the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic and the subsequent wide-ranging restrictive measures that governments across the continent introduced to control the spread of the virus. Media coverage at that time focused primarily on government and private sector responses to the pandemic. We saw business leaders donating food, medicine, and money to national government-led efforts, heard about government concerns for the economy, and learned about special funds and other measures to safeguard small and medium-sized businesses.

But we saw and heard little about CSOs’ involvement and contributions. Yet, based on past experience, we knew that there would not be an effective response to the crisis without the involvement of CSOs. The pandemic was not a medical emergency alone, but also a social and economic crisis requiring interventions closely linked to the work of many CSOs. Furthermore, we were also concerned about the likely devastating impact of the pandemic on the already fragile civil society ecosystem in Africa, and wanted to understand better what was truly happening on the ground.

Our first survey aimed to generate clear and actionable answers to five key questions:

  • What was the Immediate impact of the pandemic on African CSOs?
  • How were African CSOs coping with the disruptions caused by COVID-19?
  • What was the outlook for African CSOs in the medium term?
  • Had African CSOs initiated new program activities in response to COVID-19, and if so, what were those activities, and how were they being funded?
  • What were some of the insights emerging as African CSOs grappled with the crisis, and what did they mean for the recovery and sustainability of the sector?

A total of 1015 CSOs from 44 African countries responded to the survey. Very concerning, 98% reported having been negatively affected in one or more ways by the pandemic. At the same time, while many African CSOs were overwhelmed by the immediate impact of COVID-19 on their operations, and some were already struggling to survive, there was surprising optimism about the future. In fact, 45% of respondents felt that the pandemic would give rise to a more robust and agile sector. This optimism was not unfounded. The ways in which CSOs were already adapting to the “new normal” indicated that the crisis could perhaps be the inflection point that would begin to reshape the sector towards more resilient, effective and sustainable organizations.

Our second survey will broaden and deepen the scope of the first survey. Our ambition is to reach at least 5000 CSOs in all geographic and language regions of the continent. It will be the most comprehensive intervention to date aimed at analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on CSOs anywhere in the world. It will seek to: 

  • Capture the ongoing impact of the pandemic on African CSOs, how CSOs are responding, and emerging trends and lessons that may help predict and prepare for the future.
  • Acquire information at the sectoral and regional levels to conduct pertinent cross-sector analyses and paint a more granular picture of how African CSOs are coping.
  • Include funders’ perspectives, explore how their funding practices have changed and may continue to evolve, and how the changes are likely to impact the CSO sector.
  • Compare the findings from our first survey with the current situation, generate data and knowledge to inform and widen the discussion on building resilience in the African CSO sector, drive advocacy with funders and governments, and spur actions and tools to “build back better”.

Data to transform the African CSO sector

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought its own peculiar challenges, African CSOs have been particularly vulnerable because of historical and ongoing conditions that have long characterized the sector. COVID-19 has amplified some pre-existing conditions – from severe under-resourcing to shrinking civic space – which are at the core of the sector’s vulnerability.

One of the less-discussed pre-existing conditions is invisibility. Despite the contributions of African CSOs to the well-being of their communities, countries, and the continent, there is limited data available about the sector. For example, we don’t know how many groups exist across the continent, or even within individual countries. Little is known about what these groups do, where they do it, how they do it, who funds them and how, and their impact. As a result, many Africans themselves are unaware that some of the basic rights they enjoy today result from civic-led actions. 

Invisible to those who could be allies and supporters, including local businesses and individuals, the CSO sector often lacks the financial and moral support it needs from the public (this is especially critical when the sector comes under attack by governments wishing to limit civic space). Furthermore, invisibility and fragmentation prevent CSOs from connecting with each other, learning from one another, and leveraging the benefits of networks and collaborations.

Invisibility also means that individual and institutional funders who would like to support African CSOs have no easy way of identifying relevant organizations and often rely on “asking around”. This approach often favors a small subset of organizations that are primarily urban-based, leaving many worthy organizations off the radar of donors.

Knowledge building initiatives, such as our surveys on COVID-19, are filling critical data gaps about the African CSO sector. Ultimately, what is needed is the infrastructure to actively gather, analyze, and share sector data.

This infrastructure would consist of services and tools that aim to set standards, ensure continuous improvement in performance and impact, champion new approaches, support advocacy with governments for better policies, and inform grantmaking approaches. Without robust and locally rooted infrastructure, movements such as “localization” and “#ShiftThePower” calling for the dismantling of prevailing funding practices, especially the marginalization of African-led initiatives, could be undermined, leading to a backlash and a return to the status quo.

EPIC-Africa is among a growing number of African organizations working to strengthen philanthropic infrastructure and deepen its impact on the continent.  The upcoming survey, and others before, are part of EPIC-Africa’s building blocks towards our broader vision of a vibrant philanthropic ecosystem on the continent.

We call on all African CSOs to contribute to this effort by participating in our 2021 survey!

Recommended readings:

How to build a vibrant philanthropic ecosystem in Africa

The State of African CSOs report

The Impact of COVID-19 on African CSOs report

Research and Publications on the Impact of COVID-19 on African Civil Society Organisations – Request for Contributions

David Barnard is the Moderator of @AfricanNGOs & Rose Maruru is the Co-Founder and Director of EPIC-Africa.

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