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Strategy in the Time of COVID-19


April 17, 2020

By Ignacio Saiz and Allison Corkery
“Everything is in flux right now and this is creating a lot of fear and insecurity.” This observation comes from one of the many allies, partners, and supporters we interviewed at the start of the year, as part of consultations to inform CESR’s new three-year strategy. It was made before the scope and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and its global economic fallout had fully emerged. But it couldn’t be more poignant now.
In one sense, now could not be a worse time to be wrapping up a months-long series of strategic planning activities. It’s tempting to want to tear everything up and start again, given how radically different the world feels. We sketched out complex, interconnected, and sometimes paradoxical trends through these activities—in the external environment and in the fields in which we work. These have been intensified, not shifted, by COVID-19. The pandemic is a major new factor shaping our strategy. But it has also brought the pre-existing concerns animating our work into even starker relief.
For example, debates about the failures of neoliberal policies such as austerity have become increasingly mainstream. COVID-19 has laid bare precisely how these failures play out in the health sector. The ability of governments to respond to the pandemic has been impeded by diminishing public health budgets and expanding privatization. This realization has led to calls for massive public spending, offering new opportunities to lay to rest the dogmas of austerity.
Yet COVID-19 has also underscored another equally serious trend: the extent to which economic policymaking is captured by private sector interests, whose power is both pervasive and hidden. As we have seen in the US and elsewhere, COVID-19 rescue packages have been more responsive to large corporations lobbying for bailouts than to civil society demands for redistributive social protection.
As trust in democratic practices has declined, debates about inequality have become increasingly polarizing. Our consultations highlighted how unmet socioeconomic grievances have led public opinion to sway towards the hard right in many contexts, fueling authoritarianism. In other contexts, they’ve led more people to resort to street protests to put demands on their governments.
COVID-19 has radically constrained the scope—as well as entry points—for social justice activism. Against a backdrop of already shrinking space for civic engagement, people’s daily lives and livelihoods are now being upended by lockdowns and quarantines. But finding creative ways to mobilize across movements against the systemic inequalities this crisis has laid bare is essential. This determines whether the moment will result in progressive changes, rather than regressive rollbacks—a key lesson from the global financial crisis.
A sobering message from our consultations is that, for the most part, the mainstream human rights community has remained marginal in efforts to respond to socioeconomic inequities. Despite obvious opportunities to connect with the growing economic justice and climate justice fields, many human rights tactics are “tied to and revolve around” a normative framework often seen as quite fixed, as one person explained. “The desire to stay true to it has meant we’ve been slow to describe inequities people experience in human rights terms that don’t feel abstract or technocratic.”
That said, our conversations confirmed that a groundswell of activists within and beyond the human rights community—particularly in the Global South—see human rights as an important framework for advancing economic and social justice. There was a sense that the moment we’re in is “pushing activists to be really creative in terms of where to put their energies” and that strategies are evolving as groups become “increasingly systemic in what they’re trying to take on.” One opportunity flagged for more systemic thinking, critical in the COVID-19 context, is how human rights delineates the role of an effective state—in both regulating the private sector and delivering on the public interest. This, in turn, helps create a “galvanizing vision” of what should replace neoliberalism, as well as a “roadmap of how to get there.”
What would it take to actually break down silos and tackle the tunnel vision preventing this kind of systemic thinking? Answering this question feels even more urgent now, while the window of opportunity to envision a more just economy remains open. Understandably, many groups are in reactive mode. Keeping up with urgent demands to respond to immediate human rights threats when operational capacity is so constrained is a huge struggle. But getting stuck in this mode risks fragmenting responses. What’s needed is more systemic action. 
For CESR, the current context has confirmed our resolve to focus our energies on advancing a vision of a human rights-based economy and catalyzing action towards it.  The crisis unfolding around us shows how urgently we need a new narrative about the values underpinning our economies. Our new strategy will see us working more closely with partners and allies active in the economic and environmental justice communities. Our aim? To leverage human rights as a crucial tool for economic transformation and hold governments and corporations to account for their obligations in the economic realm.
This will involve confronting biases and blind-spots within the human rights field. Some highlighted in our consultations include: difficulty uncovering the root causes “knitting together” different issues; widespread reluctance to engage with economic systems; disconnection between socioeconomic, labor, and civil and political rights; limited traction with economic policymakers; and the need to forge deeper collaborations, especially with social movements and grassroots activists who feel the effects of intersecting crises the strongest. The feedback we received indicates CESR is seen as being uniquely placed to address these challenges.
We will be finalizing our new strategy and sharing more details in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we’re developing a number of agile, rapid response activities on COVID-19 that are aligned with it. These focus attention on how relief and recovery measures affect human rights, and the challenges Global South countries face in resourcing these. They aim to support our partners and allies—within and beyond the human rights community—to come together around some foundational ideas, to set the stage for more ongoing collective advocacy on a rights-based economic response to the pandemic. Please get in touch if you’re interested in learning more about these activities or potentially joining forces. We welcome questions, suggestions, and provocations to help us sharpen our efforts.
Image of public health messaging in New Delhi courtesy of @ajplus.