Side Event: Protecting civil society space at times of COVID-19: Lessons learned for advocacy

Organized by the Youth Organisations for Drug Action (YODA) with the support of Australia, Canada, Mexico and Switzerland, and the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation, Frontline AIDS, and the International Drug Policy Consortium

In March 2020, the World Health Organization characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic, prompting governments around the globe to declare a state of emergency and/or implement a wide variety of policies and programmes in order to curb outbreaks, minimise mortality rates, and maintain public safety and order. These measures have caused significant changes in public life, the provision of public services (including harm reduction services), governance, democracy, policy-making processes, and advocacy work around the world. This has pushed many civil society actors to adapt their ways of working, while remaining resilient as they face new challenges such as increased workload and pressure, uncertainty around financial and organisational sustainability, health concerns and others.

This side event will discuss the various ways in which restrictions imposed in the context of COVID-19 have impacted upon the advocacy activities of civil society, and lessons learned from experiences around the world on how civil society and policy makers have adapted to this ‘new normal’.

Moderator: H.E. Luis Javier Campuzano, Ambassador of the Mexican Mission to the United Nations in Vienna

  • Birgit Kainz-Labbé, Coordinator, Civic Space Unit, OHCHR

Civic space is the environment that enables people and groups to participate meaningfully in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of their societies. States shape the legal and policy space within which people express views, assemble, associate and engage in dialogue with one another and with authorities in regard to issues that affect their lives: for the quality of basic services through to better institutions and respect for fundamental freedoms.. Civil society actors must be able to express themselves freely and in full security, and to effect change peacefully and effectively. Any restrictions on this space must comply with international human rights law

What do we mean by civic space: letting people to shape the future. People contributing to societies and shaping their futures. One of the key rights is the right to participate, and we must facilitate this happening. You need to have the freedom to speak your mind, and show your views. And you have to have the chance to participate safely – the security aspect cannot be underestimated.

Free civic spaces result in better outcomes. Trust is a key ingredient to overcome COVID consequences. 3 P’s for better space – promotion, protection, participation.

Equal access to information – providing a seat at the table is very important from a human rights point of view. Through our programming we need to invest for more effective participation. Guidance form on our website is very short. It is key to encourage participation in COVID-19 response, maximise access to information, respect freedom of expression, protect civil society, uphold freedom of assembly, and manage impacts on privacy

  • Ann Fordham, Executive Director, International Drug Policy Consortium

We’ve all been affected by COVID – many of us are fortunate to work from home. Presenting report on COVID restrictions from last month: https://idpc.net/publications/2021/03/innovation-and-resilience-in-times-of-crisis-civil-society-advocacy-for-drug-policy-reform-under-the-covid-19-pandemic

Interviewed more than 30 people and ran a survey of IDPC membership. Overall focus was on drug policy and harm reduction. COVID hasn’t stopped us from conducting impactful advocacy – but has resulted in increased reliance on technology. Traditional barriers to participation have been blurred. Case study from Kenya – not able to meet in a large group – organised smaller meetings. Outreach and service delivery – one case study showcased a partnership with government in which outreach workers could conduct their work through a permit system. Normally civil society can approach government representatives at CND – this is harder to do online. Policy making has become less transparent due to COVID. There has been significant disruption, but there are opportunities to continue working online. Post-pandemic there is greater reliance on WhatsApp groups. Leadership by peer groups has been integral. There are many disadvantages from being on Zoom through – although sometimes feels closer. Some view the situation as an equaliser – they cannot usually travel to Vienna to take part, but now everyone has an equal opportunity online. Hybrid events, like the CND, are still being explored – in theory, they should provide for greater opportunities to be involved. We all need to be aware of webinar fatigue – and take privacy considerations into account, with many conversations being recorded. Strength of existing networks has been important. There are big questions about the future, about who has access. We need to use the innovations that the pandemic has provided. Policy makers need to follow well established engagements. Final recommendation for donors: support and facilitate NGOs rapidly responding to COVID.

