By Lisa Coll

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our world. Better public health may help avert pandemic risks. Strengthening civil societies has long been the main purpose of U.S. foreign assistance, and today they are vital to mobilizing support for better public health. 

A new roadmap explains how civil society can contribute to global public health. 

On September 14, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, created at the initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General, issued a sobering new report. The COVID-19 pandemic has “revealed a collective failure to take pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response seriously and prioritize it.” 

The report calls for citizens' urgent action to “demand accountability from their governments for health emergency preparedness, which requires that governments empower their citizens and strengthen civil society.” Every citizen should “educate themselves and their communities … adopt health-promoting behaviors and take actions to protect the most vulnerable … and advocate for these actions within their communities.”  

We implement U.S. foreign assistance to help citizens worldwide mobilize civil society for important purposes. How can this experience be adapted to five key issues identified in the report? 

Access to reliable information is critical to protect public health. Eroding public trust in the media, science, and government institutions have left countries vulnerable to disaster. This is exacerbated by disinformation, often communicated via social media.  

Media producers can develop skills in investigative journalism. Local and international NGOs are working with journalists to identify false narratives and counter them with fact-based reporting. Youth must also learn how to think critically when consuming news through social media channels. Interventions in Central Asia coach youth in media literacy and active citizenship, building their capacity to identify and disprove misinformation circulating through social media. 

Governance systems must increase transparency and allow citizens to hold their governments accountable.  If citizens do not have transparent governance, they will look for information elsewhere, including sources that spread false narratives. Openness promotes efficiency and effectiveness in governance. 

Over the past five years, and with the support of U.S. and British partners, Ukraine has made significant steps to improve transparency and accountability in public services, reduce corruption, and improve citizen trust. One intervention, DOZORRO, is a citizen watchdog network that monitors government-funded procurements, including medicines, and allows citizens to flag potentially corrupt tenders. Through a public portal and digital tools, volunteers review details of public procurements and submit suspicious tenders to state audit bodies for review. This network has identified over 4,500 procurements totaling more than $470 million that were subsequently amended or canceled. 

Countries must strengthen community engagement in government decision-making. Local officials need to engage with civil society and others who represent the needs of the most vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected persons living with disabilities (PwD). 

International organizations help community-based civil society groups build skills to advance PwD rights to social inclusion, economic empowerment, and equal access. Emergent civic leaders in the Middle East learn how to build coalitions and design effective advocacy campaigns that promote changes in policy and practices that benefit these communities' needs.  

Sustainable preparedness requires the involvement of women and girls in planning and decision-making. As primary caregivers globally, women can improve social, economic and health outcomes and help boost economic recovery.  

Foreign assistance programs help women, particularly those living in remote areas, overcome barriers to civic and economic participation and take on leadership roles inside their communities. Women and girls develop practical knowledge on how to effect change in local policies and practices and how to engage with local officials. With this increased knowledge, women are using targeted strategies with local governments to drive inclusive change. 

The breakdown in social cohesion and citizen trust in public health and government has devastating consequences on health emergency response.  Structures must be built that ensure transparent and accountable government services. Community buy-in is essential to ensuring compliance with public health measures. 

In Ukraine, local and international civil society groups work with government ministries to open access to government data by citizens and supporting tools that make this data more digestible. The Ukraine government works with private sector partners that design and build tools and with civil society organizations and government agencies to roll data out widely to the public. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed myriad vulnerabilities worldwide, but societies are not helpless before them. Civil society's successes in other domains can be adapted for public health. More U.S. assistance resources could accelerate efforts to reduce virus risks, abroad and at home.

This article was first published October 16, 2020 by The Hill. Lisa Coll is President and CEO of Eurasia Foundation.