Written by Saul Mullard–Senior Adviser, U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, and Per Aarvik–Affiliated Expert, Chr. Michelsen Institute

Who would have thought at the start of 2020 we would be faced with a challenge of such proportions that normal life around the world would come to a halt? As if civil society didn’t have enough problems in 2019, what with the global rise in populism, shrinking space to act, and challenges to fundamental freedoms in many parts of the world. Then 2020 threw the curveball of the Coronavirus pandemic.

For us at U4, whose stock-in-trade is corruption, alarm bells started to ring as the scale of the crisis became apparent and donors began scrambling to channel funding to prevent a massive health crisis in developing countries. More opportunities for corruption, we thought!

For me, whose main area of research is how people can hold power accountable, I was struggling with the dilemma of how to do this when people can’t even meet? I was aware of the trend and buzz that has existed for many years around the use of technology. But I was also aware of its drawbacks. Fortunately, I was planning to work with a colleague, Per Aarvik, on a paper looking at digital agricultural subsidies and youth digital engagement. We shelved that and started thinking about the problem at hand: How to do social accountability during the time of distancing and lockdowns?

‘Innovations and new digital solutions can be used to strengthen civil society’s ability to collaborate and monitor government actions’

Digital tools and online collaboration have existed for more than a decade. Now, as the whole world is affected by the pandemic, people are finding ways to connect, co-exist, and collaborate via digital tools. People acting to minimise the effects of Covid-19 are also following this trend. This has led to a boost in civic engagement and innovations to address the various issues of the crisis. So what of civil society’s role in accountability?

In our paper Supporting civil society during the Covid-19 pandemic. The potentials of online collaborations for social accountability, we explore a few of these issues and show examples that could lead to people’s ongoing involvement in accountability. In a personal example, an old school friend who works for a UK-based community outreach charity asked on his Facebook feed for pro-bono help for the charity website from web designers who had been furloughed. By the end of the day, he had more than 20 offers. This may be anecdotal, but it’s indicative of what is happening all over the world. People under lockdown are collaborating, offering help, and sharing information and skills via online platforms.

Civil society, NGOs and companies alike are engaged in a learning process to overcome physical absence and maintain their missions (businesses). In addition, the pandemic has introduced many new challenges. To address these problems, innovations and new digital solutions are being developed on all continents. Some relate to accountability and to strengthening civil society’s ability to collaborate and monitor government actions. Hopefully, the best solutions will stay and support work for empowerment, transparency and accountability well into the future.

‘Civil society can harness both the digital tools and the opportunities for engagement the crisis has produced’

We explore how civil society can harness both the digital tools and the opportunities for engagement the crisis has produced. We highlight the challenges, limitations, and potential of using digital tools. We also offer recommendations on how civil society can be supported to make the most of these tools for social accountability and to mitigate the negative effects of corruption.

Read the full paper on U4’s website.


The U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre at CMI works to identify and communicate informed approaches to partners for reducing the harmful impact of corruption on sustainable and inclusive development.

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All views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U4 partner agencies, or CMI/U4.

Saul Mullard

Senior Advisor (U4)