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Supporting Civil Society During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Saul Mullard and P
er Aarvik U4 Guide 2020:1
Supporting civil society
during the Covid-19 pandemic
he po tentials o f online c ollaborations f or social ac
coun tability

All views in this te
xt are the author(s)’ , and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies. P
artner agencies Austr
alian Go vernment – Department for F oreign Affairs and Trade – DF AT German Corpor
ation for International Cooper ation – GIZGerman F
ederal Ministry for Economic Cooper ation and Development – BMZ Global Affairs Canada
Ministry for F
oreign Affairs of Finland Ministry of F
oreign Affairs of Denmark / Danish International De velopment Assistance – Danida Swedish International De
velopment Cooper ation Agency – Sida Swiss Agency for De
velopment and Cooper ation – SDCThe Norwegian Agency for De
velopment Cooper ation – Norad UK Aid – Department for International De
velopment About U4
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vidence to helpinternational de
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. Michelsen Institute (
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eywords Co
vid-19 – social accountability
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There are significant corruption risks during times of crisis. Civil society has an
important role to play in ensuring funds to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic reach their
destination. Donors and multilateral or
ganisations should consider establishing digitalaccountability networks to support this ef
fort. The current crisis presents challenges forcivil society; however
, there are also new opportunities for it to embrace digital civicengagement as an anti-corruption initiative.
Main points
• There are significant corruptions risk during times of crisis. Bottom-up
accountability approaches are crucial for ensuring funds allocated for the pandemic
reach their intended destination.
• It is tempting to view the current lockdowns and restriction of movement as a global
paralysis. However
, whilst challenging for civil society , the current situation maystimulate creativity and of
fer new opportunities for it as a watchdog.• The present ur
ge to participate, to share information and to or
ganise assistance couldbe channelled into constructive support and alternative forms of civic engagement to
combat corruption.
• Development practitioners can support civil society by drawing upon the many
existing – but untapped – resources to mobilise digital civic engagement. By
establishing digital accountability networks, there is potential to increase awareness
of corruption risks, build new alliances and promote accountability initiatives.
• Online collaborations have the capability to contribute to anti-corruption initiatives.
, limitations and challenges faced by some countries include: poor technology infrastructures, lack of access to mobile devices or the skills to
communicate, cyber security issues, misuse of data, and a reluctance to engage at a
time when health is at risk.

able of contents Six current challenges for civil society 2
1. Asymmetry of power between the e
xecutiv e and accountability mechanisms 2
2. Restriction of mo
vement pre vents activities that require meeting ph ysically 2
3. Access to information 2
4. Online services are costly in countries which impose ‘social media
’ taxes. 3
5. Gaining momentum for civic initiativ
es is difficult 3
6. Reduced space for civil society 3
e opportunities for civil society during the pandemic 3
1. P
otential to increase legitimacy of civil society 4
2. P
otential for widespread engagement 4
3. Increase in information 4
4. Building of new alliances 4
5. Exploring platforms for digital civic engagement 5
Examples of digital civic participation 6
ations for establishing digital accountability networks 8
Limitations of accountability using digital tools during the pandemic 10
Opportunities for accountability using digital tools during the pandemic 10
How to support civil society anti-corruption and social accountability initiativ
esduring the pandemic 10
References 12

About the authors
Saul Mullard
Saul is senior adviser for people’
s engagement at the U4 Anti-Corruption ResourceCentre. His current research interests include the role of community movements in
social and political change and community-based environmental activism. He holds a
doctorate and master
’s in South and Inner Asian Studies from the University of Oxford, as well as a BA in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African
Studies (SOAS) in London.
Per Aarvik
Per is an independent writer on applied digital technology for humanitarianism,
development, governance and anti-corruption. Social media data, satellite imagery
,geographical information systems, and applied artificial intelligence are among his
interests. He holds a Master’s degree in Democracy Building from the Department of
Comparative Politics, University of Ber
gen, Norway. His thesis focused on the potential of crowdsourced civil society election monitoring as a tool to combat election fraud. His
background is from journalism, advertising and higher design education – as a
, educator, and in managerial roles. In recent years he has led digital humanitarian work during disasters and in democracy projects.

