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Stories from civil society during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic

26 August 2022

A new report by the Sydney Policy Lab draws upon the insights and experiences of civil society leaders to understand how Australian civil society can be strengthened and re-energised.

The Delta outbreak across cities down Australia’s south-east coast occurred just over a year ago. For many Australians – whose lives have returned to some vague sense of normalcy – the memory of lockdown feels like a fever dream of daily case counts, curfews, and isolation. However, the anniversary of the Delta outbreak also marks a timely reminder for reflection.

The Sydney Policy Lab’s Strengthening Australian Civil Society research initiative has uncovered four key stories of for-purpose sector strength and resilience during the height of the pandemic. These focus on First Nations' responses to COVID, the Melbourne Towers lockdown, food security during the pandemic, and the experience of international students. 

I was invited to one of the first strategy meetings with the partners of the Sydney Alliance, even before the borders were closed. This was an opportunity for me to expose, from my own experience and from people in my community, what was happening on the ground. What we brought into the coalition was the power of lived experience in community organisation. That iron rule of, never do for someone what they could do for themselves.
Diana Olmos, former international student and community organiser with the Sydney Alliance

Throughout 2020–21, the research team at the Sydney Policy Lab engaged civil society practitioners across Australia to understand how civil society could be further strengthened to work better with crisis and prepare for a better future.

These experiences were examined through a capability lens – considering the role of leadership, community connection, systems and networks, and advocacy and influence, in how civil society organisations endeavour to represent or serve communities.  

Alongside recommendations for organisations, policy makers and funders in the project’s main report, Nurturing Links Across Civil Society – lessons from Australia’s for-purpose sector’s response to COVID-19, the research team has pulled together a series of stories which demonstrate these broader concepts in action.

Firstly, the story of First Nations' responses to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the strength and versatility that arises from supporting First Nations community leadership. However, it demonstrates that if unaddressed, flaws in larger and more powerful systems can undermine the impact of strong local networks.

The second story shines a spotlight on the capacity-building and community development work of organisations, such as CoHealth and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, with residents of the Melbourne Towers during the 2020 lockdown. This story tells us that governments and other funders are well-placed to support this type of work, creating opportunities for local leadership to thrive.

From experience and research evidence, we know that service delivery is more efficient and effective when it comes from the bottom-up, because it better understands need, process and impact.
Rosanna Barbero, CEO of the Addison Road Community Organisation

The third story focuses on the issue of food security during the pandemic, which tested the ability of our systems and networks to respond swiftly to crisis. Despite these challenges, examples of leadership and community connection arose when civil society organisations like FoodBank, the Addison Road Community Organisation, and Play for Lives organised community members and pushed past systemic barriers to ensure that individuals and families could put food on the table.

Lastly, we highlight the advocacy work of a diverse coalition facilitated by the Sydney Alliance – working with key players, such as Democracy in Colour, the Australian Red Cross, GetUp! and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre – who sprung to the aid of temporary migrants and international students when they were notably excluded from financial supports during the pandemic. This story tells the importance of having those most affected can become the beating heart of advocacy. 

These vignettes tell complex tales of success and failure, and the messy hard work of civil society and democracy in action. They show that as monumental as the pandemic has been, there are vital lessons to be learnt from the past three years. 


Find out more about the Strengthening Australian Civil Society Project and how you and your organisation might participate.  

The Strengthening Australian Civil Society partnership is generously funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation.