Civil society organisations must be the drivers of change in post COVID-19 societies and economies

At a conference of the Diversity Europe Group (Group III) of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 12 March 2021, civil society representatives urged their organisations to tell politicians what type of society they want to create and live in.

Participants at the conference on Civil Society Organisations during and after COVID-19: what challenges and what future? argued that policy cohesion and a meaningful involvement of citizens are key. They called for a holistic and integrated approach to policy-making which actively promotes EU values, the well-being of its people and bottom-up initiatives, which respect the opinions and rights of EU citizens. Leveraging new forms of solidarity and social activism that sprung to life during the pandemic will be crucial.

In his opening address, Séamus Boland, Diversity Europe Group president, highlighted the outstanding engagement of civil society organisations (CSOs) and encouraged citizens and CSOs to actively engage in reconstructing and rebuilding post-COVID-19 communities and societies. Now is the right time to re-think our growth and governance models and to balance economic prosperity with social inclusion, human capital, sustainability and well-being, Mr Boland said and named two conditions for a real shift: A holistic and integrated approach to policy making and civil society involvement in the design and delivery of the new world.

The Group president urged EU and national authorities to work with CSOs as partners and emphasized that civil society and public authorities must continue to defend democratic governance, fundamental rights and the rule of law.

Brikena Xhomaqi, Co-chair of the EESC Civil Society Liaison Group and Director of the Lifelong Learning Platform, said: The crisis proved how reliant our society is on civil society to continue serving the most vulnerable and communities in need. Despite the many restrictions and challenges faced, CSOs demonstrated unprecedented solidarity. It showed that they are the guardians of our democracies and social cohesion. But, the pandemic also showed how fragile CSOs are and the limited resources they possess to face the many challenges in the long-run. This must be a lesson for us to invest in a resilient and strong civil society.

John Ryan, Director for Public Health at the European Commission, noted both the tremendous pressure CSOs have faced and a greater need for their vital work in the health sector. He said: While I know that this continuing pandemic has had a huge impact on civil society organisations, it has also raised awareness of the vital role they play in the field of health, and of how much their work is needed. The pandemic has also, importantly, raised public awareness of how vital good health is to the normal functioning of our society and to the health of our economies. That’s why there will be more opportunities for funding and support for the work of civil society organisations through the greatly empowered EU4Health programme and other financing mechanisms in the near future.

When commenting on the participation of civil society in the drafting of the EU National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRP), Carlotta Besozzi, Coordinator of Civil Society Europe, highlighted that CSOs must be involved in the whole NRRP programming cycle and that social, environmental and gender issues should be included in a transversal way.

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said: For WHO and the WHO European Region, working with partners and civil society is key. The vision of the European Programme of Work, our roadmap until 2025, is putting people at the centre of everything we do. We have started a regional initiative, taking stock of the COVID-19 response to empower Civil Society Organizations to become 'agents of change'. This aims at ensuring ownership and participation of the whole of society to emergency response, in the longer term. People need to be part of the solution – and that is only achieved through inclusive governance and investment in civil society.

Annemie Drieskens, President of COFACE Families Europe, said: It is essential to connect civil society professionals from across Europe to tackle the social impacts of COVID-19 on families and children. We believe the European Family Lab of COFACE Families Europe is the place to connect them.

Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) highlighted the impact of the pandemic on civil society and people’s fundamental rights: The Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inequalities in our societies and affected our fundamental rights in ways we did not even imagine possible. It has also exacerbated the challenges faced by many civil society organisations across Europe. We can no longer deny these challenges. We need to step up our efforts to support civil society organisations, so they can come out of the pandemic more resilient and ready to play their fundamental role in our societies.

Further recommendations from the conference include the need for CSOs to:

  • Analyse the scale of their challenges to address them efficiently;
  • Re-design their own structures to render them more proactive and sustainable;
  • Work in partnership and alliances to learn from each other, increase their influence and achieve common aspirations for a sustainable, equitable and resilient future;
  • Be actively involved in all steps on the National Recovery and Resilience Plans and benefit from related funding.

As part of the Diversity Europe Group conference, a study entitled The response of civil society organisations to the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent restrictive measures adopted in Europe, was launched, which was commissioned by the EESC at the request of Group III. The authors, Valentina Tageo and Carina Dantas, presented its main findings and recommendations. According to the study, key topics for the future of CSOs include the lack of sustainable funding, legal frameworks and adequate resources and skillsets. These issues will require future reflection and bold political decisions to ensure that CSOs' capacities are maintained and strengthened in the post-COVID-19 recovery phase. The EESC study comes with a catalogue of good practices, a collection of the myriad of  successful CSOs initiatives in response to the pandemic.

Closing the conference, Séamus Boland informed on the Group's intention to launch a study on 'The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on fundamental rights and civic space' later this year, to be followed by an event in November.

All conclusions and recommendations of the conference will be available on the website of the Diversity Europe Group shortly.


PR Conference on Civil Society Organisations during and after COVID-19