Voices from the Field: How NGOs Are Responding to COVID-19

Every single day, NGOs around the globe work tirelessly to give voice to the voiceless and make the world a better place. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented demand for NGOs to prioritize the safety and well-being of their colleagues, constituents, and stakeholders. This month, we are highlighting a few of the countless NGOs that NGOsource works with that are taking extraordinary measures to act within the constraints of the pandemic and use this opportunity to make lasting change.

Retina International

A member of Retina International conducts research

Retina International is a patient-led global umbrella for patient-led groups around the world that focus on research and support for rare and common retinal diseases. Based out of Dublin, Retina International's work involves outreach to its members and stakeholders across continents, so team members rely heavily on technology to communicate and collaborate. Team members are able to work remotely, and the organization is encouraging everyone to exercise and get fresh air daily for their well-being.

However, technology tools specific to those with visual impairments is an accessibility issue that is exacerbated when users are no longer able to work in offices already equipped with such tools. Additionally, some conferencing platforms are not fully accessible to the vision-impaired community. Thus, members of Retina International are providing support and training at a local level to ensure that the community is connected.

The team's key concern in the midst of COVID-19 is to ensure the well-being of Retina International's members and their patients. To do so, they are working to regularly update their website and all media platforms with current information on the virus and potential medical treatments. The team is also engaging regularly with its community to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on their care and well-being so that Retina International may respond to provide appropriate support.

To find out more about Retina International and its work, please visit its website.


Trawling for plastic (photo by Eleanor Church Lark Rise Pictures)

Founded in 2014, eXXpedition runs all-female sailing expeditions across the globe in order to explore the causes of and solutions to ocean plastic pollution. Each mission is composed of a multidisciplinary crew where members share their respective experiences, support innovative research, and take part in workshops. After the voyage, guest members of the crew return to their own communities to educate others about ocean plastic and achievable steps to take to combat the problem.

Exxpedition's crew was one week into a three-week mission from Easter Island to Tahiti in mid-March when they heard the news of widespread border shutdowns. This raised immense concerns for the guest crew to be able to get back to their respective homes. Emily Penn, co-founder of eXXpedition, noted that while her experience as a skipper has trained her to plan for every option while at sea, the impact of COVID-19 was not the type of situation that anyone could have ever imagined.

While eXXpedition had been keeping tabs on how the spread of the virus might affect its mission and was actively monitoring the health of its crew, this brought up a new and uncertain logistical concern. Worried they would be unable to land in their destination, the crew proceeded toward Tahiti amidst concerns that small island nations in French Polynesia were closing their borders. None of the local authorities had existing procedures in place to grant access to ships entering their waters after their borders had closed.

Fortunately, Tahiti's authorities had a procedure in place by the time the eXXpedition crew reached its shores. By March 28, they were able to get crew members to the closest international airport and on flights back home to their respective countries. None of this would have been possible without the incredible support and coordination of the authorities onshore and the teamwork and dedication of both the crew and eXXpedition team back on the mainland.

An eXXpedition crew (photo by Sally Earthrowl)

Now that the crew is back, eXXpedition is left with the task of preparing for both the short- and long-term impact of COVID-19's impact on the organization's work. There are huge financial implications for the team, as they will need to delay their project by 12 months to ensure safe conditions, on both the sea and the land. The crew will also still need to maintain their vessel even though it will not be at sea. Given this, these next 12 months will be spent working to bridge their current funding gap.

On the other hand, the pause of their missions allows the Exxpedition team a great opportunity to conduct more scientific research onshore, create virtual educational resources, and collaborate online. They will be leveraging this time to do what they can to increase their impact on the critical issue of marine plastic. This is an issue of great importance now more than ever. Emily and her team hope that the mindshift and living shift currently taking place in the context of COVID-19 will ultimately cause a move toward more proactive, environmentally friendly behaviors that will affect our world for the better.

To find out more about eXXpedition and its work, please visit its website.

Clean Clothes Campaign

Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) is a global network of over 230 organizations across the globe working to improve working conditions and empower workers in the garment and sportswear industries. Since 1989, CCC has fought to hold brands and governments accountable and ensure that the fundamental rights of garment workers are met. CCC's campaign strategies have helped reinstate fired workers, release incarcerated labor activists, recognize labor unions, and improve the health and safety of conditions in factories.

A CCC COVID-19 campaign graphic

According to CCC's campaign coordinator, Christie Miedema, this pandemic is the biggest crisis that the garment industry has faced. Millions of workers are not currently receiving their wages and are going hungry. Others are risking their health in factories that are unsanitary, are not properly ventilated, and do not provide safe options for social distancing. While CCC is still continuing to work on its pre-COVID-19 campaigns, its network is now spending increasing attention toward how garment workers are impacted by COVID-19 in order to ensure the livelihoods, safety, and health of their constituencies.

CCC is working within its network to address concerns on a localized basis. For example, FTZ GSEU (Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union), one of the organizations in the CCC network, works in Sri Lanka to advocate for fair treatment of garment workers in the country. When a COVID-19-related curfew was announced, garment workers living in boarding houses connected to their respective factories were unable to get back to their home villages. The workers would have been subjected to living in these boarding houses with the inability to safely social distance from each other if FTZ GSEU and other labor rights organizations had not intervened.

Garment workers evacuate from Sri Lanka with the support of FTZ GSEU and other labor rights organizations.

As in the case of eXXpedition, these incredibly difficult circumstances do provide a hope for grand-scale change in the future. This situation creates great concerns for the garment and sportswear industries on an unprecedented level. It also, however, allows an opportunity for more outreach and campaigning toward brands that have profited for decades due to unfair treatment of workers. Hopefully this new push and spotlight on these brands helps them to take more responsibility further down the supply chain — including for the establishment of a social security net and paying living wage — to make lasting changes for the better.

To learn more about CCC, please visit its website.

All images used with permission from Retina International, eXXpedition, and Clean Clothes Campaign, respectively. ©2020