Voices of the trust

Did COVID-19 nibble away the leadership in civil society?

Written by Janet Zhou – Executive Director of Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD)

The COVID-19 pandemic came, it ravaged the world and still, it lingers on. The worst scenario predicted for poor, but resource rich Africa, never materialised – South Africa the only outlier – but the scourge has not reached the deadly proportions anticipated. What began as a health crisis soon became more than just a deadly virus. It had far-reaching consequences to social and economic sectors the world over; some immediately being felt and the medium to long-term impact very much debatable. Social distancing measures, for instance, fuelled inequalities with the health, education, and informal sectors, with no shock absorbers being implemented. The ominous digital divide condemned the poor to increased poverty levels – no virtual working, no in-house entertainment, no food to stock, no e-learning, and public health services were a no-go area in Zimbabwe.

While the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on the health care systems and economies are undeniably clear, the impacts on and the call for leadership at the political level are not. Different levels of leadership were showcased, with both illuminating and shockingly pathetic leadership styles exhibited. On one hand, visionary leadership showed up, and remained in the moment. They provided hope, responded to the very immediate needs of the populace, and deployed the best at their disposal in terms of social, economic, psychological and health responses to cushion their citizens with precarious livelihoods.

On the other hand, other leadership downplayed the multi-pronged impacts of COVID-19 and bickered on decisions to repurpose resources towards Covid-19. They weaponised their response and stifled voices that cried for a more attentive, swifter, and responsive leadership.

While the pandemic gave citizens around the globe the opportunity to feel the textures of their leadership, for countries in pre-existing crises like Zimbabwe, the situation exposed the state of the State. This required leadership at the civil society level to ensure that the state excesses were contained, despite the existing problems.

Providing leadership was not only required at the political level. The pandemic was declared a national disaster in Zimbabwe, just as in many other countries. This imposed a state of emergency, quarantining accountability institutions such as the Parliament, Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, and Procurement Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe. This placed limitations on many mechanisms and systems intended for checks and balances in decision making on resource generation and utilisation for the Covid-19 national response. The state found itself with an overwhelming responsibility to play a significant role both in the economy and in the social sectors.

The COVID-19 induced states of emergency called for a rising above the antiquated civil society approaches in engaging with the different stakeholders in government, employers and  citizens. The information diet provided by the government for Zimbabwe and a number of other African countries was inadequate and remains so. The deficiency of this diet manifested in brazen reports of corruption, and the misuse of funds and resources targeted at combatting the pandemic. This meant more exposure to vulnerabilities of those already living in poverty – marginalised and decimated at the extremely basic individual level livelihoods. Along with the scandals were the threat and abuse of human rights and liberties, due to the militarised enforcement of the measures to flatten the pandemic curve.

The call therefore was for civil society to rise above their own deficiencies and weaknesses and be there in the moment, providing leadership to secure people-centred and human rights respecting Covid-19 responses for the people. For Zimbabwe, it meant going beyond screaming for justice to actually demanding accountability and nobility in the stewardship of resources.

In this time of trying to understand the pandemic, discover and redefine their approaches, civil society leadership was put to the test. From this test, I personally drew lessons from the organisation I work for, the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) and others, who managed to remain present or quickly regroup. The lessons are not at all conclusive but can be “take-aways” for the future. They can propel required leadership in disaster frameworks for civil society organisation in the governance sector.

My six most treasured lessons that I will carry with poise in the post Covid-19 future are:

– Remain calm but quickly implement a DOOMSDAY PLAN  that despite the disaster, will ensure that work continues. In the plan, define all fundamental issues, lay out the challenges you are going to face and how to overcome them. More importantly, establish WHY your work is vital and not possible to defer, even for a day.

– Do the HEAVY LIFTING in preparation for the doomsday – communicate with your stakeholders, allay fears of failure to do the work. Assure your team that their lives are important to you, but make them seethe importance of the lives at stake in disasters due to poverty, inequality, and the other manifestations of injustices. Balancing the weights of passions, personal responsibility and safeguarding require leadership.

– AGILITY for civil society must be both a science and an art, integrated seamlessly to adapt to new ways of working and disposing of contemporary approaches that may become redundant in disaster situations. For example, COVID-19 measures required pioneering of a virtual presence from the onset.

– Overcome fear and venture into unchartered waters. While many CSOs were found flat footed and their effectiveness constrained, embracing the underplayed DIGITAL
ADVOCACY saved the day, and offered opportunities for leaders to show others that all hope was not lost. This kept alive topical issues that could have been choked by poor access to information and closed space for people to get in their default mode of physical meetings.

– Take the BIRD’S EYE VIEW to read the context and identify the essential services you need to provide in the crisis. In a humanitarian crisis, these are the organisations who provide relief, get in helicopters to take a view, drop food packs or rescue. In a multi-faceted crisis, consistently dropping off information packs is of utmost importance. The citizens must be kept engaged, connected and not remain marooned in victim mentality, from which they cannot extricate themselves.

– Always nurture a culture of having GRIT for the day when it seems almost impossible for the work to be done. A state of emergency or national disaster breaks the will and demobilises even the most active citizens. The CSOs with grit can still achieve because no challenge beats the necessity to show up, be present and grind through it all as if it were the best day of their existence.

– Finally, learn to LEVERAGE. Every crisis presents opportunities to rise above and be the silver lining on the doomsday cloud. There is always an opportunity to leverage on the resources available and the position you occupy. Shamelessly leverage and occupy spaces left by those who retreat to figure out the situation when the battle lines have been drawn. By the time everyone is back, you would have provided leadership, saved humanity, and shaped narratives that will inform pathways for the future!

About the author

Janet Zhou is the  Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD). She holds a Master of Science in International Relations and Bachelor of Science Degree in Politics and Administration from the University of Zimbabwe amongst other professional qualifications. Janet is has worked in the NGO sector both at national and SADC level for 14 years and has has vast experience in public finance management, international development financing and development of people centred debt management frameworks. In her different capacities in the economic governance sector she has been able to produce and contribute to knowledge generation products in the form of policy briefs of debt management, social effects and politics  of debt, debt facts sheets that policy makers and interested citizens have used to engage and build the debt justice movement not only in Zimbabwe but in the SADC region as well. She currently sits in a number of boards and leads in a number of citizens’ initiatives such as the Citizens Cabinet, the Oxfam Zimbabwe Inequality Report Reference Group among others.  


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