Civil society organizations around the world advocate for transparent and just responses to COVID-19

Civil society organizations around the world advocate for transparent and just responses to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the plans of governments, businesses and households around the world. The same is true for civil society organizations, including our global network of groups committed to budget-related advocacy. Ways of working have had to shift, and all of us have seen sudden adjustments in government fiscal and monetary policies that require us to rethink our focus.

Our partners have demonstrated a nimble response to the twin health and economic crises. As reports come in from the field, we have identified four areas of work in which partners are engaging: demanding transparency in the spending of new relief funds, promoting greater equity and inclusion in governments’ policy responses, advocating for the expansion or introduction of cash-transfer programs to support incomes, and encouraging more progressive taxation to fund the response (and investments in health and social security more broadly).

Transparency of relief funds. While many governments have introduced new or expanded policies to support the economy broadly, as well as programs for those living in poverty, small businesses and so on, they typically have not offered substantial detail on how these programs are supposed to work, how they target the intended beneficiaries or how they are to be financed. In some cases, new, off-budget funds are being set up (such as in India and Kenya), but the flow of resources in and out is opaque.

Partners have responded by demanding greater transparency and attempting to share information themselves. In Indonesia, a civil society coalition—including the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency, Indonesian Corruption Watch, Transparency International Indonesia and Indonesia Budget Center—explained in a public policy brief the need for a comprehensive and unified response to the pandemic that guarantees transparency and accountability in the use of public resources.

In Nigeria, BudgIT created the CovidFundTracka, a website that lists donations given to the federal and state governments by both private and public organizations. Likewise, SEND West Africa designed a digital hub that tracks government and CSO responses to the crisis. Each week, SEND compiles government reports regarding the COVID-19 response for different sectors, like agriculture. In Ecuador, Grupo FARO launched an initiative to “take the pulse of the economy during the pandemic,” designed to keep the public informed on how the government is responding to COVID-19. The site includes analysis of new/proposed policies and their financial implications.

More inclusive government responses. While many governments have introduced policies targeting the vulnerable, these are either seen as inadequate or they have not been fully implemented. Partners have highlighted the special needs of different groups, requested new or improved policies to address them, and tried to involve vulnerable groups in oversight.

  • ACIJ (Argentina) is promoting actions to address structural human rights problems that have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, like access to basic necessities for vulnerable populations. A special web page highlights ACIJ’s work in defense of groups like the homeless, children and people with disabilities.
  • In India, the National Coalition for Dalit Human Rights is calling for support for informal workers and manual scavengers through expansion of existing schemes or creation of new ones. It has also launched the app WeClaim to assist marginalized communities in securing state entitlements.
  • The Senegalese Federation of Disability Associations (FASPH) is urging the government to pay special attention to the needs of people with disabilities and are included in the oversight committee monitoring the response. Besides advocating on their behalf, FASPH is also disseminating information on the pandemic and distributing sanitation and food kits to people with disabilities.
  • In a joint statement signed by 30 civil society organizations in the Philippines, Action for Economic Reforms condemned the government’s decision to limit the number of beneficiaries of emergency cash relief, calling it unlawful and harmful. The organization wants the government to ensure relief is provided to all 18 million low-income households eligible under the law.
Distributing masks in Mozambique

Expanded and properly targeted income support. There is widespread advocacy by partners to either expand existing cash-transfer schemes, better implement them or introduce new ones. In some cases, there is already a push for these programs to be converted into permanent basic-income programs.

