The NGO Constituency of Asia Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (APRCEM) organized a workshop on ‘Inequality, COVID-19 and Civic Space’ on November 27, 2020. The objective was to bring forth the distress and increasing inequality faced by various vulnerable and marginalized communities in the Asia-Pacific region, their resilience and the support provided by the civil society to address their issues. The aim was to further link this to the diminishing civic space in the countries of the Asia-Pacific and to develop concrete strategies for systemic change to build forward better from the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were three key areas of focus:
Issues of the constituencies and the systemic barriers:
Even prior to COVID-19, the existence of systemic and structural barriers which exclude communities and people have been well recognized and documented. There are some sections of the population- such as women, children, youth, elderly, persons with disabilities, transgenders, minorities, workers in the informal sector, migrants, indigenous communities, poor people- whose marginalization and systemic exclusion is visible across the Asia-Pacific region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only highlighted these pre-existing inequalities, but exposed them in a much harsher way. With the pandemic not only exacerbating all existing vulnerabilities, disadvantages and inequalities, but also creating new ones, more people are now facing an extreme form of exclusion and vulnerability, and are at the risk of being left behind. The civic space has been further shrunk these times.
- Across the region/globe governments have invoked emergency clauses during the pandemic to curtail freedom of association and limit other human rights
- It curtailed the media freedom, freedom of expression and civic space to the extent, which fail the test of international standards
- Vaguely worded provisions have potential to violate various freedoms and human rights
- Cases of gaging media and arresting journalists in Philippines and India have been reported
- Within the broad categories of vulnerable communities, there are many sub-categories that are more vulnerable and are not recognized. The bulk of these communities are the last to access schemes and services. Further, the development policies of the government do not take their specific vulnerabilities into account, completely ignoring their challenges and needs in any response mechanism.
- The intersectional issues of women, children, youth, elderly, persons with disability, among others, within the vulnerable communities face complex and multiple disadvantages. These groups are taken as separate constituencies and the challenges faced by persons at the intersection of these identities fall between the competing priorities and get left out.
- The national aggregates of the government do not adequately capture the contextual realities of the vulnerable communities. Lack of real time, disaggregated data makes it difficult to monitor and assess the impact of the pandemic on these communities. While the ground reality shows the suffering of the people, it is not adequately captured in government data. Lack of data also hampers effective policy planning and implementation, with schemes and provisions not aligned with the challenges and aspirations of the people.
- The marginalized communities lack access to social protection and basic services. The pandemic resulted in increased food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, inaccessibility of education due to the digital divide, little or no income security, loss of livelihood, further perpetuating the cycle of inequality and disadvantage.
- Legislations, policies, budgets and programmes meant for vulnerable communities are poorly designed and implemented- a clear indication of the lack of government will. Lack of access to information, online registrations, inaccessibility of relief measures for those living in remote areas, discrimination in access and denial of services are some of the instances that highlight the lack of planning and accountability in government response to the pandemic. Further, even when policies are meant to serve the vulnerable communities, the resources allocated are neither sufficient nor long-term, and are thus unable to provide the benefits and support that they had planned.
- The marginalized communities have little voice and influence on the decision-making processes which impact their development. Their limited representation does not facilitate them voicing their issues, and often, they are the victims of development rather than benefiting from it. With the pandemic taking centre-stage, governments are assuming emergency powers and introducing laws, policies and amendments that are passed without much discussion or consultation. The vulnerable communities, stripped of their lives and livelihoods, will be the most adversely impacted by these decisions.
- With governments struggling to respond to the pandemic, the civil society was on the frontlines working with the marginalized communities who have been directly impacted by the pandemic. However, across the Asia-Pacific region, civic space has been curtailed with censorship, attacks on human rights defenders and promulgation of restrictive laws as the top 3 forms of shrinking civic space. Using the pandemic as an excuse, governments invoked emergency clauses to limit the freedom of civil society assembly, association and expression.
