Gunjan Veda (The Movement for Community Led Development) and Nelly Mecklenburg (Institute for State Effectiveness)

Synopsis: This paper builds on a global call organized by the Movement for Community Led Development (The Movement) to collectively consider the challenges to CLD programming during COVID-19 and reflect on the adaptations needed to continue our work. Though many of us have dealt with restrictions around access, convening, procurement, service delivery and shifting priorities in the face of a multitude of crises – natural, human and virus-made, the pandemic-induced lockdowns caught us unprepared. They severely curtailed and, in some cases, completely halted our regular programming. Collating the learning from our past experiences (Ebola, SARS, tsunami, armed conflict) provides a valuable starting point for adapting our programming. At the same time, the unprecedented magnitude of the current crisis and its impact on our work presents us with a remarkable opportunity for introspection; for brainstorming how we can shift more power to our communities and intentionally build crisis response into future CLD programming.

The Challenge

“I have been an ASHA worker for 8 years. People trust me. I have been a part of their homes and lives but now they shut the door on my face. They ask me to keep away from the very children I saw them birthe. Our bond has been broken.”    

“”Now more than ever, we need to respond to the needs of our people. We meet in small groups with handmade masks. We have a large meeting room and so are able to maintain distance. But one is always worried. Our families are worried. It is as if we are tempting fate.” 

“We work through schools. We provide mid-day meals, WASH and gender education, nutrition and health counselling. Now the schools are closed indefinitely. VAW is up, hunger is up. Our work is needed more than ever but how do we resume?”

Over the last 90 days, we have all encountered these dilemmas and more as the world around us scrambled to adapt to the threat posed by a global pandemic, unprecedented both in terms of the speed of its spread and the global response to it. Facilitation, social mobilization, trainings, and face-to-face engagement are integral to community-led development (CLD). However, COVID-19 and its concomitant impacts (in terms of health, prevention, psychology, and policy) make precisely these kinds of activities difficult. At the same time, CLD programming – which builds solidarity, amplifies community voice, addresses local issues of hunger and poverty, and enables community action and decision-making – is perhaps even more important now. It is therefore vital for us to consider how CLD programming and processes can be adapted to continue during this period of physical distancing, national shutdowns and economic slowdowns, anxiety and contagion. Towards this end, the Movement for Community Led Development (The Movement) organized a global call on April 21, 2020 for CLD practitioners to collectively consider the challenges to CLD programming during COVID-19 and reflect on the adaptations needed to continue our work. 

CLD is a multi-sectoral and human-centered strategy for collaboration to achieve locally created and owned vision and goals. This pandemic has reminded us that communities are the first responders to crises. All over the world, governments are stretched to respond to both the health and socioeconomic effects of the COVID pandemic, and communities are helping to fill the gaps. In communities with CLD programming, they are organized and able to quickly mobilize towards action. In Benin, communities worked with The Hunger Project to set up 2500 tippy taps (hand washing stations). In Rwanda, Malawi, Senegal and Morocco, Corps Africa saw its communities making and distributing masks while in Sierra Leone, One Village Partners saw them establish quarantine houses. All over the world community partners and leaders have been working to communicate accurate information from trusted sources in local languages and to  help distribute relief (as witnessed by Spark Microgrants in Rwanda, Heifer in Bangladesh, and Citizens’ Charter in Afghanistan).  The Movement is collecting stories of how CLD is responding to the COVID crisis here.

However even as governments, NGOs and communities organize short-term responses to the Covid crisis, it is increasingly becoming evident that the virus will be with us for some time to come. In some places its full effect is yet to be seen; in others, it will come in waves until there is a vaccine, which may be years away. Meanwhilee, we know that as a result of the pandemic, Violence Against Women is going up, families are slipping back into poverty, fear and uncertainty is fuelling ethnic, religious and communal divides, and governments are using their emergency powers to close political and civic spaces, And this pandemic is by no means the only crisis that will shut down services, disrupt supply chains, prevent movement, exacerbate hunger, poverty, and mistrust. In fact, crises like that – whether due to conflict and violence, natural disaster, or disease – are not so rare in many communities around the world. And it is precisely in such  times that community engagement, solidarity and action are most important.