  • INESC (Institute for Socioeconomic Studies, Brazil) led a successful campaign for an emergency basic income that will support millions of low-income Brazilians. The campaign included 160 national civil society organizations and garnered half a million signatures in support. Although the support is temporary, there have been growing calls in the region to create a permanent universal basic income, such as by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. In Central America, ICEFI (Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies) has also advocated for more robust social protection, including a guaranteed basic income, at least for the working age population (from 15 years old).
  • A press release from three Indonesian civil society organizations, including SEKNAS-FITRA, applauded the government’s cash-assistance measures, but stressed the importance of accelerating disbursement and ensuring proper targeting, thus benefiting migrant workers as well.
  • Center for Public Integrity (Mozambique) proposed a set of recommendations that would allow low-income people to safely self-isolate. Included among the proposals is emergency income support and food aid for informal workers, who make up 88 percent of the working population.
  • Sbilanciamoci (Italy) published a public petition with 10 points of action to ensure a healthy, just and sustainable country. Among its proposals, Sbilanciamoci urges the establishment of a permanent minimum income.

More progressive tax systems. A number of partners are advocating for wealth taxes or enhanced income taxes to help pay for the cost of programs. Some partners have also called for tax relief for lower- and middle-income groups and small businesses.

  • The Initiative for Human Rights Principles in Fiscal Policy, comprised of six civil society organizations in Latin America (including several IBP partners), released a statement calling for governments and other stakeholders in the region to immediately adopt redistributive fiscal policies that guarantee rights and reduce inequalities. The coalition’s proposals include taxes on wealth and corporate revenues from sectors that benefit from the pandemic, consultation with international financial institutions to restructure or cancel foreign debt, and implementation of policies that reduce tax avoidance and evasion.
  • FEMNET (Kenya) joined a collective of organizations to launch a website advocating principles to ensure “a just and resilient recovery” that protects human rights and gender equality. These principles include demands for financial transaction and wealth taxes, as well as debt relief.
  • CBGA (Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, India) urges governments to raise revenues to adequately respond to the pandemic by eliminating tax avoidance and evasion and pursuing progressive tax policies. On May 28, CBGA and other stakeholders participated in a virtual conference on this topic.
  • Social Justice Ireland released a report with recommendations to make the tax code more progressive and raise revenues through measures like a minimum effective corporate tax rate, refundable tax credits and a windfall gains tax.


*Jason Lakin is a senior fellow at IBP and Guillermo Herrera is the program coordinator for IBP’s Addressing Credibility Project.

Latin American CSOs lead during pandemic

Latin American CSOs lead during pandemic

Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic often put civil society organizations on the front lines of response, filling the gaps governments cannot or will not fill. In this post, we highlight two IBP partners in Latin America that stepped up and are acting as leaders in their communities.

Brazil: Campaign wins guaranteed basic income for informal workers

informal workers
Informal workers (photo credit: Arthur Menescal)

As the country’s COVID-19 cases increased past 11,000, including more than 500 deaths, the Brazilian parliament approved a three-month basic-income guarantee for informal workers. And now, President Jair Bolsonaro has signed the bill—thanks to effective civil society mobilization.

This vital benefit was the result of a mobilization of more than 150 civil society organizations and social movements, along with a few politicians and political parties in the legislature. A coalition was formed and a campaign launched. In four days, boosted by popular YouTubers and heavy social media engagement, the campaign petition attracted more than 500,000 signatures. The petition was used to press parliamentarians to prioritize and vote for the bill. After some small modifications, the law was quickly passed by the two houses of the parliament.

The Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC) is one of the five organizations leading this campaign. Given the social isolation necessary due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting decrease in economic activities, the organizations were worried about how low-income families, especially those without a formal job, would survive. As city after city goes into lockdown to stop the spread of the virus, they are highly likely to lose their income.

Informal workers who earn a net family income below three times the minimum wage and do not receive any other social security benefit (with the exception of Bolsa Familia) will receive the temporary aid—an estimated 30 million people, costing around US$12 billion. Each worker will receive around US$120 a month; however, that doubles to US$240 if a household is led by a single mother. Up to two people in one family can receive the benefit. The federal government has already compiled a register of informal workers, which will streamline distribution.

José Antônio Moroni, co-executive director of INESC, says this is an emergency in which the interests of civil society organizations align with those of the majority of parliamentarians. “When the parliament opens itself up to the demands of civil society, when there is an openness to building solutions and projects together with civil society, good things happen,” he says.

“We want a basic income!”

