COVID-19 has upturned billions of lives around the globe. Lives and jobs have been lost, economies have fallen into crisis, and societies have fallen into disarray. During these challenging times, the non-profit sector has been the most active. NGOs play critical roles in multiple areas, namely humanitarian aid, diplomacy, advocacy, and global governance. The world has come to understand the roles and importance of NGOs in society once faced with the pandemic’s unprecedented challenge. But one thing that the world has overlooked is how NGOs have been affected by the pandemic.
COVID-19 brought to light the flaws and frailty of health systems worldwide, forcing NGOs to step in to assist. When the second wave of COVID-19 hit and people met with their healthcare system’s alarming inability to provide life-saving medical services and supplies, NGOs across the world—Save The Children, SaveLIFE Foundation and Action Aid, amongst several others—played a significant role in reinforcing the health infrastructure. Whether it was supplying medical equipment or installing oxygen plants, NGOs stepped up in all ways possible to help the country combat the pandemic and save its citizens.
Furthermore, the COVID humanitarian crisis brought an onslaught of social issues such as a surge in extreme poverty, racial discrimination, and gender-based violence, as well as widespread misinformation. NGOs had to develop an appropriate course of action and allocate their resources accordingly. Governments and international and local NGOs collaborated to provide practical, prompt, and coordinated interventions. Notably, UNESCO, alongside NGOs, created a social media solidarity network to communicate and collaborate with local associations. Initiatives were taken to fight against poverty and aid low-income and unemployed individuals adversely affected by the pandemic. In this vein, BPW Bangkok, Thailand, initiated the “Imthong Imjai Tanpai COVID19” project, whereby 3,300 food boxes were distributed to impoverished communities.
Similarly, in response to the increase in violence against women, BPW Barbados opened a shelter for women. At the same time, the South Asian Foundation (SAF) spread awareness and protected the victims of violence. In addition, NGOs launched awareness campaigns and COVID prevention programmes to communicate authentic information on the virus to the public, such as the ‘Wash from the start’ programme by OMEP in Nigeria. As such, NGOs showed the vital role the humanitarian community plays in times of crisis by being at the front line of responding to the upsurge in humanitarian needs globally. However, the pandemic also brought on several challenges for these non-governmental actors.
One major problem that several NGOs have encountered during this pandemic is a funding crisis. Governments worldwide have had to impose lockdowns and social distancing rules to mitigate the risk of COVID-19, leading to the closure of schools, businesses, and workplaces. Consequently, millions of people lost their jobs and sources of income.
The latest figures reveal a global unemployment rate of 6.5% as an additional 33 million people lost their employment in 2020, reaching a total of 220 million unemployed people worldwide. The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic limited donors’ capacity, causing NGOs to experience dwindling voluntary income.
The lack of funds posed a great danger to the survival of NGOs. A survey conducted by British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND) in 2020 showed that 65% of its NGO members expected their income to fall in 2021-22. Based on their financial conditions and projections at that time, only 29% of its small NGOs, 64% of its medium-sized NGOs and 74% of its large NGOs expected to continue their operations after two years, with the small and medium-sized organisations being more at risk. Non-profit institutions, relying primarily on voluntary donations, were at high risk of discontinuation. Likewise, public fundraising events had to be cancelled as a COVID preventative measure, further diminishing the limited funds of NGOs.
Another challenge that NGOs faced was the digital transformation of economies, spurred on over the recent few years by the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdowns. Society had to innovate and adapt to overcome the disruptive effects of lockdowns on education and work life. Children had to start taking online classes through Zoom, while employees worked remotely from home through their computers. Remote working has become the norm ever since the initial lockdowns. Since working at the office and public events prohibited the spread of COVID-19, NGOs had to adapt to the emerging digital mode of work to ensure their survival during these trying times. Public fundraising activities were replaced by online fundraising events in social media fundraising campaigns.
NGO employees also had to start working from home and relying on digital tools to ensure work efficiency. This caused many non-profit organisations to reduce their scale of operations. The extent to which NGOs rely on fieldwork to carry out social work cannot be fully covered through remote work. Hence, finding and maintaining an appropriate balance between remote work and fieldwork has been challenging for most NGOs.
But as the saying of H. G. Wells goes by, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”