Written by Julien Landry (Program Teaching Staff) and Ann Marie Smith (Associate),
with Coady graduates Patience Agwenjang, Patricia Blankson Akakpo, Jagat Basnet, Bhumiraj Chapagain, Aklilu Gebremichael, Barbara Maigari, Peggy Saka
In early 2020, COVID-19 swept across the globe, prompting widespread government responses, with far-reaching implications for civic space and actors working to strengthen transparency, accountability, participation and inclusion in governance at all levels. For many graduates of Coady International Institute – more than 7,000 development leaders and practitioners working in more than 130 countries – the pandemic and the measures put in place in response have led to adaptive and innovative ways to continue to work with citizens and communities.

Since 2015, the Institute has worked to support more than 22 graduates in 14 countries to document case studies based on their advocacy, governance, and citizen participation work as part of the Participedia project, a global knowledge mobilization effort aimed at cataloguing and better understanding participatory political processes.

In April 2020, a small group among these graduates – from Nepal, Ethiopia, Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana – came together to share how they are coping as governance practitioners working through the pandemic. What follows is a snapshot of what their organizations, networks, and communities have been doing to sustain – or adapt – their work aimed at building transparency, participation, accountability and/or inclusion in decisions affecting communities.

This virtual dialogue and writing exercise also provided these authors with an opportunity to reflect on their own practice and learning as they navigate the realities and opportunities brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. This article summarizes how each author’s organisation/work has adapted to new realities, discusses some of the themes and lessons emerging from these adaptations, and provides few additional thoughts, learning, and reflections from the authors.

Adaptation and innovation: a few snapshots of governance practice

This section provides a snapshot of the governance adaptations and innovations provided by contributors to Participedia from six countries. Each summary links to the articles as well as to previous (full) case studies on their work.

Land rights advocacy – CSRC, Nepal

In Nepal, the Community Self-Reliance Centre (CSRC) has been advocating on land and agrarian issues alongside landless and smallholder peasants since 1994. Jagat Basnet describes how Land Rights Forums (LRFs) – people’s organisations established to generate grassroots participation for policy influence, just governance, and accountability (full case study here) – have played a key role in making the government more accountable for the COVID-19 response. CSRC and LRFs have leveraged their relationships with communities to provide the government with real-time data and accurate information from the field on COVID-19. They have supported a more adequate local response by coordinating advocacy from civil society groups to the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development in support of landless and smallholder peasants, while facilitating connections between local governments and communities.

Citizen feedback data – Sharecast, Nepal

Still in that country, Sharecast, a new media organization working to promote citizen and audience participation through media and local radio since 2013 (full case study here), launched a nationwide survey to understand citizens’ knowledge, attitude, and practices (KAP) regarding COVID-19. As Bhumiraj Chapagain writes, one week after the lockdown measures were imposed, Sharecast trained enumerators to work remotely to survey 1,110 respondents from across Nepal. Findings were provided to the Government, including the national COVID-19 Response Task Force, with key data on people’s awareness and attitudes regarding the virus, as well as opinions and feedback on their responses. Survey findings were acknowledged by the Prime Minister and helped multiple stakeholders to understand the baseline regarding the COVID-19 response and to address needs accordingly.

Channels for children’s and youth’s voice – MCCRN, Kenya

In Kenya, the Mombasa County Child Rights Network (MCCRN), a network of child rights advocates, are focusing their efforts on child protection as a major governance issue in the advent of COVID-19. Peggy Saka, of member organization Kenya Alliance for Advancement of Children (full case study here) outlines the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on children, and how MCCRN is adapting to enable children to participate and speak out on COVID-19. Through online meetings and live media broadcasts with elected officials and leaders of community and national organizations, children and youth are able to express themselves and share their fears and anxieties during this pandemic.