INESC and its four partner organizations have an extensive track record in working with the Brazilian Parliament. Their advocacy and networking in the parliament paved the way for them to negotiate with a broad set of stakeholders. The organizations also participate in a variety of civil society networks and movements for democracy and human rights in Brazil, creating substantial on-the-ground connections that were quickly mobilized to put pressure on the parliament.

The income-support program is a dramatic contrast to the federal government’s earlier proposal, which suggested that employers withhold wages for four months. The government withdrew the idea, however, following a strong, negative reaction. This created an empty political space for civil society to fill.

Bolsonaro himself constantly minimizes the crisis, denying the impact of the virus on peoples’ health and calling for the suspension of social isolation—thus undermining state governors’ efforts to control the pandemic. This, despite fact that at least 23 members of his entourage have been infected. Bolsonaro not only refused to remain in isolation but made a point of shaking hands with his supporters and taking selfies with their mobile phones. The president later claimed he tested negative but refused to make the results public.

Now, the pressure is on for the president to quickly implement the measure by distributing the payments. More than 26,000 emails were sent in one week to Bolsonaro and his minister of finance, saying #PayItSoonBolsonaro #PagaLogoBolsonaro

Argentina: Homelessness is vulnerable hole in safety net

Homeless man
Photo credit: Pablo Vitale

COVID-19 isn’t yet at the scale seen in the United States, Italy and Spain in Argentina, but infections have crept past 1,000 and government officials have moved quickly to get out ahead of it. President Alberto Fernández announced a total quarantine of the population of 44 million, putting in place stringent measures to limit mobility and enforce social isolation. Despite an already battered economy, Fernández was convinced the country must learn from others’ mistakes.

However, one very vulnerable group was left out: the homeless people living on the streets of Buenos Aires and other big cities. When a census was conducted in April 2019, there were 7,251 people without stable homes in the capital city. Of these, 5,412 also did not have access to shelters and thus slept on the street, making their health precarious. More than a third (38%) reported suffering one or more health conditions; in fact, the most common are respiratory in nature. In addition, 10% of people living on the street are over 60 years old, the age group with the highest risk of death from COVID-19. Yet preventive measures such as regular handwashing, disinfecting frequently touched items and surfaces, etc. are measures that can hardly be done by someone living on the streets.

IBP partner ACIJ (Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia) has long focused on this vulnerable population as one of its main areas of work. Last year, it joined a team that conducted an unofficial census of homeless people, as well collaborated on a lawsuit demanding that the city government design and implement a comprehensive public policy to protect their rights.

When COVID-19 hit and homeless people were neglected, ACIJ joined CELS (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales), other civil society organizations and public defenders to call for urgent measures to ensure that homeless people can practice adequate hygiene and have free access to health care by:

  • Suspending evictions to avoid an increase in people living on the streets.
  • Guaranteeing alternative housing solutions when public shelters are full.
  • Requiring shelter staff to regularly clean their facilities, offer the supplies needed to maintain personal hygiene and organize access to health care.
  • Educating homeless people on preventive steps they can take and how/when to access health care when sleeping on the streets.
  • Providing economic support for public and social organizations that assist people living on the streets.
  • Assuring sufficient resources (budget, facilities and logistical support) are available to implement these actions. To allow civil society to monitor the use of these resources, ACIJ also is asking for transparency in the government’s procurement system.

Pressure was brought to bear on the government through social media, and a letter with demands was presented to the Ministry of Territorial Development and Habitat, as well as the city government in Buenos Aires.

Hopefully, these activities will pave the way to longer-term improvements in services to help secure housing for those without permanent shelter. ACIJ and its partners will continue their campaign to raise awareness of the fragile conditions of vulnerable communities, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and after.

This effort is part of a long-standing commitment of ACIJ to promote respect for human rights and defend society’s most vulnerable groups. Its goals include greater transparency and better performance of public institutions, awareness among citizens of their basic rights and the channels available for receiving protection, and training professionals from diverse disciplines who are committed to public-interest issues.