The focus of 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic. Issues like food insecurity, mental health, increased poverty and widespread misinformation impacted people all over the world. As a result of unemployment, lack of social protection and various trade restrictions that have disrupted the international food supply chains, tens of millions of people are in danger of succumbing to extreme poverty. People’s freedom in the world is increasingly vulnerable.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health services in nearly the entire world have experienced disruption, even though the demand is increasing. The societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered mental health conditions for some and worsened pre-existing ones for others. In a United Nations (U.N.) article addressing misinformation surrounding the pandemic, Dr. Briand, director of pandemic and epidemic diseases suggests that “when people are anxious and uncertain of a number of things they tend to compare with things they know already or things they have experienced in the past.” Fear and apprehension surrounding the vaccine have made it vital for organizations like the U.N. to provide accessible and understandable information that addresses public concerns.

Freedom in the world has been an overarching issue during the pandemic. It is also likely to have serious implications in the coming years. Freedom House is a nonpartisan, independent watchdog organization that researches and reports on various core issues within the contexts of civil liberties, political rights and democracy. Throughout 2020, Freedom House compiled reports and data on how repressive regimes have reacted to the pandemic, often at the expense of basic freedoms and public health.

Freedom House Report: “Democracy Under Lockdown”

According to a Freedom House report about the impact of COVID-19 on the global struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights has deteriorated in 80 countries since the start of COVID-19. The report is based on a survey of 398 experts from 105 countries. GQR conducted it in partnership with Freedom House. The research shows a trend of declining freedom worldwide for the past 14 years that COVID-19 has exacerbated. Countries that lack accountability in government are suffering the most due to failing institutions and the silencing of critics and opposition. Countries such as the United States, Denmark and Switzerland have also seen weakened democratic governance, even though Freedom House categorizes them as “free.” Even open societies face pressure to accept restrictions that may outlive the crisis and have a lasting effect on liberty.

5 Aspects of  a Weakened Democracy During the COVID-19 Pandemic

  1. Abuse of Power: Governments use the pandemic to justify retaining special powers, including interfering with the justice system, unprecedented restrictions on political opponents and increased surveillance. According to the research, the police violently targeted civilians in at least 59 countries. In 66 countries, detentions and arrests have increased during the pandemic response.
  2. Protection of Vulnerable Groups: Marginalized communities disproportionately face restrictions and discrimination and those in power often blame them for spreading the virus. Governments that abuse marginalized groups have continued to do so while international attention focuses on the pandemic. Due to government shutdowns, civil society has a reduced capacity to enforce accountability for human rights violations.
  3. Transparency and Anticorruption: In 37% of the 65 countries that the research included, government transparency was one of the top three issues that affected the government’s pandemic response. The report also notes that 62% of respondents said they distrust information from their national government. Some governments, such as those in Nicaragua and Turkmenistan, have outright denied the existence of the virus. Others like Brazil and Tasmania have promoted unsafe or unverified treatments. Opportunities for corruption have grown as national governments quickly distribute funds to the public without mechanisms in place to monitor those funds.
  4. Free Media and Expression: Freedom House research found that at least 47% of countries in the world experienced restrictions on the media as a response to the pandemic. Journalists have also been the target of violence, harassment and intimidation. At least 48% of countries have experienced government restrictions on free speech and expression. In 25% of the “free” countries, as classified by Freedom House, national governments restricted news media.
  5. Credible Elections: COVID-19 disrupted national elections in nine countries between January and August 2020. The postponed elections often failed to meet democratic standards because of delayed rescheduling or lack of adequate preparation for secure voting.

Protecting Freedom Now and in the Future

In 2020, the International Labor Organization (ILO) predicted that there would be a 60% decline in earnings for nearly 2 billion informal workers in the world. It is also the first year since 1998 that there will be a rise in poverty. According to Larry Diamond from Stanford University, good governance within a democracy is essential for poverty reduction. Freedom House recommends five ways to protect democracy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Emergency restrictions should be transparent with support from the rule of law while being purposeful and proportional to the threat.
  2. Restrictions, especially ones impacting basic rights, should not last a long time and should have independent oversight.
  3. Surveillance that uses new technology must be scientifically necessary and have limits on duration and scope. An independent organization should also monitor government surveillance.
  4. Protecting freedom of the press is important. The population should have open access to the internet and people should combat false information with clear and factual government information.
  5. It is essential to adjust voter registration and polling station rules, encouraging distanced voting methods and only postponing elections as a last resort.