It is critical therefore that CLD programming is not paralyzed by them. We need to work together and with communities to identify solutions that allow the gains that have been made to sustain and for CLD programming to continue. This means finding ways to adapt CLD processes, which often rely heavily on people convening in large groups and working closely together in person, to the barriers presented by these kinds of crises. 

The Barriers[2]

Not all countries or places are at the same stage of the pandemic. Though lockdowns have been in place in most regions, their nature and intensity varies. Therefore, we need to look at the challenges that the pandemic poses and the required adaptations through the lens of where the community is at any given time. Using the vocabulary of humanitarian programming, we can therefore look at barriers and challenges across three phases: Preparation (for countries where the pandemic is just starting or places where complete lockdowns are yet to be instituted), Response (communities where the pandemic is at its peak or where complete lockdowns are in place) and Recovery (communities where the peak has passed). 

While there are numerous challenges that all of us have encountered in our day-to-day programming as a result of the pandemic (InterAction[3] is creating a database of such challenges and has recorded over 120 responses), most of them can be clustered into four barriers.[4] 

Travel bans, border closures and shelter-in-place orders have resulted in access challenges. We are no longer able to visit the communities we work with, be it for collecting data, conducting facilitation or trainings, providing support or administering services. Our own staff and community partners often have little experience of working remotely. Poor internet and mobile connectivity and the fact that the most marginalised are the ones with the least access to technology have exacerbated the problem. 

The lockdowns, physical distancing norms and restrictions on convening make it difficult to conduct meetings, trainings and other social mobilisation processes. The Ebola crisis also showed us how potent the “stranger danger” phenomenon is. Part of the problem lies with the vocabulary itself. Physical distancing is erroneously being referred to as social distancing, thereby undermining the social solidarity needed and experienced during these times. These convening challenges are compounded by the constant fear of infection.

Procurement and service delivery challenges are perhaps the most common in any crisis. The lockdowns have disrupted supply chains, created shortages of essential and everyday supplies impacting service delivery. Closure of government facilities which are often centres for programming (e.g. schools or child care centres) and lack of clarity on what comprises essential services has forced many organizations to suspend programming. This has led to questions around contractual obligations, payment, and project grants or supplies for community members, local staff and teams. 

The final barrier is centered around time and shifting priorities. As people lose livelihoods, as they fall sick or grapple with the burden of care for loved ones, they will have less time and inclination to engage in CLD processes or to mobilize their communities. Renewed ethnic and social tensions will also make it more difficult for us to resume CLD programming.  

 The Key Themes: What we heard

How can we address these barriers? During its special global call, The Movement sought to do this by focussing its discussion on each barrier around four key questions: 

  • What would be needed for staff and communities to feel safe and do CLD work?
  • What resources are available (in communities and in organizations)?
  • What lessons can be learned from past crises/periods of physical distancing?
  • What are some possible adaptations?

When we analyze the responses of the participants and our members, some themes begin to emerge: 

  • It is important for CLD organizations to communicate and collaborate during this period – both to create a community of support and to mount a joint response. This pandemic is taking a physical, economic, and emotional toll on people all over the world, including CLD practitioners. Building connections during this time and sharing stories of the challenges we are facing in our work can help us all feel less isolated and more supported. One participant on the global call suggested collecting and sharing stories to recognize CLD practitioners that have been infected in the line of duty. 