  • Bobby Chauhan, Manager, International Unit, Office of Drug Policy and Science, Health Canada

I’m talking about inclusion of civil society on Canadian delegation. Focus on impact of COVID. Our already established connection with civil society helped us throughout the pandemic. Civil society provides an integral role in international drug policy issues. There was a lot of interest in including civil society in what the Canadian Government was doing internationally. We’ve agreed to formalise informal engagement processes. This led to more regular engagement with civil society throughout the year in advance of and during international meetings. The in-advance component is very important. We meet with civil society monthly. We have two delegates with lived experience on the Canadian Delegation, through a self-nomination process. We have an agreement with confidentiality processes. Selected representatives have to speak on behalf of that that respective government. We had a very positive experience in 2018 – two civil society representatives. 2019 – six representatives. Eight representatives now. Still two with lived experience. Two youth representatives who also attended Youth Forum. Now at about 25% of delegation as a whole. Two youth were selected with civil society, through a common screening process – Canadian Government select one, civil society group select one. We have a civil society liaison also in group to coordinate engagement. Bit of a learning curve, to make sure civil society remained updated and engaged. Civil society has taken on that role for the last two years, and CCSA provided financial support for the last few years for attendance. 2019-2020 CND engagement expanded to bilateral meetings too. We had an opportunity for Canada to also hold a booth to promote common drug policy priorities. We focussed on stigma in 2020. Will continue this in future. Following CND we have discussions about how to strengthen engagement. Since 2019 we also were able to increase civil society engagement in informals. Civil society as part of resolution teams – one Canadian Government lead, and also a support team comprised of civil society and Canadian Government. We had quite good engagement with civil society prior to COVID – this strong engagement allowed us to continue engagement throughout pandemic. Learning curve to ensure virtual engagement. Due to the COVID pandemic, we had to adjust timelines – engaged with civil society earlier than usual to receive their input on our resolutions L3 and statements. Communication strengthened through process. Continued to use WhatsApp throughout CND. A key advantage – increased delegation engagement across meetings – ECDD topical sessions. One further advantage – video-based meetings rather than phone calls.

  • Jan Stola, Executive Director, Youth Organisations on Drug Action

COVID, drugs and civil society in Central-Eastern Europe 2020-2021

Great example presented from Canada – especially regarding the inclusion of youth. I will focus on Europe, especially CE Europe and Poland. Plenty of difficulties faced because of COVID – but some positives. Spring 2020 – COVID first hit. Services were unexpectedly closed, including NSP, homeless outreach. Chaos caused by lockdowns. Especially difficult for people living on the street. Service providers looking for new ways of providing support.

Quick adjustments were key – replacing usual services with substitutes. Arrangement with donors were needed at eh local, national and international levels. How do we house people but protect them from COVID? It’s a difficult situation. Discussions between us and donors were great – donors were very flexible. YODA implementing project by EU commission – which has been delayed. EU commission was very understanding. HIV testing in Poland – YODA has transnational partnerships around Europe, but I will focus on this Polish project today. All HIV testing facilities were shut down one year ago, and it has taken a long time to fix this mistake. But they found an alternative solution – online and having calls with consultants. Fears of tests not being conducted by professionals, in the case of positive test results, but the partners managed to manage this well.

Lessons learned: opportunities and barriers. Opportunities include: sense of the ‘greater good’, more flexibility in some cases, sometimes additional funding, health becoming a higher priority. Barriers include: rapid pace, having to priorities, chaos, stiff rules.

Local civil society and global civil society has become more flexible. Clients are also taking health in general more seriously – not just worried about COVID.

Moderator: H.E. Luis Javier Campuzano, Ambassador of the Mexican Mission to the United Nations in Vienna

Would like to highlight Jamie Bridge, VNGOC Chair’s speech in the opening ceremony, which we completely agree with:In reality, civil society continues to play a vital role – in implementation, evidence-building, policy design and evaluation, advocacy, the promotion of public health, mental health and human rights, and in linking the work on the ground with the discussions here in Vienna.”

Q: from Poland, Amanda: CND last year was impacted. At the UN we’ve heard many changes to hold the meeting online. Impact of civil society work goes beyond the work of the UN. Civil society creatively responding to challenges. Civil society engaged in meaningful way – look forward to working with civil society into the future.

Q: related to virtual participation. How can we reach marginalised areas in places with poor network connections?

Ann: difficult question – we really need to respond to these concerns and ensure people have access. IDPC recognises that people don’t always have means to pay for data to join meetings – we have been able to mitigate that for some. Donors need to adapt to that.

Birgit: From a human rights perspective: we see this too – we need to think about this critically and explore accessibility – we need to ensure no one is left behind. We need to pay a lot of attention to this, and make sure people are not excluded from human right.

Moderator: important messages in encouraging participation, deal with privacy, use technological tools. Support with funding for communities, is extremely important. Thanks Canada very much for how they include civil society in different meetings and CND specifically. Thank all speakers for their experiences. Important to follow the links in the chat. Thanks IDPC for organising this panel.

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