- Badly hit by the restrictions and curtailments in light of the pandemic, the civil society is trying to find ways to re-group and re-function. However, this is still limited to strategizing online, while real action needs to take place on-ground. Democracy and human rights are at a critical juncture in the Asia-Pacific region, with censorship of media, harassment of civil society, lack of transparency, rising defamation cases. The civic space was worrying even before, but the pandemic has worsened the situation.
Annie Namala from Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA)
Initiatives, resistances, voices of dissent:
While there are mounting challenges, the strength and resilience of the vulnerable communities is commendable and the various instances of resistance and resilience by the communities and the civil society organizations needs to be highlighted, strengthened and replicated.
- Over the last decade or two, many vulnerable communities are self-organizing themselves to address the issues they face. Civil Society Organizations of differently-abled persons, youth, Dalits, nomadic communities, tribals, etc. are better able to articulate their issues and voice their demands.
- These community-led organizations have been able to address issues on three dimensions- social dimension (non-discrimination), civil and political rights, and accountability from the government and multilateral organizations. Global forums create spaces for CSOs to connect across countries, share knowledge and good practices. These forums also provide a platform for vulnerable communities to demand and access justice.
- Civil society has been on the forefront in the response to COVID-19, focusing on universal healthcare, reducing inequalities and guaranteeing human rights.
- CSO response on-ground has been relief programmes by providing food to the hungry, mobilizing support to jobless people in the informal sector, working with vulnerable communities to spread awareness about the pandemic and relief measures in place for them, and monitoring the government relief and cash support.
- At the national, regional and global levels- civil society has been collaborating and expanding its network, reaching out to volunteers through various platforms, and partnering with government officials and community members to alleviate the impact of the pandemic on those worst affected by it.
Paul Divakar – GCAP Global Co-Chair and representative of the Social Justice Task Force on Discrimination Based on Work and Descent
- Ensure that the preventive, relief and recovery measures being put in place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic are equitable, non-discriminatory and use a human rights approach. Specific policies and provisions prioritizing the vulnerable communities are necessary, such as universal social security, unemployment allowances in the informal sector, livelihood support compensation packages, trainings and alternative employment opportunities in place for migrant workers.
- Strengthen public provisioning and public services to ensure that essential focus on the needs of the vulnerable and are able to reach them. Ensure access to quality healthcare for all, prioritize investments in education and address the digital divide.
- Promote community-driven disaggregated data for vulnerable communities, building their capacities to track their data. When community generates data, not only is it critical as evidence for authorities, it also has a better chance of them holding the state accountable.
- Create spaces for the multi-lateral partnership (government, civil society and private sector), centralizing the participation of the vulnerable communities in all decision-making institutions. Ensure an inclusive and transparent environment and facilitate their participation to bring both their concerns and potential to build strategies for development.
- Fill in the gaps in the implementation of legislations and programmes meant to support the vulnerable communities and align these with sufficient budgetary allocations. Given that the pandemic is far from over, the government must provide regular support to the vulnerable communities. One-time monetary assistance is not enough.
- Allocate specific budgets within the disaster relief funds to build resilience of communities. Learn from the communities and strengthen resilience mechanisms to build forward better and demand systems change in access to development for all.
- Track the intersectional challenges and needs of women, children, youth, elderly, people with disability, Dalits, indigenous communities, religious/linguistic/cultural minorities, women and sexual minorities and other intersectionalities within the vulnerable communities and ensure necessary budgets, programmes and participation to address the complex and multiple disadvantages that they face.
- Support and strengthen civil society organizations. Build mechanisms at the local, national and regional level for constructive collaboration, whether through direct service delivery or policy advocacy. Localize engagement, create functions for checks and balances, establish accountability and integrity mechanisms and report back to the people to enhance participation.
GCAP recently published a detailed report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Inequality in Asia that you can find here.
Organised by: NGO Constituency, APRCEM
[Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) Asia, Pakistan Development Alliance (PDA), Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA), Philippines Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), GCAP Bangladesh, Asia Dalit Rights Forum (ADRF), Asia Democracy Network (ADN) and others]