At the same time, a united voice will help CLD organizations to have a greater impact. In many countries, communities are being left out of response planning, even though they are the ones who will have to absorb and follow these policies. In other places governments are abusing their emergency powers to curb dissent and escape accountability. CLD organizations have also noted the challenge of resourcing their efforts when so much funding is being directed to major relief efforts, or of fulfilling normal donor requirements. If CLD organizations can work together and have a united voice, they will be better advocates for community inclusion and for their own programming/organizational needs. In Zambia, members of the national Chapter of The Movement have already established a Covid Response Task Force to work together and amplify their efforts. 

  • Collective learning – especially from experience with previous crises – remains critical during the pandemic. This pandemic may be an unprecedented event, but the challenges it presents are not. In a poll, 79% of the participants in the call said the communities they worked in or their organization had faced crises that limited mobility and convening before. This may be from other diseases, such as the 2014-2016 Ebola virus outbreak, from natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or semi-regular floods or cyclones, and from armed conflict and violence (including under Taliban rule in Afghanistan and Boko Haram incursions in Nigeria). 

There is a lot to learn from these past experiences – and from what organizations and communities are doing now. These are starting to be documented, but a concerted and collective effort to collate these will help people know where to look for ideas. This could also help us catalog different program areas that are impacted, how, why, and with what responses, as well as better understand how COVID (and future crises) affect different programmatic gains. The Movement offers a platform to collect and share these lessons – while growing the community of practice.

  • Communities know best how to adapt programming to continue fulfilling their needs. A number of organizations that have begun to find ways to continue with programming cited community leaders and community council members as having come up with the ideas. At their core, the role of CLD organizations is to listen to communities and support them to take the lead in determining and acting on their priorities, needs and resources. That applies no less now. Communities know what resources are available and activities are feasible within their communities, while maintaining appropriate safety and health precautions.

Following communities’ lead during this time requires well-established communication channels of community leaders, volunteers and facilitators to CLD staff, local government, and their own communities. This means having the technical means of communicating in place (local servers, program-specific mobile phones, community radios, etc.) and having established trust. These channels have been vital for CLD programs to quickly mobilize and reset processes. 

  • Technology is only part of the answer. The crisis has exposed the gap in our communication systems.  Where we have effective communications channels we were able to respond more quickly to community needs. However, we do not always have effective ways of reaching our communities and in some cases, even our staff. Further, while means of communication are critical, so too is how those means are used. CLD aims to bring together the priorities, voices and capacities of the entire community, including its most marginalized members, into community processes and decision-making. The tendency during this period of rapid and at times ad-hoc pandemic response is to rely on technology that allows for remote communication. But often the poorest and most marginalized community members will have the least access to and comfort using technology (such as cell phones, Facebook, the Internet). In identifying adaptations to continue CLD programming through physical distancing, it is important that the commitment to inclusion and pro-poor approaches are not compromised. This will mean thinking critically about the use of technology, and being creative about how to mitigate that risk. 
  • Different people will need different solutions. A participant noted that different people – within organizations and within communities – will have different thresholds to feel safe working during this period. This means that there will be multiple solutions, and different kinds of adaptations, needed. This applies to government policies as well. Around the world, different governments are using different timelines and plans to slowly reopen their economies and ease restrictions. However, those approaches will not work for everyone and cannot be taken as blanket guidelines for CLD work. 

Ensuring that everyone can participate – despite different work schedules, literacy, physical abilities, age, livelihood and family pressures, etc. – is part of CLD facilitation and planning. That consideration is needed for developing adaptations as well. As another participant remarked, human resources are CLD’s most important resource. So making space for people to safely engage is tantamount. 

  • We were unprepared. Almost 80% of participants said that they or the communities they work in have faced similar kinds of challenges. Despite this, however, the CLD community was unprepared for how significantly and how long this would disrupt programming. Among participants and across many conversations, there is a great sense of uncertainty on how and when and if to resume regular programming. 

Reflections : What does this mean for us? 