Citizens in at least 90 countries have had significant protests against government restrictions. Journalists have risked their freedom and safety to report on the pandemic and the oppressive actions that government entities have taken. However, the pushback against reduced freedom in the world and guidelines that international organizations like Freedom House set inspire hope for a turning point in democracy’s current trajectory.

– Charlotte Severns
Photo: Flickr

development projects in sudan
Sudan has been rife with conflict for most of its existence. The country is dealing with economic challenges, health concerns, a large population living below the poverty line and the ever-present threat of violent conflict. Many organizations are working in Sudan to help improve conditions for those living there, and progress is being made. As an example, the life expectancy in Sudan has risen from 58.4 in 2000 to 64.2 in 2015. Ahead are five development projects that are making a difference in Sudan.

  1. Earlier this year, the Sudanese government and the African Development Bank launched the ENABLE Youth Program. This project helps youth in the country get involved in agriculture and learn business skills that will help them make a living. This is an important step in diversifying Sudan’s economy and decreasing its reliance on oil.
  1. The Strengthening Sub-National Fiscal Policy Management project is seeking to promote greater equity in Sudan’s public resource use and increase government transparency. There is a large disparity in resource allocation between different regions within Sudan and this project is working to level the playing field.
  1. The second phase of the Sustainable Livelihoods for Displaced and Vulnerable Communities in Eastern Sudan project (SLDP2) is continuing to help people living in Sudan’s poorest region identify labor needs and find workers to complete these tasks. This creates new jobs that do not require a great deal of training and work toward the betterment of the community.
  1. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has made development projects in Sudan a priority since 1979. Today the organization focuses its programs on agriculture and livestock. It is working to enhance crop productivity and increase access to financial services in Sudan’s rural farming communities.
  1. The United Nations Development Project (UNDP) is confronting many key issues in Sudan. UNDP projects in Sudan focus on poverty reduction, establishing and stabilizing democratic institutions and fighting HIV, malaria and other diseases.

Development projects in Sudan have played an important role in improving the quality of life for those living in the country. With continued investment from the global community and regular evaluation of projects’ effectiveness, there is hope for a more stable and peaceful Sudan.

– Aaron Childree

Photo: Flickr

Transparency_in_Foreign_AidGovernment transparency is one of the key elements to maintaining a free society. According to Ballotpedia, “openness, accountability and honesty define government transparency. In a free society, transparency is defined as a government’s obligation to share information with citizens. It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.”

When a free society is established, the government needs to be held accountable and inform the people of how taxpayers’ money is spent and where. This occurs through transparency.

At the end of October, many organizations and individuals applauded the reintroduction of Bill H.R. 3766, or the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2015.

“By strengthening its commitment to monitoring and evaluation and transparency, the U.S. government can better allocate aid resources and be held accountable by a range of stakeholders,” according to Modernize Aid. This means that those with influence are able to put the money where it is most needed and most effective.

Former attempts to pass the bill were largely successful and moved quickly through the Senate and the House. However, the Senate stopped progress in both instances.

Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and the Professional Services Council (PSC) are two of many organizations that are enthusiastic about the bill.

PSC’s CEO, Stan Soloway, has stated that “Congress should increase aid transparency and accountability and provide USAID and other agencies with the necessary acquisition and other resources to effectively plan, award and oversee development implementation by international development companies.”

As United States citizens, there are certain responsibilities to the government. The National Center for Constitutional Studies notes that “the success of the American Republic as a political structure has been the consequence…of the voluntary participation of citizens in public affairs – enlisting in the army in time of war; taking part unpaid in political campaigns; petitioning legislatures; and in a hundred other great ways, or small-assuming responsibility for the common good.”

The key goal in foreign aid transparency is the petitioning for legislation. This process is the people’s opportunity to let government officials know what is most important to them. It also gives the leaders an idea of what bills to pass.

Transparency in Foreign Aid allows a country to see exactly where tax money is going. It is a bill that holds promise for a more accountable government.

OXFAM America has expressed its desire for the legislation to be passed. “Now’s the time for effective aid supporters from both sides of the aisle in Congress to rally behind the House and Senate sponsors and push this bill over the finish line. It’s fun to cheer positive action in Congress! Let’s make sure we have the opportunity to do more of it.”

In order to do this, constituents are able to write, email or call their government leader’s offices. Each time a citizen does this, a tally is made on the issue the individual expresses interest in.

These tallies add up each week and are then considered when it comes time for voting on various bills and legislation. The more tallies from people, the more likely the piece of legislation has for success.

Katherine Martin

Sources: Ballotpedia, Modernize Aid, Professional Services Council, NCCS, Politics of Poverty
Photo: Google Images