The current Covid-19 crisis poses several problems for development generally
, not leastin the health sector
, and there are significant corruption risks during a pandemic . As the
current pandemic takes hold around the globe, donors and multilateral or
ganisations areplanning lar
ge disbursements of funds to tackle the crisis. Y et there is concern that thesefunds are at risk of corruption that will seriously impact health outcomes. Amongst the
host of accountability and anti-corruption measures available, the use of civil society
ganisations has become part of the mainstream practice of donors’ anti-corruption
forts . There are several ways in which civil society can be engaged in anti-corruption
programmes that play to its perceived strength when acting as a watchdog.
Civil society has an important r
ole to play inensuring funds to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic
each their destination. Civil society-led, bottom-up accountability (like any anti-corruption approach) is not a
panacea. As with any intervention, it is important to consider the context, the capacity
,the motivation of actors (civil society included) etc. However
, civil society has hadsome success in playing crucial roles – from watchdog to informing citizens about their
rights and entitlements – and improving service delivery and development outcomes .
During the current pandemic, bottom-up accountability approaches are essential in
ensuring funds allocated for pandemic responses reach their intended destination.
e understand civil society to broadly be the space between the public and private sectors, as stated in a 2019 UNODC report . Whilst such definitions can be found in
numerous policy or practice documents, a closer look at aid financing to civil society is
significantly biased in favour of the non-governmental or
ganisation (NGO) rather thanthe civil society or
ganisation (CSO). For example, an OECD report on aid spending to
civil society fails to make a distinction between CSOs generally and NGOs (a specific
type of CSO). Going as far to say that NGO ‘…can be used synonymously with the
term civil society or
ganisation (CSO).’During the ongoing pandemic, civil society is facing several constraints on its ability to
carry out its work, as a result of lockdown, distancing, and quarantine measures. Despite
these challenges, bottom-up accountability approaches are crucial to ensuring funds for
the pandemic reach their intended destination. NGOs, donors, and multilaterals can
support such approaches by drawing on several examples of online civic engagement. U4 GUIDE 2020:1

Six current challenges for civil society
There are wider risks related to the accountability of governments and private
companies. In normal times, CSOs would be well placed to monitor and report on
governments and private companies, as well as hold them accountable for their actions.
The current crisis poses several challenges to the roles of civil society: monitoring,
, advocacy, and promoting citizens’ participation. 1. Asymmetry of power between the e
xecutiv e and accountability mechanisms
In some contexts, the legitimacy of executive power may increase. It is the executive
that is lar
gely responsible for setting policies and an agenda for action to deal with the crisis. Executive rhetoric that emphasises that now is a time for action may resonate
with the public. This could make it more dif
ficult for both vertical and horizontalaccountability mechanisms to carry out their functioning and gain momentum.
2. Restriction of mo
vement pre vents activities that require meeting ph
ysically This is particularly the case for civil society’
s social accountability role, as most socialaccountability tools require engaging local communities to come together to participate
in initiatives. This is not possible when social distancing measures are in place.
Community meetings, social audits, and group sessions – the mainstays of most social
accountability initiatives – are dif
ficult to achieve under strict distancing or quarantinemeasures. Similarly
, demonstrations or protests are hindered by such measures.3. Access to information
In some communities, lockdowns also prevent access to information if this access was
previously available from work, an educational institution, a library
, or an internet café.Thus, the ability to engage digitally is reduced to access via mobile phones. U4 GUIDE 2020:1