Community engagement – LIAE, Ethiopia

Aklilu Gebremicheal explains how Love in Action Ethiopia (LIAE) has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in regions of the country with predominantly underserved, and marginalized communities already facing economic hardships and poor service delivery. LIAE has balanced a shift to home-based operations, with ongoing community engagement aimed at raising awareness, providing emergency supplies, and addressing basic and immediate needs of communities at most risk. As in much of LIAE’s work (see full case study here), citizen participation has been key to this effort, through newly established Community-Based COVID-19 Task Forces (CTF), mobilizing 1,200 volunteers as Community Resource Persons, and collaborating with local and regional government offices.

Alternate pandemic response – Cameroon

In Cameroon, youth and democracy advocate (full case study here) Patience Agwenjang observes how the COVID-19 pandemic represents one of a number of compounding crises, in particular in the English-speaking regions. Politics around the pandemic response has been marred by existing tensions and questions around the relationship between the President and citizens, and a lack of transparency around the management of the COVID-19 Fund. The public’s distrust of government has meant that citizens have been participating in alternate pandemic response programs set up by civil society groups, rather than engaging in the Government scheme. Meanwhile, the crisis has created opportunities for skills development, technological advancement, and for businesses and civil society organization to produce, distribute, and sell emergency supplies.

Rights awareness through virtual and media engagement – PWAN, Nigeria

In Nigeria, Barbara Maigari of Partners West Africa – Nigeria (PWAN – full case study here) describes how measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted their advocacy visits and awareness campaigns related to human rights and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Lockdown measures have meant exclusive reliance on remote and media engagement, including through the PWAN website, social media, and call-in radio and television programs. Not only has this adaptation altered the interactions between PWAN and citizen groups, it has also brought certain rights issues and violations to the fore. For instance, PWAN is addressing increased community concern over the right to freedom of movement (especially for journalists), freedom of expression, and awareness-raising now includes COVID-19 safeguards for survivors of SGBV and other pandemic-related rights and responsibilities.

Advocating for women’s rights – NETRIGHT, Ghana

In Ghana, a largely informal economy, the predominance of self-employment, communal living conditions, and the nature of its markets have meant that the government’s COVID-19 related measures disproportionately affect women. Patricia Blankson Akakpo explains how NETRIGHT, a national women’s rights network and its members, have adapted their work (full case study here) to ensure women’s voices and interests are taken into account through the pandemic response. NETRIGHT has mobilised funds among women’s groups to support the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection (MoGCSP) in its outreach efforts to vulnerable and homeless women and children, and members have distributed relief supplies to communities and encouraged women and girls to report cases of SGBV during this period.

Bridging diverse experiences: common grounds on shifting sands?

Based on the small yet diverse set of responses to the COVID-19 crisis described in the capsules above, a few observations and lessons emerge. Some actions focus on the basic and immediate needs that an emergency response requires, and contribute to far-reaching and lifesaving impact: for instance, LIAE’s public sensitization and citizen engagement for proper handwashing in Ethiopia, CSRC’s food provision in Nepal, PWAN’s quick response to provide communities with accurate information on COVID-19, and NETRIGHT members’ fundraising and resource mobilization for women and vulnerable groups.

However, many of the responses hint at gradual shifts in the complex systems that affect people’s lives, livelihoods, quality essential services and effective public decision-making (e.g., the role of digital technologies and media to facilitate governance practice). Below, we outline a few of these trends and discuss some of the related lessons and learning, as articulated by the authors’ reflections as governance and social justice practitioners. 

Information, transparency and trust: national challenges and local solutions

The pandemic has had far-reaching implications for national-level institutions, governance and politics, as evidenced by disruptions to the electoral processes in place in Ethiopia and the post-electoral politics playing out in Cameroon’s response. Overlaid on top of political systems struggling with cultures of opacity and corruption, this crisis highlights the importance of transparency, as a bedrock of trust and accountability between citizens and governments. This lack of trust has manifested through alternate and parallel governance and service delivery in Cameroon’s response (despite increased transparency through social media) and through questions around the use of COVID-19 funds in Kenya.

