On 26 May 2020, the CSEM with the Global Health Council, Action for Global Health UK, RESULTS UK, and WACI Health co-organized a townhall meeting with the WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, which brought together over 130 civil society representatives from across 33 countries. This meeting stemmed from civil society’s calls to increase opportunities for engagement with the WHO throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

In response to this request, the WHO Secretariat hosted civil society organizations for a webinar with Dr Tedros on 8 July focused on civil society engagement in the COVID-19 response at national and local levels. CSEM Advisory Group Member and Executive Director of the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) Itai Rusike spoke about his experience in the COVID-19 response in Zimbabwe. He especially urged the WHO to provide small grants to support CSOs in the national COVID-19 response. He also said WHO must advocate for governments to include civil society in their pandemic responses and importantly, consider the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on different communities. As follow-up, CSEM with a small group of civil society representatives gathered as a Working Group to call for and review proposals on topics to discuss for the remainder of the meeting series. This working group received 43 proposal topics and selected an initial 15 to start off this civil society-WHO dialogue series.

Read about the dialogues and their follow-up below.

First dialogue: Achieving a gender transformative COVID response
Tuesday, 1 September

Co-hosted by GENDRO and Women in Global Health, the meeting civil society asks and commitments from civil society on gender transformation. Learn more, including the outcome report

Second dialogue: Promoting the health and wellbeing of young people during the COVID-19 pandemic: Leveraging youth engagement in participatory governance
Friday, 2 October

Co-hosted by NCD Child, this discussion highlighted youth engagement, especially in the COVID-19 response, and outlined opportunities for youth to be engaged in planning and decision-making processes. Civil society speakers from South Africa, Switzerland, Barbados, Egypt, India, Sweden and Denmark spoke in the session while NCD Child Chair Dr Marie Hauerslev served as the moderator.

Third dialogue:  Social Participation and Accountability Within and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic
13 October 2020

Co-organized by CSEM, the Social Participation Technical Network (SPTN), Community of Practitioners on Accountability and Social Action in Health (COPASAH), and Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2), this discussion focused on social participation and accountability. A widely-circulated input paper developed ahead of the meeting identified three interrelated challenges in the promotion of social participation and accountability as a core element of good governance within and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic:

  1. In its interaction with Member States on promoting social participation and accountability at country level, WHO to provide political leadership beyond technical guidance
  2. In its own fields of work and related institutional processes and arenas, WHO to consistently deal with civil society engagement as a matter of social participation and accountability
  3. Civil society organizations, networks and platforms to get better organized in the promotion of good governance at all levels and at the same consistently address own shortcomings in the field of participation and accountability

The discussion was moderated by SPTN co-chair and CSEM Advisory Group member Justin Koonin (President, ACON). On the first panel about “WHO to promote social accountability beyond providing ‘technical’ guidance to countries,” speakers were:  Diana Nambatya Nsubuga (Living Goods, SPTN – Uganda), Khuat Thi Hai Oanh (SCDI, CSEM – Viet Nam), and Renu Khanna (Society for Health Alternatives, COPASAH – India).

Civil society asks to WHO were:

• Deepen and extend the conversation on social participation and accountability within and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic in follow-up meetings (jointly set-up by WHO secretariat and CSOs) with WHO Regional Directors, Member States and partner agencies in the Global Action Plan on Health and Well-being for All (GAP).

• Provide top-level support to the publication and dissemination of the WHO Handbook on Social Participation for UHC, explicitly linking the handbook project with the accountability challenges as seen during the Covid-19 response.

• Transform the “Social Participation Technical Network” (SPTN) that has been in the lead of the handbook project into a permanent “Social Participation Leadership Group” (SPLG) with strong and equal representation of WHO (HQ and RC), governments and civil society.

• Provide countries and civil society with further technical/normative guidance and opportunities to share good practice in core fields of participatory governance, such as: public hearings and consultations; addressing issues of diversity and representation; setting up national policy fora etc.

• Explore the opportunity for a high-level document (WHO strategy, WHA resolution) on social participation and accountability and engage in related intersectoral initiatives at UN level. Basically, it would make sense if generally applicable standards for accountability were applied by all UN agencies.

• Provide clear normative guidance and technical support to countries on upholding human rights, including protecting civic space and rights to freedom of expression and opinion, as a core element of the COVID-19 response.

On the second panel about “WHO to consistently deal with institutional civil society interaction as a matter of social accountability”, speakers were Thomas Schwarz (MMI Network, Geneva Global Health Hub – Switzerland), Angela Nguku (White Ribbon Alliance, GAP Civil Society Advisory Group – Kenya), and Jake Suett (ACT-A Diagnostics pillar – UK).

Civil society asks to WHO were:

• Deepen and extend the conversation on social participation and accountability within and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic in follow-up meetings (jointly set-up by WHO secretariat and CSO) with WHO Regional Directors, Member States and Global Action Plan partners.

• Extend the initial series of Covid-19 related dialogue sessions to a permanent dialogue platform that is well governed and managed, based on a sound assessment of the achievements and shortcomings of these initial meetings.

• Move from a general support for “speaking with civil society” to a next level of institutional commitment and leadership for engaging with civil society, by consistently applying a “social participation and accountability lens” at the level of global (WHO) governance.

• Give highest attention and priority to the development of a civil society strategy (as already announced) and related instruments, and provide the secretariat with the capacity and resources for their full implementation.

• Establish a related permanent mechanism for strategically dealing with issues related to WHO and social participation and accountability e.g. by setting up a permanent WHO-civil society commission or by extending the mandate of the “Social Participation Technical Network” (SPTN) or the proposed “Social Participation Leadership Group” (SPLG) from the country level to the global/WHO level.

• Define and overview an overarching framework for civil society participation and accountability in multistakeholder partnerships and platforms in which WHO is engaged, such as the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A).

• Fully deploy the Community and Civil Society Engagement Accelerator (co-led by WHO and UNAIDS) of the Global Action Plan on Healthy Lives and Well-being for All (GAP) and implement and extend the action items on community and civil society engagement as listed in the 2020 GAP progress report, based on a strong representation of CBOs and CSOs in the accelerator and on a revitalized and strengthened Civil Society Advisory Group to the GAP.

Dr Tedros and other members of WHO leadership responded to speaker presentations and the civil society asks. In particular, the Director-General expressed his support for inclusive social participation and the ask about establishing a “permanent mechanism for strategically dealing with issues related to WHO and social participation and accountability.” While a recording of this meeting will not be published, it can be requested from the co-organizers for a limited time.

There is a follow-up civil society meeting on 27 October at 13:00 CET to discuss the action items and continued engagement on social accountability (See: outline). The meeting will also discuss the third challenge outlined above on good governance and management of civil society processes and spaces. Please join us if you:

  • want to share any general insights or comments after the dialogue meeting with Dr Tedros and members of the WHO leadership team on 13 October;
  • are interested and available to actively contribute to the follow-up of the dialogue meeting, in particular on the agreed action points and perspectives at a national and global (WHO) level;
  • are interested in engaging on a dialogue on good governance and management of civil society platforms, mechanisms and processes.

Register here for the meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZYodu-qrTovHNxd87lBlkFtevoOCAFmawZI After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. Please reach out to csem@msh.org if you do not receive your link.


  • Community of Practitioners on Accountability and Social Action in Health (COPASAH)
  • Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2)
  • Civil Society Engagement Mechanism for UHC2030 (CSEM)
  • WHO Social Participation Technical Network (SPTN)