4. Online services are costly in countries which impose
‘social media
’ taxes. As education, faith-based gatherings, and social interaction have moved online due to
lockdowns, there is a strong pressure to waive such taxes during the Covid-19 crisis.
This has been exemplified by the protest against the OTT tax in Uganda .
5. Gaining momentum for civic initiativ
es is difficultDuring times of crisis it can be very dif
ficult to gain momentum and participants for acause, as media and public orientation are focused on the emer
gency. Methods for reaching out have also moved online, which may reduce the potential for broader
6. Reduced space for civil society
Many governments around the world are implementing distancing and quarantine
measures, and civil society networks warn of the potential for curbing civic engagement
and restricting fundamental rights . For example, Hungary , Philippines , and Bangladesh
have introduced emer
gency legislation that is being reported as an excuse to restricthuman rights and further reduce the space for civil society
. Similarly, according to CIVICUS , a global alliance of CSOs, internet restrictions are in place in India,
, and Bangladesh. Fiv
e opportunities for civil society during the pandemic
As ‘half
’ the global population is under some form of lockdown or restriction of movement, it is tempting to view the current situation as a global paralysis. But seen
ferently , the lockdowns may stimulate creativity and of fer new opportunities for civilsociety
. It is tempting to view the curr
ent situation as aglobal par
alysis; but the lock downs may stimulatecr
eativity and offer new opportunities for civil society
. U4 GUIDE 2020:1

1. P
otential to increase legitimacy of civil society In recent years, questions have been raised regarding the legitimacy
, accountability, and relevance of CSOs. A 2017 report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies
provides examples of some of the challenges facing civil society
.The current crisis mayof
fer opportunities for CSOs to respond to some of these criticisms through building broader participation by a network of online reporters and activists with strong links to
the communities in which they live. This may counter the tendency of NGOs to be
driven by donor demands and the need to secure funding.
2. P
otential for widespread engagement The current situation has released an ur
ge to participate, demonstrated by the hundredsof Facebook groups or crowdsourced mapping projects sharing information or
ganising assistance. Some of this engagement could be channelled into constructive support and alternative forms of civic engagement to combat corruption, if the
framework to do so is created and made known to the right audience.
3. Increase in information
As ‘whole’ societies begin to interact digitally
, information is more likely to beavailable online, either through of
ficial web portals and social media or distributed viaclosed networks. T
ech giants have joined forces to, for example, filter out
misinformation and remove advertisements for fake protection gear
. Such interventionsfrom the platform providers are of some help, but do not remove the need for the
specialised skills needed to harvest and properly verify and validate information. There
are NGOs engaged in such projects, and many of them are or
ganised under theHumanitarian2Humanitarian network. In a global crisis, giant corporations, such as
Facebook, T
witter, and Google, gear up to be present and active. These networks facilitate information sharing and monitoring options, but only to a certain extent.
4. Building of new alliances
The current situation provides opportunities to engage with other types of civil society
ganisations beyond NGOs, such as churches, Scouting groups, professional associations (eg nurses unions), and other membership-based or
ganisations. In thePhilippines T
extbook Count case, local Scouting troops were engaged to check the
quality and quantity of textbooks and helped ensure that the books reached their U4 GUIDE 2020:1

intended destination. In that case the Scouts were willing to engage, as their action
corresponded with the service ethos of the Scouting Association and was directed at an
educational aim rather than an anti-corruption one.
This shows that membership groups may be more willing to support Covid-19 social
accountability initiatives because they relate to a health emer
gency rather than‘corruption’ – an issue which is often highly politicised in many contexts. These
ferent forms of CSOs often have good communication structures and can engage dif
ferent people in the monitoring and oversight of Covid-19 responses. Reaching out to these or
ganisations for wider mobilisation can occur through existing local NGO partners that may have broader links with unions and membership or
ganisations. Donorscan also liaise with their own domestic unions which may have international links. For
example, the Norwegian Nurses Or
ganisation conducts capacity building programmeswith nurses’ unions in Rwanda which are funded via a framework agreement with
NORAD (the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation). Building new
alliances and networks can help civil society or
ganisations to break down silos and
create new syner
gies between organisations, which can prove useful in emer genciessuch as the current pandemic.
Some success has also been achieved in reaching out to faith-based or
ganisations,religious leaders, and customary authorities to mobilise action against corruption. See
s work on the potentials of customary authority . For example, Integrity W
s work with clerics has shown some potential for success , and the Global
Anticorruption Blog makes a similar case for engaging religious leaders . This is
particularly important when public opinion surveys show high degrees of public trust in
religious leaders. Many religious leaders are turning to alternative methods of
communicating with their congregations and could use these opportunities to help
spread information relevant to accountability
. For example, information about freetesting or new health services.
5. Exploring platforms for digital civic engagement
Civic engagement and accountability hav
e moved online. Ther
e are man y resour ces that dev elopment pr
actitioners can dr aw upon to mobilise digital participation, and engage civil society as watchdog.
There are several examples of how civic engagement and accountability have moved
online, with many untapped resources to draw upon to mobilise digital participation. U4 GUIDE 2020:1

These provide dif
ferent ways in which development practitioners could engage and support the watchdog function of civil society
.Examples of digital civic participation
Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp have seen an increase of 50% in messaging and a
doubling of video calls in certain markets during the coronavirus crisis. Hundreds of
social media groups have been created. Many of them monitor the local spread of the
virus; others or
ganise neighbourhood assistance. Most of them will probably communicate to their own group of supporters. But some platforms are dedicated to and
have a history of crowdsourced monitoring and could be tapped into for accountability
As violence erupted in Kenya after the disputed results of the 2007 presidential
elections, the Ushahidi (witness) mapping platform was created to document the
ongoing violence. The crowdsourcing tool has since been deployed for collaborative
mapping of needs during and after disasters, for documenting harassment and abuse , or
for simply identifying issues in a local neighbourhood. More than a decade since its
creation, the platform has given rise to a plethora of similar approaches which have
proven practical for civil society reporting.
After the Covid-19 outbreak, more than 200 instances of crowdsourced maps on the
Ushahidi platform have been launched. In the UK, ‘ Frontline PPE ’ provides information
about availability of personal protective equipment (PPE). In Spain, ‘ Frena La Curva ’
publishes requests for help or of
fers to collect food or medicine.1 , 2
In Kenya , Sudan , and Brazil , the maps cover the spread of the virus, as well as the
ferent assistance and services available . These are spontaneous deployments, initiated
as an immediate response to the current crisis. More systematic use of the
crowdsourcing platform also exists.
1. (Footnote added after first publishing) Frena la curva has spread to 16 countries in Europe and Latin
America. An interview with the organisers published on the Ushahidi blog points to precise and
transferable, practical reflections over what drives a successful civil society engagement. Using
already established, trusted networks, designing the project with a simplicity for all participants to quickly
get up to speed and to be open for changes in priority as the project moves forward, are three of the key
2. U4 GUIDE 2020:1

A customised setup of the Ushahidi platform, named Uchaguzi (election), has been
deployed in many countries for crowdsourced monitoring of elections. The concept
contains a full set of guidelines covering the process: from planning the event and
training the participants, to security measures and what to look for during elections. The
Uchaguzi methodology enables recognition of the monitoring abilities of the crowd, and
how to verify that information and then convert it into a response.
When donors plan for interventions during the current crisis, civil society could in some
cases be included to monitor whether the support reached its tar
get. By providingguidelines and pre-defined setups for such deployments, the quality of such
interventions could dramatically increase.
But even if the template for collecting inputs from the crowd exists, it does not always
lead to the desired results. ‘ I Paid A Bribe ’ gained much attention when it launched. The
idea was to visualise everyday corruption, and thereby encourage governments to
prevent it or discourage public agents from taking bribes. T
oday, the project seems abandoned; its fate mirroring other initiatives based on the same concept. They didn’
tsurvive the question posed by T
iago Peixoto in his 2012 blog post ‘ I Paid a Bribe. So
What? ’ V
ariants of ‘ Fix My Street ’ concepts have also had their time in the limelight.
Some are still functioning, but most are not.
The OECD Open Government Data (OGD) philosophy encourages civil society
reporting of corruption or mismanagement through their public websites. As
governments are purchasing medical equipment or PPE on a lar
ge scale, opennessaround public tenders, and verification of business information on the bidders for those
tenders, can be crucial to uncovering non-serious actors, preventing overpricing, and
hindering the purchase of fake products by the public.
In Ukraine, tenders and bids are published on the open platform ProZorro , which is an
e-procurement system ‘created as a result of a partnership between business,
government and the civil society
.’ The tenders and bids are closely monitored by civilsociety and interested parties, with their findings shared on the Dozorro website. The
project facilitates a close monitoring of government purchases, and has become a model
for open procurement.
An understanding of how civil society can be engaged in long-term anti-corruption and
accountability initiatives, and how such tools should be designed, is now emer
ging. Thecombination of technology and crowdsourcing is another possible path. The GovLab
case study (2017) of a Mexican initiative demonstrates how the full loop can be
achived: ‘The public expects meaningful interactions that lead to measurable outcomes U4 GUIDE 2020:1

