This report primarily focuses on minority and indigenous communities and their experiences during COVID-19. But we also turn our gaze inward briefly. In seeking to come to terms with the loss and the trauma inflicted by the pandemic, it is incumbent on us all to extract the painful lessons emerging from this experience to be better prepared for similar crises in future.
Our work at Minority Rights Group (MRG) interacts with many systems: international human rights mechanisms, development and aid provision, national advocacy and law making, judicial processes, service delivery and civil society solidarity. All of these were affected in some way by COVID-19, forcing us to rethink ways of working which, it turned out, were often dictated by habit and custom rather than necessitated by external realities.
One lesson we take away from this time is how to overcome our own resistance to change. Some ways of doing things may have changed permanently; others may revert back eventually (with or without good reason). COVID-19 highlighted how poorly designed systems were rendered ineffective in responding to a swift global challenge of this kind. In particular, it demonstrated how easily local, national and international solidarity broke down in the face of adversity. When faced with crisis, it seems, we mostly put our own needs first. Those with greater social, political or economic capital ‘won’ against those with lower status, who were less well connected or less well off. Combating these recurring patterns lies at the heart of the minority and indigenous rights and anti-discrimination mission that MRG exists for.
Prior to the pandemic, international human rights mechanisms had strongly resisted virtual participation in forums and debates. After initial postponements and cancellations, these objections were swept away and virtual participation is now routine. This has made involvement more egalitarian and cost effective but has also heightened the digital divide. Internet connectivity and equipment is not yet in place for all — with minority and indigenous communities disproportionately affected. Virtual attendance also fails to replicate the access to decision makers that ‘corridor’ lobbying normally provides, by speaking to decision makers face-to-face on the margins of physical meetings. It remains to be seen how this will settle post-pandemic. Retaining the benefits of virtual participation alongside some of the benefits of physical attendance may require designing virtual opportunities that simulate corridor lobbying online.
As an organization primarily funded to deliver restricted projects, we faced the challenge of needing to renegotiate a large number of contracts to pivot work into new directions as the original interventions were no longer possible, relevant or appropriate. This generated significant workload burdens and also led to delays in rolling out our responses. A more appropriate ‘disaster preparedness’ contract provision would have allowed donors to remove restrictions from a small proportion of restricted funding, limiting activities to the charitable objectives of the recipient organization or to project objectives without need for lengthy renegotiations. Such a mechanism could be triggered at the discretion of the donor during a global or national emergency, providing a swift, efficient and effective response by those who already have partnerships in place and are actively working to respond within their means to a crisis as it unfolds.
As the pandemic has highlighted, MRG’s work needs to continue whatever the conditions we face since our communities of concern will inevitably be pushed behind. It is therefore imperative for us to find innovative and effective ways to maintain the struggle, supporting marginalized communities and influencing institutions and the wider public until the systemic discrimination highlighted in this volume is a thing of the past. We hope the contents will provide you with insights, information, inspiration and motivation to join and accompany us on what is still a long and much needed journey towards equality, inclusion and participation for all.
Photo: Migrant workers carry their belongings as they walk along a road to return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of COVID-19, in New Delhi, India, March 26, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui.