CSOs have long proven their significance in pushing for a rights-based, people-centered sustainable development. However, they still face challenges in pursuing their work with the global trend of shrinking civic spaces, especially in responding to COVID-19. Despite their important role as frontliners, CSOs and other peoples’ organizations are being threatened and attacked.

The Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) is an annual platform for regional development actors to review, assess and recommend ways forward to strengthen the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The 8th APFSD was held virtually from March 23 to 26, 2021 with the theme, “Sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in Asia and the Pacific”. 

To ensure civil society perspectives in the conversations around resiliency and recovery, the Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific (RoA-AP), together with the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness – Asia (CPDE Asia) and Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL), held the side-event, “Civil Society at the Frontlines: How can SDG 17 support an enabling environment for CSOs’ recovery and stability?” on March 23, 2021. 

Civil Society at the Frontlines featured speakers from various sectors and institutions to unpack the following discussion points:

  • What have been the attacks or threats to CSOs amid national pandemic responses and how is the lack of an enabling environment facilitating or aggravating such attacks?
  • Why is SDG 17 Partnership for the Goals relevant in COVID-19 pandemic recovery and resiliency? What is the role of CSOs in fulfilling SDG 17? How will SDG 17 support an enabling environment for CSOs, especially in developing countries where authoritarian regimes erode democratic practices and spaces?
  • How did CSOs demonstrate sustainability and resiliency amid the pandemic? What are the prospects for CSO sustainability and resiliency moving forward?

COVID-19 response in the region

In the Asia Pacific region, “majority of the governments have adopted aggressive non-therapeutic preventive measures, such as travel bans, public gatherings ban, lockdown and social distancing, by deploying police and militaries,” according to Jahangir Hasan Masum, Executive Director of Coastal Partnership for Development (CDP) and Steering Committee Chairperson of RoA-AP, as he opened the side event. These restrictions curtailed the people’s civil rights, such as freedoms of movement, assembly and speech. 

As a “hotbed of tyrannical regimes,” as Beverly Longid, Global Coordinator of IPMSDL described, the region saw the continued rise of authoritarian regimes during the pandemic. Instead of focusing efforts in solving the global health crisis, several Asia Pacific governments used COVID-19 measures to strike down dissent, intimidate critics and violate human rights. During these times, the target of these attacks were mostly civil society organizations and the sectors and communities they represent. “These government measures and practices have been shrinking civic spaces and threatening CSOs’ ability to function freely and operate without threats”, Masum reiterated. Despite being at the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, CSOs were sidelined and attacked, hindering them from quickly and proactively supporting the communities in their areas of responsibility. 

Attacks on vulnerable sectors during the pandemic 

COVID-19 affected various sectors disproportionately, with the vulnerable, like women and the Indigenous Peoples, suffering the most. Shanta Shresta of Beyond Beijing Committee (BBC) in Nepal described the experience of women during the pandemic, how “women are victimized in the domestic as well as in the public level” and how “women, as a whole, as a sector, were excluded from the decision-making mechanism of the government.” The ‘shadow pandemic’ of increased cases of domestic violence against women, coupled with the lack of access to reproductive health has led to an increase in pregnancies. Pregnant women then carry additional burdens and challenges in caring and providing for their families. 

Pregnant indigenous women in Manipur also faced troubles accessing healthcare, having been denied service due to the lack of health infrastructure needed to cater to COVID-19 on top of other medical services. According to Jiten Yumnam of Centre for Research and Advocacy-Manipur (CRAM), “During the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the concerns was the increased loan and financial investments from financial institutions, with many of these investments targeting the health sector, but ultimately all gears towards providing service to the private sector.” With nearly 70% of health institutions in India privatized, Yumnam states that “during the pandemic itself, the private health sector is unable to respond to the rising COVID-19 cases and the subsequent health crisis that emerged out of the situation.”

IFIs have not only affected the right to health of Indigenous Peoples, but also their right to land and livelihood, with the pursuance of development aggression amid the pandemic. Furthermore, land grabbing has led to forced evictions and displacement of Indigenous Peoples. Families were left with no choice but to live in communal areas, where exposure to the risk of COVID-19 is high. 

‘Enough is enough’ 

Despite these attacks, civil society organizations continue to be at the frontlines in responding to the pandemic, holding the government accountable and advocating for a rights-based, people-centered approach to development. CSOs exhausted all means of support. They proposed recommendations to governments, conducted campaigns enjoining peoples’ movements and extended support to overlooked populations through simultaneous relief operations. For instance, the Indigenous Peoples in Manipur helped address food insecurity in their villages by sharing some of their produce to families in need. 

In Nepal, women, along with other sectors, called out the poor pandemic response of the government and asserted the inclusion of women and the youth in decision-making processes. According to Shresta, “Because of all these things, women had to come out, even though it is a lockdown, saying ‘enough is enough’”. Yumnam added, “Real development cooperation and partnership should be rooted in the recognition and respect of communities’ rights and their involvement in all development processes.” CSOs also called for the reversal of neoliberal and patriarchal policies that cause harm in the communities and sectors they serve. 

Achieving SDG 17 as the way forward

“Business as usual is unacceptable at this time. We have to put forward [SDG 17] wherein we speak of partnership, multilateralism, cooperation, with global solidarity as a minimum standard, wherein we speak not only of a human rights-based approach, but also putting people at the center of development and cooperation,” Longid asserted. CSOs, peoples’ organizations and other grassroots organizations should be included in decision-making processes as development actors and rights-holders. While CSOs are pursuing their role in effective development cooperation, governments and multilateral institutions must foster an enabling environment for them to continue their work without harm or threat. 

CSOs have to reach out on both ends — to institutions to recognize their crucial role and to governments to respond to peoples’ immediate needs. According to Artemy Izmestiev, Policy Specialist of the UNDP Seoul Policy Centre, “The underlying factors are very often regional and global. Those various issues, threats that come together in the fabric of multilateralism need to be analyzed from different perspectives, both government and civil society”. Izmestiev stressed the need for civil society to participate in official processes, especially in the monitoring and analysis of policies and projects. 

However, Yumnam emphasized that CSOs need to acknowledge the limitations of official processes and must find other ways to bring forward CSO recommendations beyond policy arenas. Masum reiterates that CSOs has a “role to produce a mass movement, to counter human rights violations all around the world.” Civil society must bring voices together to strengthen international solidarity in order to pressure and hold national governments and multilateral institutions accountable. 

To close the event, Longid summarized recommendations as outcome of the panel session:

  • In pursuing the achievement of Agenda 2030, human rights and social justice should be at the center. Both SGDs 16 and 17 are often overlooked, despite being important avenues in achieving all the other SDGs.
  • CSOs should be acknowledged as both crucial development actors and rights-holders. The needs and rights of CSOs and peoples’ organizations, especially in the sector of women and IPs, should be included, recognized, and protected in conversations toward achieving genuine sustainable development.
  • Civil society needs to increase its capacities in engaging in development cooperation mechanisms so that they will not only be able to forward sharper critiques, but also alternatives to the status quo that shall contribute to genuine sustainable development. 
  • Civil society should collectively assert an enabling environment that pursues systems change and that allows them to operate freely to be able to implement initiatives toward rights-based people-centered development.

Catch the recorded session here



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