and more ef
fective policymaking and service delivery .’ The platform for citizencomplaints is today integrated in Mexican government services , and describes the steps
in the process – from filing a complaint to resolving the issue. According to the 2019
OECD report which followed up on the Mexican integrity project, ‘Mexico has laid the
foundations for a more co-ordinated approach to fighting corruption by creating a
system that brings together key actors and gives a prominent role to civil society
.’ Butthe committee that channels the inputs from civil society still ‘requires formal
recognition as legal entity and regular funding.’
The UNICEF-supported platform U-Report uses a dif
ferent approach to citizen reporting. The subscribers to the tool are asked to respond to SMS-surveys, which are
then analysed and published online. This long-lasting project has more than 10 million
subscribers in 66 countries. Normally
, this platform is used to shed light on localchallenges in the countries where it is established. Now
, however, the platform is used for surveying youth’
s perception of the Covid-19 pandemic in Mexico , or to give advice
from the pre-programmed U-Report COVID-19 bot through the most popular messaging
In 2014, the Citizen Action Platform (CAP), using the U-Report as its basis, was
launched in Uganda by Partnership for T
ransparency (PTF) to monitor corruption,mismanagement, and maltreatment. By entering into a collaboration with U-Report, the
CAP project could benefit from an established ‘crowd’ of reporters, and thereby join
forces with a group already familiar with the reporting methodology
. The projectconcluded after four years and, according to the final project report, resulted in
increased awareness, and improved relationships between citizens, health workers, and
local and central government authorities.
In Zimbabwe, the local chapter of T
ransparency International uses social media andradio broadcasts to call for citizen reports on accountability issues related to the spread
of the virus. People have reported on black market sales of food, politicisation of aid,
unregulated increases in food prices, and police brutality
ations for establishing digital accountability networks
The networks of information sharing and collaboration are already in place in many
countries. Donors should consider creating awareness of the corruption risk, and tap U4 GUIDE 2020:1

