Reflections by Terri-Ann Gilbert-Roberts, Chair, SALISES 50/50 Youth Cluster
A dynamic group of young social and digital innovators, aged 15 – 30 years from across the Commonwealth are preparing to “hack” COVID-19 by participating in a virtual #CoronaHackathon by Reinvent Hacks. Last week, they asked me: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Governance and the Rule of Law?
So, what has changed about who holds power; over whom; for what purpose; and how? More importantly, who has gained or lost power in this situation? These are keys to understanding the impact on governance.
Governance is a process of regulating power, via a system of rules that control human activity at different levels of society – from the local to the global – and aims to produce positive societal outcomes. In democratic societies, governance is a delicate balancing act of coordination within a complex system of actors, processes, and institutions. It requires mediation among the varied interests of stakeholders (in government, civil society and private sector); coordination of levels of action (community, local, national, regional and international); and direction of intertwined structures –institutional norms, laws, policies and organisations of action.
In periods of crisis, shifts in power create challenges to governance as well as opportunities to re-engineer the system. Shifts are necessary to address weaknesses in the way we work together (through participation, partnership and inclusion) and coordinate actions in an evolving environment (requiring adaptability and agility).
During the current pandemic, we must pivot away from the false dichotomy which presents social gains as threats to economic growth. Governance systems must engage stakeholders in joint decision-making that integrates, rather than separates, public health objectives (e.g. lockdowns, quarantines and increased investment in PPE) and economic objectives of continued trade and commerce. We need legislative, policy and programmatic shifts that reverse embedded inequalities. We are now, more than ever, confronted, on a global scale, by the inequalities in inter alia access to remote and online learning; in social security and protection; and in health outcomes for certain age, racial and income groups. We must also embrace the feminine face of effective global leadership, as countries led by women are lauded for the relative success of their policy responses to the virus (e.g. in New Zealand, Iceland, Germany and Taiwan).
TRENDS IN GOVERNANCE SINCE COVID-19
Let us consider four main power shifts across the globe.
- The Resurgence of State Power
The expansion of state interventionism, across varied political systems, is the most prominent change in the COVID-19 governance context. The state is re-emerging in different places as welfare state, authoritarian-military state and convenor. The state is busying itself with new legislation and policymaking on social security and health issues which is both promising and worrisome.
On the one hand, the speed of crisis response is astonishing – revealing untapped capacity to invest in social security, equip health sectors and regulate equitable access to services; as well as untapped innovation in delivering remote and e-services. The “for profit” sector’s embrace of the interventionist state presents a significant shift in the balance of power in the global political economy. Hitherto, private interests sought to limit the power of the state in favour of their own capitalist expansion. Today, the private sector is an enthusiastic beneficiary of and advocate for stimulus packages from the state, as trade and commerce have slowed.
On the other hand, the speed of decision-making and action may prove to be fertile ground for corrupt practices; and for strengthening authoritarian regimes which centralise their power and exclude opposition groups. This has been experienced in Brazil, the Philippines and Poland. In addition, the increased militarisation of state-society relationships, to enforce emergency rule of law, is a challenging new feature of some societies.
At the same time, the state – whether democratic or authoritarian – is more proactive about convening with other governments, intergovernmental organisations and non-state actors, in order to effectively respond to a pandemic requiring simultaneous action across sectors at all levels.
- Shifting Locales of Civic Power
The increased reliance on and partnership with non-governmental stakeholders is a welcome trend, providing opportunities for greater citizen engagement in governance, including for young people.
Young people are leading on collective service delivery through volunteerism, innovation and partnerships. They are designing and engineering Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline workers; manufacturing items for and delivering care packages to the most vulnerable; and distributing small grants to support grassroots responses like #CYCCARES.
The establishment of inter-disciplinary task forces is also welcome but concerns remain about youth exclusion from these decision-making fora. There are exceptions. The African Union has accepted a leadership role for the newly-established African Youth Front on Coronavirus in the continent’s COVID-19 response.