For the past few weeks we have understandably been focussed on responding to the technical needs generated by the pandemic – providing personal protective equipment (PPEs), spreading awareness, distributing food or cash aid, encouraging physical distancing, establishing protocols for remote work, to name a few. Yet, as we acclimatize to this new and tumultuous normal in our lives and work, we need to plan ahead – to understand what we can do now to responsibly resume elements of CLD programming, and to explore how we can be best prepared for another wave of the virus, or another crisis. Despite – or perhaps because of – the uncertainty of the moment, it is an important opportunity for collective introspection on what we can do to not be caught off guard again in the future. This is ultimately a question of resilience, at the community and organizational level, to the seemingly frequent crises that assail communities and us. 

In the Movement-led meta-synthesis of what CLD is and how it can be evaluated , rapid and continuous ‘adaptation’ emerged as one of its defining characteristics. Adaptation enables CLD programming and organizations to pivot to respond to community circumstances and goals. At the same time, the defining feature of CLD programming is not just adapting but how and on what basis do we adapt.  This is where we need to listen to our colleagues, our community partners and communities themselves;  to ask them what they would need in the immediate future and long term to feel safe. What pressures are they experiencing and are likely to experience? What changes do we need to make in our programming for it to cater to these pressures? It is only when we ask these questions and tailor our responses to them that we remain true to the spirit of CLD.

Adapting CLD processes in the long term requires multiple strands of thinking. We begin the discussion here with two questions that may provide valuable starting points; 1) how can CLD better integrate crisis response into regular programming, and 2) what does this experience tell us about how to make our work more community led? 

  1. Crisis response and prevention may need to be better integrated into regular programming. As noted, crises – whether from conflict, political instability, natural disaster, disease, etc. – are neither rare nor, in some ways, unique. While the scale and origins will differ, the fact that they will occur and some of their effects on mobility and interaction is fairly predictable. Should crisis preparedness and resiliency therefore be a consistent part of the community planning and development process? And if so, what would that look like if one is thinking of crises generally and not just COVID-19?

For crisis response and prevention to be a more consistent part of CLD programming, it needs to be integrated at multiple levels. At the community level, as one participant pointed out during our call, the most important step towards preparedness may be to simply learn about the existing coping and response mechanisms that communities already have and begin to strengthen them. We do know that many traditional systems had well-established protocols for crisis warnings and response (e.g. we know from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami many of the tribal communities in the Andaman islands in India were able to recognise the signs of a tsunami and quickly enacted their age-old systems of moving inland to safe places).

Other preparedness components may include having a dedicated preparedness and response sub-committee, communications plans in case movement is curtailed or phone service is unavailable, accounting for disaster response resources in community analyses, including preparedness and response trainings for community members, having stores of emergency food supplies to share, etc. It may include accounting for adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) or hygiene equipment such as soap in community planning or prioritization processes, whether through community production with appropriate quality checks, or maintaining reasonable stores of it at the community and organizational level. These supplies, and other preparedness measures, provide both health and psychological support that will help communities be more resilient in the face of crises. 

At the organizational level, preparedness may include having crisis budgets to tide over funding in case of disruptions (Movement member Spark Microgrants is developing these), partner networks to activate during a crisis to share information and resources, processes to check in on staff well-being, better coordination with humanitarian organizations, etc. At the donor level, it may require more flexibility for reporting and allocations in case of a crisis. 

  1. Adapting processes to COVID and future crises may provide an opportunity to make CLD more community-led. COVID-19 has highlighted how much CLD programming depends on parachuting people and materials into communities. Facilitation, training, documentation, monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and more are conducted by outsiders. Some of the aspects within these functions require an external presence to provide checks and balances to existing community dynamics that may lead to exclusion or inequity. But this experience can allow us to think carefully about what roles and functions could and should be transferred to community members.

For example, M&E has historically been a top-down exercise. Even before COVID, M&E practitioners have been thinking deeply about how to make it more bottom up and community led. The limited ability of M&E officers to travel to villages – but the continued need to gather data – means that these questions are now more urgent than ever for the M&E community. What information is really needed? Who needs to collect it and how? How does the community own this information and ‘lend’ it to organizations, rather than having organizations control the data? The Evaluation Working Group of The Movement organized a call in April to begin the conversation on some of these issues but it requires a much more sustained effort. 

