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27 April Apr 2020 1140 27 April 2020

International cooperation: nothing will be like before, but let's start building the ‘after’

How are civil society organizations responding to the coronavirus pandemic? As economic hardship from Covid-19 puts a squeeze on civil society, Giampaolo Silvestri, AVSI Secretary general shares his thoughts on how the work from these institutions can move forward on Friends of Europe web magazine

The status quo is no more. After COVID-19, nothing will be like before – not in Italy, not in Europe and not for international cooperation.

This situation calls for a much different response than what we’ve grown accustomed to. It is precisely during such times – when a new, unprecedented situation arises – that unconventional solutions must be crafted. The general consensus is that the way civil society organisations (CSOs) have traditionally operated will have to change, starting from the elaboration of projects.

Even if this pandemic does not discriminate – potentially affecting the health of all individuals alike – we know inequalities persist. And we fight everywhere to defend the dignity of the person. Accordingly, CSOs must continue implementing their work worldwide.

Our organisation has taken this to heart, and is working alongside Syrian refugees in Lebanese camps. Not all planned activities can be carried out due to the lockdowns, but they can be adapted. In a country such as Lebanon – which already hosted 1.5 million Syrian refugees and faced heavy economic strains prior to the pandemic – the needs have increased.

Europe’s continued commitment to international cooperation is essential

Civil society can help by launching awareness campaigns to explain what to do in case symptoms of the virus appear, and thereby mitigate its spread. These messages can be spread via megaphones announcements or WhatsApp groups to reach as many people as possible. Soap distribution is also crucial. Social workers can continue their vital role during this crisis by distributing kits with recreational activities for families and by providing remote psycho-social support.

The widespread closure of schools has also necessitated the reimagining of educational and vocational training activities. In line with the Commission’s new European digital strategy, AVSI is transforming its training programmes into formats that can be delivered remotely through video tutorials and educational games. Similarly, this digital transformation can be seen in the increased use of mobile applications for the management and transfer of money – a useful method to avoid contact between people and limit the use of banknotes.

In this new scenario, Europe’s continued commitment to international cooperation is essential. The coming months will be characterised by economic hardships with a consequent reduction in funds coming from the private sector – this will inevitably affect CSOs. European institutions must prove themselves capable of breaking this probable cycle by, for example, eliminating or freezing the co-financing of ongoing EU projects with own resources by CSOs.

Where such a succession of events could stir setback in CSO activities, the European Union – the world’s largest donor of development aid – is called upon to keep the systems operating. It is necessary that the various Directorates-General fast-track the evaluation of projects in preliminary investigation, modify the activities of those departing based on the new needs that have emerged, and continue with the disbursement of funds as foreseen for 2020. In this way, this emergency period will be well-utilised and projects will be able to start without further delay afterwards.

This relationship of trust and reliance must continue after the crisis dissipates

The EU’s new Strategy with Africa ​​provides a vision that allows us to consider a post-COVID situation, the ‘after’. The relationship between the EU and Africa should go beyond development cooperation to embrace the concept of a multi-level partnership. The 10 joint actions that the strategy proposes must be feasible and this can only happen with the involvement of all relevant actors, including CSOs.

Today many donors, including the EU itself, are asking civil society for their ideas on how to continue activities. This relationship of trust and reliance must continue after the crisis dissipates. It is therefore essential for institutions to find innovative ways forward, such as online consultations with CSOs still operating abroad who are able to provide real-time indications on the needs and priorities for the future.

The AU-EU Summit scheduled for the end of this year and the recent introduction of the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) are processes that this emergency cannot stop.

Considering this unsettling outlook, a strong and consolidated EU is needed that can also welcome new supporters such as the CSOs themselves, because as the Pope said, “No one saves oneself. The community is essential.”