As we stay at home during this time of crisis, technology offers an excellent outlet for engagement. Youth have increased their online activism and pursued avenues for digital innovation, like the #CoronaHackathon. However, many without online access lose influence as they are left out. They miss the power of physical assembly and protest. In addition, digital tracking of online activity creates opportunity for the swift and relatively invisible silencing of public dissent. Governments can now bypass highly visible clashes between security forces and the citizenry, as they legislate to contract online and offline civic spaces.
- The Retrenchment of Global Power
Notwithstanding the need for coordinated global action, states and citizens are pushing back against globalisation, globalism and multilateralism. Impending recession prompts some governments to reduce their contributions to and participation in international organisations. On average global economic growth is expected to contract by 3%; with contractions as high as 7% in individual economies. So, focus is being placed on protecting national interests, including repatriating manufacturing instead of trading internationally. While streams of development financing have become more flexible, as existing funds have been shifted to immediate public health needs, the dominance of multilateral institutions in development and political dialogue may begin to wane.
Perhaps, a renewed focus on regional cooperation may become a new feature of governance. Regional governance among states in the same geographic area, provides a meso-level space for technical cooperation – for example on vaccine development, modelling of public health, legal and economic policy responses. The region appreciates national imperatives while drawing on international expertise.
However, reduced leisure and business travel, coupled with new and tightening immigration controls which were initially adopted as temporary public health measures, may become permanent and negative features of de-globalisation. In the context of reinforced xenophobia, racism and populism, the retrenchment of these ‘people’ aspects of globalisation is problematic.
- The Democratisation of Information and Data
Most of us have been inundated with resources to help us understand the present circumstances. Technical and policy data and analysis has, in some ways, become more transparent and accessible.
For example, online COVID-19 trackers, like those developed by Johns Hopkins, the WHO and the Caribbean Development Bank, are positive innovations which democratise data and level the balance of knowledge power between citizens and governments. Information sharing, via traditional and new media, allows all of us to understand the influences on pandemic decision-making. Increased dissemination and analysis of data is a promising trend in which regional and international organisations appear to be finding new relevance.
Careful oversight, especially of unverified information shared speedily on social media, is a significant challenge. ‘Infodemics’ of misinformation (based on ignorance and scepticism of evidence) and of disinformation (deliberate falsification of information by governments and other stakeholders) are also opportunities for innovation.
These four trends in governance, among others, provide the context in which innovation will evolve. The young innovators I spoke with are ambivalent about this context – sometimes hopeful about the opportunities for positive change and, at other times, fearful of increasing exclusion and marginalisation of young people from decision-making processes.
The challenge these young innovators have accepted is demanding. Over the next few weeks, they will examine the technical dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the practical tools of digital innovation. As they explore issues related to inter alia health, business and commerce, food and water and cultural industries, I hope they also consider ways to ‘reinvent’ governance.
There are many entry points. Increased capacity of all actors, processes and structures to adapt quickly and take informed action in an evolving environment is critical. Strengthening the relationships within the system is also important.
Digital solutions could help sustain positive changes in power relations. I hope we can find answers to some critical questions:
- How can these solutions strengthen state intervention?
- How can they expand and protect civic activism?
- How can technology be used not only for surveillance and control but also to support activism, inclusion and equity?
- How can online interaction be made more secure and effective?
- How can high tech solutions complement low tech and offline solutions?
- How can we verify democratised information and make it more user-friendly for various interest groups including children and youth, older persons, the blind, the deaf and the hard of hearing?
- How can governance stakeholders be trained in adaptability and simulation of crisis management?
- How can digital innovation reverse trends of global separation and fragmentation?
We desperately need to change the way in which we regulate power in our societies, and I am a firm believer that our younger citizens will help us achieve more equitable, inclusive and effective systems, at all levels. I look forward to seeing the young innovators discover ways to ‘reinvent’ governance. Let’s follow their lead.
#reinventinggovernance #governanceaftercovid #CoronaHackathon
Terri-Ann Gilbert-Roberts is currently Fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) where she conducts research on the Politics of Development and teaches graduate students in Development Studies. She chairs the 50/50 Youth Research Cluster which supports evidence-based youth work and policy-making in the Caribbean.