COVID-19 has Boosted Civil Society Participation in International Meetings Despite Technical Glitches

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An obvious consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the sharp reduction in global air travel and postponement of nearly all face-to-face global meetings and conferences. All sectors experienced an “events lockdown”, including international development organisations like the World Bank, which cancelled all in-person meetings beginning in March 2020.

Civil society activists, who normally travelled to participate in major discussions on development-issues, were among those grounded at home. One might conclude, therefore, that the pandemic undermined participatory global governance, leaving the deliberations on critical issues to an exclusive group of senior officials in public sector organizations. The evidence, however, points in the opposite direction. Once forums and meetings were re-scheduled and moved online, civil society participation actually increased in the numerous virtual conferences and webinars held over the past year.

What’s more, the composition of civil society contingents attending international meetings soon began to shift. There has been a marked increase in participation by representatives from civil society organizations (CSOs) based in low-and-middle income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Before the pandemic, it was common for CSOs from high-income countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere to dominate the platform at global meetings, speaking up for poor and marginalized populations unable to join the discussions. However, in the age of virtual meetings, one finds more CSOs from the Global South participating directly in such meetings, thus, leveling the representation playing field at international fora.

In the age of virtual meetings, one finds more CSOs from the Global South participating directly in such meetings, thus, levelling the representation playing field at international fora

For example, at the Civil Society Policy Forum, held during the meetings of the World Bank and IMF in October 2020, almost 1,400 civil society representatives participated virtually — nearly double the number of civil society delegates who normally participate in person. More significantly, most of the new participants were from developing countries — activists who would not have had the budget to travel to Washington, DC. There was also a marked increase of CSO leaders from the Global South who spoke on the approximately 20 policy dialogue sessions.

Another example of the democratization of international meetings can be found in the numerous outreach webinars held in Latin America last year by the Independent Accountability Mechanisms Network, a grouping of 22 accountability and compliance instruments of multilateral development banks and UN agencies. By embracing online meetings, the accountability mechanisms were able to reach a wider range of community leaders and human rights/environmental activists than they would have in the past.

The migration to virtual platforms for international meetings has generated numerous benefits beyond increased participation by CSO activists, particularly from developing countries.

The migration to virtual platforms for international meetings has generated numerous benefits beyond increased participation by CSO activists, particularly from developing countries. For instance, it has led to a significant reduction in carbon emissions due to reduced travel to and from global meetings. In addition, online events are much less expensive and easier to organise than in-person meetings, saving taxpayer money and allowing for an increased number of meetings to promote more extensive dialogue.

On the other hand, online meetings have presented some challenges. First, the use of online technology is a new experience for many involved and has been accompanied by problems due to participant inexperience with this medium (“you’re on mute!”), as well as technical glitches and internet connection problems that cause communications to break up or participants to fall out of the meeting.

Second, while one might expect online events to always generate large audiences because of the relative ease of participation from one’s home or office (or an internet café), the number of participants does not always match expectations. The reasons for this are not completely clear, but certainly include “Zoom fatigue” as people tire of spending so much time in front of their screens.

Third, while online meetings allow more local communities to participate from their villages and avoid having to travel to capital cities for the in-person meetings of the past, they can experience difficulty connecting due to low internet bandwidth. For this reason, some have resorted to using their smart phones rather than laptops, thus, limiting their use of the video or chat functions. Even when they do join a session, their unfamiliarity with the webinar protocols makes it more difficult for them to participate actively in the plenary/chat discussions.

Fourth, the online medium does not seem to work well with contentious political issues as the relatively limited duration of online meetings can curtail needed discussion, and it is difficult to moderate and mediate such exchanges from a distance. The non-verbal cues and physical proximity one can effectively use to diffuse arguments and build consensus in person are more difficult to employ virtually. That said, online platforms are offering innovative features like online voting, word clouds, and breakout rooms to promote greater interactivity and understanding among participants.

The growing diversity of civil society participation in online global governance is just one of the paradoxes and positive changes brought about by the pernicious pandemic. For this reason, once the virus is brought under control, making face-to-face meetings possible once more, it is our hope that international organizations will continue to offer online participation in their global meetings so as to maintain the increased involvement of CSOs from developing countries.

I wrote this commentary with John Garrison, who led the Global Civil Society Team at the World Bank, was Adjunct Professor at George Washington University, and currently consults.. It first was first published on the website of the Observer Research Foundation on 28 January 2021.

Author of Learning from Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption

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