This blog is part of a series of articles written by University of Dayton students, published as part of Counterpart’s Next Generation in Thought Leadership initiative. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not express the views or opinions of Counterpart International.

Today, most countries are in the midst of social lockdowns and a pandemic of proportions that has not been seen in a century. COVID-19, or the coronavirus, has had major impacts on all aspects of life ranging from small simple interactions to large international gatherings. However, various countries have been impacted differently, such as Niger, a country which ranks one of the lowest on the Human Development Index (HDI). In Niger, due to government-mandated lockdowns, closed borders, and public health measures, COVID-19 has infected 2,417 people, of which 83 have died.

Civic engagement is vital, especially during the pandemic where service delivery and government accountability is at stake. We examined how existing civic engagement mechanisms and frameworks could improve to help respond to the pandemic. In this scope, civic engagement can be considered as the process by which citizens participate and engage through mechanisms with the government to voice their opinions and add to the dialogue on government services and policies.

Counterpart International’s Approach

Counterpart International adopts the Inclusive Social Accountability (ISA) framework throughout its programming. ISA is a model for instituting overall accountability, allowing effective communication to occur between the government and citizens. Through this framework, Counterpart supports systems which allow citizens to gain the capacity for collective action, local knowledge, social partnerships, and the development of effective governance. In its Participatory Responsive Governance – Principal Activity (PRG-PA) project in Niger, funded by USAID, Counterpart seeks to improve service delivery, civic engagement, and good governance at every level, including local and national. In doing so, they are enabling citizens to gain confidence and hold their governments accountable while simultaneously improving the capacity of these governments to deliver various services to their citizens.

The PRG-PA program aims to improve the collaboration between communities and the Government of Niger to strengthen responsive service delivery in the education, health, and security sectors. The program has worked to achieve these goals by collaborating with local partners in different regions of Niger through support of the election process, creation of monthly meetings by key actors to discuss development issues, development of a transition plan for the Education and Training Sector, and other local-level plans to improve responsive delivery.

The Challenges of COVID-19

Civic engagement mechanisms allow for citizens and governments to better improve and understand each other. Governments, for example, can maintain the trust of its citizens by utilizing tools including voting, volunteering, citizen feedback mechanisms and group participation. In doing so, incentives are put in place for follow through with citizens’ views. This type of system allows for governments and citizens to work together in a progressive way that improves outcomes for all stakeholders involved.

One major impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is the restrictions of in-person contact and maintaining social distancing among populations as methods to reduce the spread of the virus. In Niger, this is especially difficult because of a lack of technology and infrastructure which, in more developed nations, has allowed for a smooth transition to socially distanced activities. The use of technology and social media is a route that has been used by Counterpart in Niger to continue the spread of programmatic news and maintain civic engagement. For example, Counterpart has used WhatsApp and distributed USBs in order to continue asynchronous training.

It is all the more necessary to adapt civic engagement mechanisms to address the impact of COVID-19 in Niger. Comparative research of programs implemented in countries such as Mali can help to identify best practices by which to improve civic engagement mechanisms in the midst of a pandemic. Plan International in Mali has worked to maintain civic engagement alongside local partners throughout the pandemic. The program has aims to increase knowledge on COVID-19, adapt behaviors to prevent the spread, increase the use of primary healthcare facilities, and limit negative impact from the pandemic on women and girls. In order to support citizen engagement, the program shifted to door-to-door services, improved communications within healthcare facilities, and established youth clubs to get youth involved in activities in a safe manner during school closures. Training and educating local leadership to maintain citizen engagement in governance has proven successful. The leaders then went door-to-door to effectively communicate and maintain relationships with citizens. Although this process can be time consuming and must be done carefully to maintain public health measures, it allows for the citizens to ask specific questions of the leadership and helps limit the amount of false information which may be spread.

Overall, the pandemic has pushed international organizations to think beyond their usual programming on civic engagement. Though improving civic engagement can be difficult within the context of a pandemic, maintaining communication and citizen participation are of the utmost importance. Through our research, we learned the critical importance of preparedness for shocks and crises such as those posed by COVID-19. By continuing to study and learn from what works throughout this pandemic, Counterpart International, as well as other organizations, can be better prepared with future inclusive social accountability programming during a crisis. This preparedness will continue to benefit all stakeholders and most importantly is a piece of the overall governance puzzle of improving the trust between citizens and governments.

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