In Nepal, Sharecast’s work reminds us that understanding this level of citizen trust and satisfaction, based on accurate and timely information, is key to an effective response. Where trust and transparency are lacking, practitioners have had to contend with challenges around misinformation and misconceptions related to the virus, as is the case in Nepal and Kenya where people turn to alternate sources of information and traditional and religious practices for guidance.

In the midst of these national challenges, much of the immediate response has been governed at the local level. Through Community-based COVID-19 Task Forces and by mobilizing volunteers and Idirs, LIAE has facilitated community-driven responses that are not only building the capacity of local governments and governance teams, but that are also building collaboration across civil society and government at the local level.

Collaboration, relationship-building and shifting social contracts

This collaboration has been and will continue to be indispensable to this moment. None of the stories shared speak to the success of any individual or organization acting unilaterally in responding to this pandemic. On the contrary, the strategies that work are based upon collaborative efforts – often across sectors – whether new or built on the backs of existing relationships, networks, or partnerships. In Nigeria, for instance, PWAN’s prior advocacy among law enforcement agencies and community leaders was critical in forging new relationships and pivoting their advocacy around COVID-19.

Previously ineffective relationships are now working to address this collective challenge: in the Ethiopian case “government leadership, faith-based organizations and community actors are working hand in hand unlike previous times.” The collaborations being forged by NETRIGHT in Ghana and the children’s organizations in Kenya are other cases in point. In the Nigerian case, it is posited that “effective leadership needs collaborative engagement with the people and listening to the greater demand of the populace.”

The shifting nature of collaboration and relationship building are connected to broader practitioner reflections relating to the roles, rights, and responsibilities of states and citizens. The crisis is impacting how social contracts are evolving and, in Nepal for instance, making evident the key intermediary role of civil society organizations (CSOs) and member-based organizations (MBOs) to facilitate this relationship in emergencies. This kind of collaboration was credited for positive results and followed unilateral attempts by the state that were not as impactful.

Meanwhile, in that country, Sharecast’s work shows that citizens are willing to cede some rights and freedoms (at least temporarily) to curtail the spread of the virus. Of course, there are longer-term risks related to these emergency measures. In Ghana, the measures and legal instruments put in place have had the effect of closing civic space and further marginalizing some citizen groups and CSOs efforts to engage them. In Cameroon, the pandemic has on the one hand revealed that the executive is willing to take steps (if perhaps merely symbolic) towards improving governance and safeguarding the rights of citizens (e.g., by ratifying the AU Convention on Preventing and Combatting Corruption). On the other hand, this crisis compounds many others facing the country, in particular in the English-speaking regions, where “the COVID-19 curfews do not represent a new phenomenon for […] residents,” who for the last three years spend about one hundred days in lockdown annually.

Digital technology, media, and mediated governance and advocacy

The global crisis has accelerated an ongoing trend towards digital governance, with an increasing reliance on online communication and engagement, and an enhanced role for traditional and social media. Even though some pandemic-related directives hinder effective engagement in governance processes, some strategies adopted through media and digital channels are supporting innovative virtual engagement.

The stories shared above demonstrate adaptability, creativity and innovation in the use of technology to drive access, provide information, make and maintain connections, deliver services, enable participation and feedback, foster transparency and accountability, and spur further innovation. The telephone has been leveraged in Nepal and Nigeria, enabling Sharecast to conduct a nationwide survey in a novel way, and PWAN to connect with communities through home-based rights awareness campaigns respectively.

Indeed, Sharecast’s work shows how technology-enabled data generation and accurate community-level perceptions and public opinion serve as a foundation to design appropriate, targeted messages for public awareness and safety, as well as for advocacy. PWAN’s work reminds us that a shift to technology-mediated engagement, while perhaps expanding the breadth of participation, comes with less depth in engagement. As in Mombasa County, where technology provides a virtual space for children’s voices at decision-making tables, the media becomes an intermediary in the governance and accountability relationships that PWAN navigates, bringing with it implications around power, responsibility, and the ability to limit (e.g., prohibitive costs) or enable (e.g., access to wider audience of rights holders) participation.

