COVID-19: Catalyst for Civic Collaborations?

Nada Zohdy
1 Comment

Written by Nada Zohdy and Abigail Bellows

“We are wearing masks but we are not going to shut our mouths,” read signs at a car protests in Warsaw this April. Polish feminist organizers designed these creative demonstrations in response to attempts by Parliament to roll back reproductive rights during the pandemic. 

Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted changes to how civil society groups operate. In some cases these adjustments are merely logistical, while in other instances they are tactical — such as experiments with socially-distant organizing (like “drive-by protests”) or the growth of digital accountability strategies. Still, other organizations are pivoting their whole strategies toward a focus on different issues or different partners, using the urgency of the moment to draw attention to long-standing systemic injustices and calling for society to “build back better.” As lockdowns lift, protests are again on the rise globally, including some fueled by dissatisfaction with how governments are handling the pandemic. 

In particular, the surge in pandemic-related spending has highlighted the urgent need for transparency, accountability, civic engagement, and anti-corruption to protect the public good. Are civic actors in the open government field rising to the occasion?  Historically, this field has struggled to link professionalized NGOs — who are often based in capital cities and have accumulated formidable legal and technical expertise — with grassroots communities — who have direct insight into policy problems and community needs, and the people-power to mobilize a response. The elite-grassroots divide, as discussed in more detail previously, has inhibited civil society’s ability to seize timely reform openings in the past, and has meant that elite-driven reforms have failed to respond to concerns highlighted by those with lived experience of corruption. 

Has the disruptive global pandemic prompted new relationships and collaborations between diverse civil society actors? If so, do these examples reinforce the common elite-grassroots divide that often inhibits progress on open government reforms, or has it catalyzed new collaborations that help bridge the divide? 

We are conducting research over the next two months to better understand these trends, with results to be published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in late 2020. While the core of the research will draw from focus groups hosted by Global Affiliate Open Gov Hubs and other partners, we also invite Comments below on the following research questions:

1) Is the pandemic affecting the relationship between elite and grassroots civic actors in the open gov field? If so how?  

  • For example, has the pandemic prompted elite organizations to do more work at the community level?  Has it enhanced the power or impact of locally-rooted networks engaged in open gov topics or spawned the creation of new ones? 
  • Are new “vertical coalitions” forming between technical NGOs and grassroots networks in order to tackle corruption and transparency issues?

2)  Are pandemic-era civic adaptations likely to maintain or have a lasting impact after the pandemic subsides? Why or why not?

This research seeks to capture and disseminate constructive changes prompted by the pandemic. We will also look at counterexamples from groups that have struggled to adapt or have grown increasingly isolated. Our focus is on change underway within civil society (between elite and grassroots civic actors), rather than between civil society and government (an important but separate topic). We welcome your insights on whether we are seeing “more of the same” or whether the pandemic presents a moment of elasticity for forging new elite-grassroots partnerships in civil society and the open gov community. 



Nada Zohdy is director of the Open Gov Hub in Washington, DC. Abigail Bellows is a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an independent consultant. 

Nada Zohdy
Nada Zohdy
Director, Open Gov Hub

One comment on “COVID-19: Catalyst for Civic Collaborations?”

  • Shahid Parwez says:

    The referrence of elite civil society divide is not defined how elite and civil society are at cross criss? Within civil society ?how elite work with civil society without sheging its trait of being power?Elite is integral part of a government in fact they are invisible face power within govt and society.


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