COVID may be an opportunity to transfer ownership of more functions and roles to community members – to help processes continue during COVID, to be better prepared for future crises, for stronger general practice, and to help sustain CLD activities after organizations are no longer present. We must consider who would hold these roles/functions, how they would be empowered to carry them out, and the risks.  This will include community animators and facilitators, community development councils, but also, as participants noted, existing formal and informal authorities, such as elders. 

Right now, CLD organizations and communities are responding to immediate needs, and making contingency plans on how to restart regular programming. The next six weeks are critical, but can we also find time – including during potential periods of eased restrictions and lower contagion – to consider and test these broader reflections to make CLD programming stronger and more resilient generally? 

What comes next?

Even as we write this, the normal around us is once again shifting. The tropical cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal (which affects Bangladesh and India every year) is about to begin. Both the countries are planning mass evacuations in response to the supercyclone Amphan that is expected to hit this week. The Philippines has already been hit with its first typhoon of 2020. A tropical storm is forming over the Bahamas. There have been deadly flash floods and landslides in Uganda, Rwanda, western Kenya, and parts of Ethiopia. How do we prepare for the annual or semi-regular floods, droughts, cyclones that are already happening, and will be amplified by the co-incidence of COVID? 

Meanwhile, many countries have already eased restrictions or are preparing to open up in phases over the next few weeks. What would this mean for our programming, our people and us? While this may address some of the access barriers noted earlier, it will bring with it a new set of challenges. How prepared are we to deal with this new, emerging reality and to resume our programming? And what internal metrics should be used to determine whether staff and communities are and feel safe? How do we account for the psychological and ethical barriers to resuming work, even as the legal and health barriers ease? 

These questions are going to occupy a lot of our mindspace over the next few weeks, as we strive to balance the need to resume programming with the need to be ethical, considerate and safe. Yet, these periods of relaxing restrictions and perhaps lower contagion rates can also serve as opportunities for us to prepare for the next wave of the pandemic or shut-downs. This is the time when we can institute some of the ideas for adaptation that have emerged. When we can reach out to our communities and community partners (without jeopardizing our health or theirs) and undertake deep listening exercises to ask them what they would need to feel safe and to resume their work; to understand what adaptations they deem necessary and work out quick and effective ways of carrying out those adaptations; to put in place more effective systems of communication. This is also the time when we can strengthen our alliances and collaborations so that when the next wave of crisis hits, we are better able to lean on one another. 

[1] Note: This reflection paper builds on a global call organized by the Movement for Community Led Development on 21 April 2020 to collectively consider the challenges to CLD programming during COVID-19 and brainstorm solutions. It draws on the brainstorming carried out with nearly 100 participants in breakout groups and on subsequent discussions with Movement partners (click here for further details).  It is the first in a series that seeks to document the challenges that CLD organizations are facing and their quest for effective, community-led solutions in the face of this crisis. As the Movement continues to work with partners to dig deeper into this topic, identify options, and potentially test solutions, this series will seek to reflect on the process and provide impetus for further dialogue, collaborative learning and co-creation.

[2] For a detailed look at the barriers and the ensuing discussion, click here.

[3] Founded in 1984, InterAction is the largest alliance of international NGOs and partners in the United States

[4] We know both from the InterAction database and our own Movement partners that there is a whole additional set of challenges that Covid created for organizations working in humanitarian settings. For examples, relief and refugee camps can be sites of rapid spread of infections; travel restrictions (UNHAS flight suspensions) may pose limitations on rotation of humanitarian staff which may lead to burn out; some colleagues have been stuck in the field and unable to move out before the lockdowns were imposed; transporting PPEs to difficult to access areas like Northern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram operates, remains a challenge.