A shift to mediated engagement has also meant that one approach common to many authors’ work – advocacy – has also adapted to a new reality. On the one hand, public awareness raising and mobilization now relies much more heavily on mass media (e.g., in Nigeria, Kenya), including local radio (in Ethiopia) to ensure citizens know both their rights and their responsibilities as they face the pandemic. Similarly, the kinds of advocacy tactics commonly used to apply pressure on policymakers are also being adapted, as CSRC’s collective lobbying efforts in Nepal and NETRIGHT’s public advocacy statements in Ghana demonstrate.

On a smaller and more personal scale, individual practitioners and organizations have embraced these channels and technologies (including video conferencing software like Zoom and Facebook Live) and have developed increased resourcefulness and confidence in using the digital environment to pursue their accountability and engagement work. Sharecast’s efforts in Nepal have led to a commitment to do a follow-up digital/telephone survey. This said, there are ongoing challenges as virtual (and home-based) work comes with the increased potential for digital surveillance, an important digital divide, other family obligations, and gender-related risks, discussed below.

Gender dimensions and intersectional vulnerabilities

The stories shared have all explicitly or implicitly revealed that – as is widely acknowledged – the pandemic is having a gendered impact and amplifying existing gender disparities. This is in line with suggestions that the economic and social toll will be largely borne by women and girls, and further compounded by other intersecting dimensions of disparity and vulnerability.

There is a clear gender dimension to care. In Ghana, “women constitute the majority of primary caregivers for family members, as well as in professional capacities as health and social workers. At the same time, they face [the] increased burden to provide for their [families], particularly if family members fall ill or lose jobs due to the economic hardship linked to the pandemic.”  In Kenya, the scaling down of some child protection services and the school closures have left many parents unable to carry out their roles as duty bearers – in providing “proper nutrition, safety, healthcare and education for their children.” These closures and withdrawals of social services for children hits women particularly hard because much of the responsibility for childcare continues to fall on them.

Meanwhile, groups with multiple vulnerabilities are not being given the requisite support. In Ethiopia, high-risk groups “have been disproportionately affected by the virus” including “street children, commercial sex workers, people living with HIV/AIDS, children and girls living in high risk areas.” The Kenyan case also references an increase in teenage pregnancies and “the sexual abuse of both boys and girls.”

The need for physical distancing has curtailed one of PWAN’s advocacy roles in Nigeria for survivors of SGBV, as the organization is unable to “conduct confidential interviews and represent them in courts” during this period. This has effectively silenced the voices and delayed justice for these survivors, who are largely women and girls. In Nepal, people in remote villages have suffered from delayed communication and misinformation, which “affects illiterate people from remote areas in particular and [has] increased health-related tensions in the country.” Generally, as information from remote villages is also slow in reaching those who govern, the responsiveness, effectiveness, and quality of services provided to communities suffers.

NETRIGHT reminds us that while the Ghanaian government has been proactive in engaging different groups in its pandemic response, “this engagement has not been sufficiently broad or inclusive to ensure the voice and concerns of a majority of people – such as women and other vulnerable populations.” Further, stay-at-home orders exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities of domestic abuse survivors – largely women and girls – who are stuck at home with perpetrators and have little recourse, support, or access to provisions to hold abusers accountable.

The virus is not gender blind and governance around this issue cannot be either. Any strategy to address the impact of the pandemic must take into account its intersectional and gender dimension. Alongside the impacts on women and girls, some of the authors also raise the adverse consequences the crisis has had on boys and men. The Kenya and Ethiopia cases mention the sexual exploitation of boys. In Ethiopia, young men have been deprived of their livelihoods, with some turning to crime for survival. It thus behoves policymakers, community organizers and civil society groups to be cognizant of these realities in determining entry points and designing strategies for more inclusive, accountable and equitable redress.