into these existing structures to engage civil society in monitoring funds allocated for
the pandemic response.
The cases of digital civic participation are all based on some form of digital
collaboration – from SMS-reporting to web-based monitoring and mapping.
Participating in such activities will, in some countries, only be possible for the urban
and connected part of the population. But deploying a combination of, for example,
radio broadcasts and SMS responses could reach a far wider audience.
• T
ech hubs are found in several countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Some of them are already deeply involved in local solutions for citizen collaboration
and participation. However
, during a lockdown, offices may be inaccessible, andstaf
f may have less ability to work from home due to lack of equipment or connectivity reasons.
• The microsite platform Mahallah (community) has been released by one of the tech
hubs in Kenya as a Covid-19 community response tool. Leveraging the local
competence from such hubs may be a successful strategy to initiate participative
accountability projects. In addition, local CSOs can be supported as partners in such
projects by online engagement or via SMS-reporting for accountability
. But, as adeadly virus threatens, or as food supplies become more ur
gent, the engagement foranti-corruption ef
forts can suffer. • Radio stations are frequently engaged in projects where community awareness is
important. Community and local radio programmes are broadcast in local languages,
which helps to ensure the wider spread of information. For example, Farm Radio
broadcasts in several countries, and is distributing information to local radio stations
to share on how to tackle the spread of Covid-19.
• Coordination of grassroots ef
forts typically happens via low-bandwidth apps, suchas WhatsApp or T
elegram, which have options for sophisticated group structures. • In Zimbabwe, the local chapter of T
ransparency International uses social media and
radio broadcasts to call for citizen reports on accountability issues related to
combatting the spread of the virus.
• Reaching out to local and national television channels and print media can be
considered for spreading information more widely
. In Nigeria, Nollywood movie
stars and musicians are fronting campaigns to address misconceptions of the ef
fectsand handling of the infection.
• T
elecom providers are normally very willing to be approached for support. Their ability to provide bandwidth, connectivity
, or toll-free numbers can be of significantvalue. U4 GUIDE 2020:1

Limitations of accountability using digital tools during the
• Lack of willingness to engage when health is at risk
• Not everyone has access to mobile devices, or the skills to communicate
• Poor mobile networks and comparatively expensive airtime in some parts of the
• Cyber security of personal data (protection of citizens)
• Misuse of digital reporting
• Hard to reach places (lack of technology infrastructure)
Opportunities for accountability using digital tools during
the pandemic
vailable technology , paired with local cr eativity and the sense of urgency
, is likely to trigger actions and pr
ojects with a gr eat potential to solv echallenges.
• As the whole world is af
fected, there is a global focus on mitigating the challenges.Good ideas can also travel fast.
• A
vailable technology
, paired with local creativity and the sense of ur gency, is likely to trigger actions and projects with a great potential to solve challenges.
• Donors and NGOs should monitor events and possibly adapt good practices which
may emer
ge. How to support civil society anti-corruption
and social accountability initiativ
es during thepandemic
In order to ensure that funds designated for Covid-19 responses reach their intended
gets, and are protected from corruption risks, it is important that civil society is supported in its accountability and watchdog roles. Current distancing and quarantine
measures in place in many parts of the world present both challenges and opportunities
for civil society
. Donors and multilateral or ganisations can help civil society in adaptingto the new situation. U4 GUIDE 2020:1

• Donors and multilateral or
ganisations are in a position to have a dialogue with thetech giants to facilitate civil society monitoring of programmes, raise accountability
and corruption issues, and promote citizens’ voices.
• Of
ficial data needs to be transparent. – Donors and multilaterals should ur
ge governments to make official data open topublic scrutiny
. They should also consider existing standards such as the OECD Open Government Data programme .
– Sharing information with local and national media (TV
, print, radio, and online)regarding the aims and tar
gets of aid spending will enable digital accountabilityinitiatives to track and trace rollout of Covid-19 responses.
• Local CSOs may need guidelines, digital tools, training, and capacity building to:
– engage in monitoring government support or actions during the pandemic
–monitor private enterprises in their online behaviours related to the pandemic
– support and train citizen journalists and other participants in monitoring and
• There is a multitude of small initiatives which will never gain momentum. Donors
and multilateral or
ganisations should endorse and coordinate some of these to improve the outcome of civil society engagements.
– Fostering the building of networks, which include online initiatives and donors’
civil society partners, can help share information and learning about successful
accountability initiatives.
• Engagement with non-NGO civil society or
ganisations (through existing civilsociety partners, such as Scouting troops, sports clubs, religious or
ganisations,community radio, and local media etc.) may increase the number of people
reporting, and help to build wider alliances for accountability initiatives.
• Consideration should be given to low-threshold technologies, such as SMS-based
reporting mechanisms, in places were the digital infrastructure is weak.
ging networks with local and national media (TV , print, radio) cancommunicate regular updates on accountability initiatives, and public service
information on the costs and availability of health services. U4 GUIDE 2020:1

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