Community Leaders Fighting COVID-19: A Global Conversation at UNGA75

On September 16, 2020, the Movement for Community-led Development organized a global conversation around community leaders fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as a side event for the 75th United Nations General Assembly. With speakers from the community, institutional, and policy level, the discussion sought to facilitate a knowledge exchange and advocate for the inclusion of community leaders at the decision-making table in the fight against COVID-19 and beyond. 

Moderated by Gunjan Veda (Senior Advisor, Advocacy and Global Collaborative Research, The Movement for Community-led Development), the panel featured Bineta Diop (Special Envoy of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission on Women, Peace and Security), Ghulam Rasoul Rasouli (former Director General of the Citizens Charter, The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) and Maribel Gallardo Escobedo (Community representative and Regional Coordinator in Oaxaca of The Hunger Project Mexico)

Communities are the first responders in a crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the challenges faced by communities, but it has also demonstrated their strength. In places where communities are mobilised, they become the first responders in a crisis. 

 “In Africa, we learned from our Ebola crisis….the community was the one to fight it,” explained Ms Diop. Therefore, when the pandemic hit, the African Union ensured integration not just across countries but encouraged integration within countries, right down to the community level. Tindi Sitati from Global Communities highlighted how the cooperatives in Kenya are working with the government for information dissemination, distribution of food supplies, face masks and other supplies through the Cooperatives Covid Response Committee. 

Mr Rasouli recounted that since 2003, community development councils were established in Afghanistan first under the National Solidarity Program and subsequently, the Citizen’s Charter program. When the pandemic unleashed an economic crisis, over 11,000 communities mobilised to collect food and non-food items from rich members and distribute it to ultra-poor households with zero operational costs. They also negotiated with anti-government forces to ensure security for medical and aid workers.

Community-led development is cost-effective 

Having a national community-driven development program in Afghanistan ensured that the government was better prepared to deal with the pandemic. It leveraged the existing community level infrastructure to launch REACH, a food and cash distribution program covering 90% of the country, including the “insecure” regions. Mr Rasouli explained that as this $280 million program will be fully implemented by the communities, the overhead costs are less than three per cent, making it efficient and sustainable. 

Communication is the key

Ms Escobedo painted a powerful picture of the challenges of obtaining accurate and timely information in rural areas. She lives in an agricultural region of Mexico which is difficult to access, has few phones and limited internet connectivity. She learned of the gravity of COVID-19 only through conversations with The Hunger Project staff. Even then, obtaining masks and using sanitisers was a novel experience for an indigenous community that had never encountered these before. 

In Afghanistan, the government tried to overcome the technological and communication barriers by creating charts to explain the scale and consequences of COVID-19 at the local, national, regional and international levels. Yet, Mr Rasouli emphasized that the sharing of information and knowledge needs to take place not just within countries but between them as well. We need to learn from and with each other.

The Pandemic has a woman’s face in Africa

In Africa, men and women were equally infected by the virus. Yet, the impact was much greater on women. Seventy per cent of the healthcare workers in Africa are female, as are 50% of the teachers and 70% of the agricultural workers. Outlining exceptional female resilience, Ms Diop explained that women have been risk-takers throughout the pandemic, distributing masks, providing care, undertaking sanitation measures and contributing innovative ideas to transform the continent’s COVID response. 

Amplifying female voices is an ongoing battle

Ms Escobedo emphasized the importance of amplifying female voices — a challenge that pertains not only to Oaxaca or Mexico, but also globally. It has been 25 years since the Beijing Conference, and women are still not at the table. 

Ms Diop noted that, “When women lead, they transform.” When Africa adopted its continental strategy, the female ministers and former heads of state came together and emphasized the need for a gender-responsive Covid strategy. The pandemic has surfaced, and in many cases, led to an increase in violence against women. But women have turned it into an opportunity as well. In South Africa, the women mobilised and 148 people were arrested for violence against women. Over 2000 complaints were registered. 

Special interventions are necessary to ensure that women are given a voice, including “naming and shaming,” Ms Diop suggested. 

We need to think globally while acting locally

Ms Escobedo noted that “This [pandemic] is not a problem of one country or one community. We should solve it as equal partners because we are all connected.” At the beginning of the pandemic the author Arundhati Roy had said that the pandemic is a portal and it can open the door to a future worth fighting for.There is need for government support and private sector cooperation, but building back better is about shifting the power from the top to the communities; it fundamentally requires that decisions are made close to the people.That communities and women have access to finance. Twelve of the 17 SDGs require integrated strategies at the community level. The time for action is now. “You can think global but you have to act local. And you have to ensure that communities have a seat at the table. It is the smart thing to do. It is the right thing to do,” Ms Diop concluded.


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