Dear diary: reflections on leadership and learning 

The many faces of effective and adaptive leadership

Collectively, these reflections confirm what we know: the complex, domino-like, multi-layered, multi-pronged, and intangible nature of COVID-19 impacts every strata of society, every nation, and every sector. In terms of leadership, such a complex problem has and will continue to require a dynamic and adaptive approach.

One particular approach – situational leadership – seems to resonate with the authors’ emerging reflections on effective leadership through the crisis: it is anticipatory, anchored at both the macro and micro levels, and responsive to the specificities of the situation at hand. Key to situational leadership is adaptability. Leaders navigate among leadership styles to meet the changing or varying needs of communities and citizens, and have the insight and flexibility to understand when to adapt their leadership strategy to fit emerging and competing circumstances.

In the case of Nepal, we have learned that in responding to the crisis, “local and volunteer leadership” has been more imperative than the leadership and presence of “paid and government staff.” The call is made for the deliberate development of local leadership in each community to support change. Beyond this, endogenous leadership capability would certainly enhance governance and local development beyond the immediate COVID-19 crisis, and in anticipation of future ones.

In the experience of the MCCRN, “true leaders have to offer direction and be firm in the implementation of the same,” and further, the value of communities and other stakeholders “rallying behind” such leaders and implementing solutions in the best interest of citizens is necessary for good governance. In contrast, shared leadership was also seen as an effective approach in responding to the pandemic and an avenue to advancing citizen participation in democratic governance.

What is clear is that no one form of leadership works everywhere and in all situations. In emergency situations, leaders often need to be directive, as there is little or no time for engagement and dialogue. Yet in response to COVID-19, alongside this kind of directive leadership, leaders have also had to be collaborative, inclusive, compassionate, and participatory. As one practitioner puts it, “success comes from thinking for and with the people”, both critical steps in the process and practice of advocacy.

Self-reflection, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence

Reflection is one of the most powerful tools that leaders have at their disposal. It is often through reflection that transformative learning happens, leading to deep and sustainable change in perspectives, behaviors and outcomes.

Through this reflective writing exercise, some of the authors reported enhanced understanding of themselves in the unfolding crisis, leading to changes in their behavior. This included learning to be measured in their communication style and recognizing personal biases, preferences, and tendencies.

As social justice practitioners, it is important to become aware of oneself, to divest oneself of unproductive biases, preferences and tendencies, and to tap into one’s creativity. Indeed, as social justice practitioners, we often invite the communities we serve and work with to shift their perspectives and change their behaviors. Authentic leadership requires that practitioners model the behaviors that they are inviting others to embrace and practice. Understanding how this works in themselves can be key in supporting and enabling others to experience their own change. In a time of crisis and uncertainty, it may be more difficult, yet no less important for social justice practitioners to be modelling this type of behavior and leadership.

In a similar vein, this very exercise of collaborative writing and reflection (among a group of social justice scholars and practitioners from Nepal, Ethiopia, Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica and Canada) has not only been a platform for collaborative learning and mutual support, but has also modelled the kind of collaboration and reflective practice sought in this moment of crisis.

Learning is happening at the individual, organizational and national levels

In sharing their own stories and learning, this group of practitioners has also opined on learning that is taking place around them, at the organizational, collective or community, and societal levels:

“As a practitioner, I am learning that I can be more creative and adaptive if I want to. It is important to be flexible when engaging with people. […] As an organization, we are learning to adapt to suit the community.” (Nigeria)

“Thus, issues such as flexible working hours, workplace childcare facilities, our capacity to respond to emergency situations and meeting the needs of the communities we work with, while adhering to protocols to curb the pandemic are concerns that we are still thinking through as a leading network advancing the rights of women.” (Ghana)

“Cameroonians are keen on reading, responding and spreading the Minister of Public Health’s daily updates using various social media platforms. This increases public consciousness and engagement in hygienic practices and protection from health-related problems.” (Cameroon)

Of importance, this learning is not only essential to enabling redress for the pandemic, but is being applied to other areas of governance, enabling participation and citizen engagement and thereby ownership of responses now and for the future. By sharing their stories, the authors are also influencing learning outside of their national jurisdictions.

