The pandemic put into sharp focus that the way countries are governed matters.
Governance failures are not abstract concepts but can lead to devastating loss of lives.
Across many countries we are seeing the results of poor leadership, corruption or mismanagement leading to economic and political crises.
It is time to confront this crisis of governance and threat to human dignity.
The UN Development Programme’s Oslo Governance Centre (UNDP OGC) and Southern Voice, a network of think tanks in the Global South, have conducted a study on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected governance systems worldwide. It was launched at the global conference, Power Politics and Peace, on 31 May 2022. The findings are clear, but also disturbing.
A troubling reality
In Africa, most countries continue to stagnate or decline in progress towards SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions. COVID-19 may completely derail the modest gains made over the past years on these issues, and drag down performance in countries where progress has stalled or has been reversed.
In Asia, the UN is reporting that almost all indicators for the region are not on track to achieve SDG 16. Better data is needed to understand trends on access to justice as well as the situation of human rights defenders and journalists in the region, especially when democratic processes are under threat.
The pandemic has been a humanitarian crisis with millions dead and suffering. It has led to economic emergencies in hundreds of millions of households. It has created social distress and enormous pressures on public service delivery systems. However, the pandemic has also created opportunities for some, including governments. To put it bluntly, we find that the pandemic and its consequences have been instrumentalized by some governments in order to unreasonably consolidate power and limit democratic space. Three findings in the report we have made are particularly worrying.
Unchecked power and shrinking civic space
First, the pandemic has been used as an excuse to abuse state power and restrict civic space. COVID-19 policies have accelerated authoritarian trends that existed prior to the pandemic. They were used to undermine dissent, target human rights defenders and the media, and erode oversight institutions, including the judiciary and legislative institutions. While states have responsibility for exercising their powers to manage crises, the report finds that across all regions of the world, some states used emergency laws to actively close civic space and shut people out of legitimate democratic processes.
Second, the pandemic has increased social exclusion with significant political consequences. Inequalities and social exclusion have grown over the last two years due to uneven responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is in part due to policy decisions that have disenfranchised some communities and disproportionately affected them. It includes inequalities in access to social protection programmes and other social services, enabling corruption at all levels and promoting political fragmentation. In Latin America, Asia, and Africa, protest movements have called for accountability and political change as governments have been unable to respond adequately to the multiple intersecting health, economic, and social crises.
And finally, the pandemic’s consequences of rising inequality and poverty can be root causes of future conflicts. Our research shows that there have been reversals across the board on targets related to peace, justice, and inclusion. While in some cases there are signs of both resilience within communities and a reduction in violence, there are high levels of mistrust of governments, which can lead to social unrest. These remain potential drivers of future conflict, as some communities may be disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and the government is not able to respond to those communities’ priorities.
A call for action
The damage to our governance systems is not irreparable. If there is political will, we can learn from this experience and find ways to build more inclusive and accountable governance systems.
The report we have produced gives advice to policymakers and civil society, based on experiences from all continents. It shows us that in several Latin American countries, many democratic institutions managed to push back against the excesses of the executive. Strong and independent institutions are critical to resist authoritarian forces. Institution building, grounded on principles of inclusion, accountability, and effectiveness, should therefore be a cornerstone of recovery efforts, not least to ensure access to public service delivery by marginalized populations.
Furthermore, according to the report, digitalization may bring opportunities. It can level the playing field and increase access to platforms for participation, information, and services.
And, investing in social cohesion and building trust through platforms for dialogue and discussion can be critical to overcome the polarization and spread of misinformation across many contexts.
As we emerge out of the COVID-19 health crisis, the economic and political impacts of the pandemic are still reverberating worldwide. We see a lack of trust in governments and political elites. From local to national to global levels, we are seeing a renegotiation over the balance of power. It is more important than ever that we invest in democratic institutions and accountable governance.
The report titled, ‘COVID-19 and the Crisis of Governance,’ was presented at the UNDP Oslo Governance Center Conference on 31 May in Oslo, Norway. You can find more information here.