Now is the time to step up our ambitions

Observations from our latest Civitates convening​

Published: 19 June 2020

Collaboration among civil society proves vital in times of crisis.

In a two-day online convening, the Civitates’ grantee partners working for a strong and resilient civil society shared hopes and worries about the impact of the pandemic (and the social and economic crisis that followed) on the civic space and on their work. There was a real sense of optimism throughout the discussions, as civil society across Europe is showing tremendous value right now. Many civic actors have repurposed themselves pretty much overnight, adding relief dimensions to their work and shifting many of their activities online. Impressive numbers of people have been mobilised for solidarity initiatives, as the crisis has highlighted the need for caring and inclusion.

There was also an understanding that now is the time to step up our ambitions. This became clear in a conversation with guest speaker Tom Carothers, senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who joined our grantee partners for a discussion on how the coronavirus is catalysing new forms of civic activism. He described the crisis as a psychological tipping point and stressed this is the time to push for deep reform. To achieve such progress, he argued, we need large, intersectoral alliances, working across society.

Civitates virtual convening with the grantees working for a strong and resilient civil society
Civitates virtual convening with the grantees working for a strong and resilient civil society

In addition to achieving progress, many of our grantee partners also use the opportunity to highlight the importance of civil society. They show how civil society organisations will often be the first to react to a problem in society, providing direct assistance to people, as well as to put pressure on governments to deal with the problem in a systemic way. For example, in relation to the spike in domestic violence during a lockdown or the lack of personal protective equipment for care workers.

While generally optimistic, people acknowledged the situation is anything but easy. Civil society groups are worried that governments could use the current crisis to (further) threaten the rule of law and democracy. Illiberal leaders in some countries have already taken advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to tighten their political grip by weakening checks and balances, imposing censorship, and expanding state surveillance – and other counties might follow. Although every context is different, civil society organisations face similar problems across the nine countries where Civitates’ grantees are active. This is why we set aside plenty of time for peer-to-peer advice and a joint problem-solving exercise.

A tour-the-table with updates about challenges and opportunities in each country

A question that worried all grantee partners was what would follow next, how civil society organisations would emerge from the crisis and what the economic crisis has in stock for them.  In the words of Oana Preda, director of the Resource Centre for Public Participation (CeRe) in Romania:

 “A common challenge for all countries is the economic impact of the pandemic and how it will affect all vulnerable groups, which will be once again left out by the government.”

Petr Lebeda, director of analytical and networking centre Glopolis in the Czech Republic, added that

“The cultural sector has also emerged as a vulnerable group that we shouldn’t forget about; this crisis can turn against this large group in society, so important for healthy civil society and democracy.” 

While the work of the coalitions supported by Civitates is at the national level, there is a clear interest to connect to like-minded pan-European networks. Our grantee partners were therefore keen to exchange views and experiences with our guest speakers, Sophie Pornschlegel from Connecting Europe and Omri Preiss from Alliance4Europe. After all, here too, cooperation increases our chances for impact. 

The discussions highlighted the uneven response to the crisis within the EU and it was noted by Veronika Mora, director of Ökotárs in Hungary that

 “The EU recovery package is not very progressive. There is a gap in the words and the actions of the EU institutions.”

Civil society actors are also worried about the proposed 20% cut in the volume of the Rights and Values Programme, which intends to support projects implemented by civil society organisations promoting and protecting common European values of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. Many organizations have therefore signed this petition created by Stefan Batory Foundation and the European Civic Forum to counter this development.

All in all, our grantee partners are convinced that civil society organisations have an important role to play in ensuring that we will emerge from this crisis in the best shape possible – and so are we.

Information about the convening

Within the framework of Funding Plus, Civitates regularly gathers its grantees to foster cooperation and cross-border networking. This was the third meeting with the grantees working for a strong and resilient civil society.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the convening was held online, spread over two afternoons (15 and 16 June 2020). Thanks to our facilitators from Kumquat Consult the discussions were almost just as engaging as when in person.