Balancing acts and new possibilities

The pandemic has left governments and civil society organisations with multiple points of tension. A form of polemic paralysis can set in as they try to balance competing governance imperatives and the complexity of satisfying the needs and demands of constituents, while upholding the rights of the people.

These tensions are apparent in the authors’ accounts and efforts. At the fore is a difficult balancing act of governance: saving lives, keeping people healthy, and keeping the economy buoyant while providing transparent, evidence-based, and timely information, ensuring meaningful participation and inclusion of diverse communities, and remaining accountable throughout the response.

As is the case globally, the authors’ experiences show that this process has had both intended and un-intended consequences. Many of these are positive and dynamic developments offering new and adapted channels for governance innovations in remote working and virtual engagement, expansion in the use of existing technologies and the (re)birth of new ones to generate data, greater attention to health-related public awareness and practice, enhanced collaboration between the state, the private sector, and civil society actors as well as virtual governance, and nimble advocacy tactics to name a few.

Yet these stories also show that the disease itself and the need for an urgent response have had negative impacts on individuals and communities everywhere. Shielding children from contracting the virus by closing schools for example, has exposed many of them to increased levels of violence and neglect, setbacks in development due to lack of necessary play, as well as a withdrawal of social protection services and nutrition support received through institutions such as the school system. Similarly, lockdown measures requiring families to stay home has exposed many to loss of employment, hunger, and violence, among other ills.

These measures, and expansion of executive power in general, have also accelerated a closing space for civil society in many countries, as citizens cede their rights in favor of health protection and as some state actors overstep their authority. States of emergency and quarantine orders have negatively impacted youth unemployment and led to increases in crime. Already marginalised segments of population, such as migrants, have become impoverished and have turned to begging, and many women and girls are increasingly subject to violence behind closed doors.

So, the need for new forms of governance arrangements continues to evolve, ones in which greater trust is required, existing accountability mechanisms are adapted, and new ones are explored, created, and practiced. Central to this is the ability of states and civil society actors to build on their (often novel) concerted efforts and work more collaboratively as the pandemic waves ebb and flow into a ‘new normal.’

Communities in their diverse forms will need to build on these emerging strategies and novel methods to foster greater self-reliance and resilience. The space to enable this will continue to evolve across contexts and will depend on the kinds of efforts documented in these stories, contributing to transparency, citizen voice, and accountable relationships with the state throughout and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

As governance practitioners, development leaders, social justice advocates, and as citizens, we must continue to remain curious, interrogating our own motives, our work and our next steps. And in our curiosity, we are invited to sit with the question of what is possible today that was not possible prior to this pandemic?

Julien Landry is Senior Program Staff at Coady International Institute bringing over 15 years of experience at the intersection of citizen participation, community development and adult education, both in Canada and internationally. As part of his role in advancing Coady’s thematic work in the area of Participation, Accountability and Governance, Julien designs and facilitates educational programs focused on citizen engagement, advocacy, social accountability, good governance and accountable democracies.


Anne Marie Smith is a Learning and Organisational Effectiveness Consultant with over thirty years of experience in Jamaica and the Caribbean. She also brings experience in public sector leadership, gender and diversity and development leadership. Ann Marie is a former Coady International Institute Fellow and Co-facilitator of the Institute’s Promoting Accountable Democracies course (2018). She currently leads the Government of Jamaica Public Sector Learning Framework Project towards establishing a sustainable and inclusive platform for public service human resource development and deployment to enable responsive and capable governance.

We are pleased to partner with Participedia – a crowdsourcing platform for researchers, activists, practitioners, and anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovations.

Browse the Coady Institute Graduates Collection on Participedia
Browse the Citizens Voices & Values on COVID-19 Collection Particpedia