Democracy Works Foundation’s response to the Coronavirus

Olmo von Meijenfeldt

On 1 March 2020 the Coronavirus hit our Southern African shores and was picked up first in South Africa. It then spread into the region at a slower pace one may have imagined.

DWF’s first priority when the COVID-19 pandemic reached our region was to ensure the safety and well-being of our team throughout the southern African region. Well before lockdowns started in the countries in which we operate, DWF had closed offices to limit the risk of staff exposure to the disease.

Staff members are now working remotely and with renewed focus given our mission – of enhancing the capacity for resilient democracy to deliver – is even more important in times of crises. Recent analysis argues strongly that good governance and democracy are important to ensure the best possible outcomes in dealing with the pandemic and to allow for respect of rights and freedoms.

Countries with healthy and functioning democracies that show trust in the state and representatives do well in dealing with the Coronavirus. Countries that experience severe polarisation, mistrust in the state, state incompetence or more authoritarian rule have seen higher levels of Coronavirus infection. (Sheri Berman, 2020; Rachel Kleinfeld, 2020; Thomas Carothers, 2020.)

Democracy Works Foundation staff have been hard at work to adapt their projects to a new reality that may be with us for the foreseeable future. A fundamental question that needed to be answered was how does one continue democracy development work when one can’t engage directly with people? How does one train? How does one negotiate? How does one build relations? DWF Chairperson William Gumede and several of our staff and associates have written extensively on matters pertaining to democracy, democratisation and the Coronavirus. And we will continue to do so to monitor, comment and make recommendations.

Not all of the above questions have been answered definitively but the DWF team has been pro-active and innovative in finding solutions which are not only internet-based but also use older ways of engaging with people. DWF staff are launching several new initiatives to adapt and tackle the challenges COVID-19 presents. Our Civil Society Participation in Provincial Legislature project will provide the first online trainings to be given to Provincial Legislatures in the history of South Africa. Our Southern Africa Political Party and Dialogue project is preparing the first ever virtual  political party conference. So too are we preparing to launch our Emergency Measures Monitor.

In the meantime, we have offered to lend support to two initiatives working to provide food aid in South Africa to communities badly affected by the lockdown. One of the initiatives intends to provide a software solution to coordinating relief distribution, which we then hope to offer to partners in the region too. We shall report more on this as the solution becomes available.

The focus of Democracy Works Foundation at this time furthers our mandate to contribute to advancing resilient democracies while adhering to our strategic programmatic framework. Our focus as a result of this pandemic includes:

  • Monitoring democracy:Assessing and understanding the challenges to governance and democracy that the coronavirus poses to the region, as well as monitoring potential abuses of power in tackling the pandemic. We are already disseminating this work through a range of platforms;
  • Citizens and leaders: strengthening citizen leadership and capacity to hold governments accountable while strengthening the capacity of democratic leadership in tackling the pandemic;
  • Democratic culture: fostering collaboration and cooperation through constructive and inclusive Public Private Partnerships and dialogues in tackling the pandemic which should inform projects to build local capacity to deliver assistance to communities in need;
  • Strengthening institutions: Strengthening the capacity of institutions of democracy to face the scourge of the coronavirus and provide mitigation and adaptation to society, while also functioning as checks and balances on executive power; and
  • Services: Providing services to development partners to assist relief efforts and development interventions in the face of Corona, for example our current participation in a national food distribution initiative to complement government work to provide food to poor communities.

It is through adaptability in dealing pro-actively with the scourge of the Coronavirus that countries in or region, and in particular democracies, will do well in stemming the spread of the virus. It is through flexibility that these same pro-active governments will be able to mitigate the consequences of a flailing economy, the result of our lockdowns.

It is through the same adaptability and flexibility that civil society organisations such as DWF will continue to make development impact during and after the pandemic and will continue to be at the hart of mitigating consequences on communities.

Olmo is Executive Director and co-Founder of Democracy Works Foundation. He has worked as a political networker, analyst, social entrepreneur, development practitioner and innovative manager on issues of human rights and democratisation in both Africa and Europe. He has spearheaded various leadership, democracy building and conflict resolution initiatives, in addition to managing funds dedicated to strengthening the role of civil society, political society and media through cross-sector approaches to deepening democracy.

His key interests lie in civil society sustainability and funding mechanisms for governance, human rights and democracy work in Africa and the global South, conflict management, institutions, leadership development, technology for development and climate and environmental issues.

Olmo leads the DWF Team on a day-to-day basis. Besides DWF's regional board, Olmo also sits on the DWF Malawi board.

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