Setting high humanitarian standards through community led COVID-19 response
The COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be a crisis for which the world was mostly unprepared, may it be developed, developing or under developed countries. Everyone was hit hard and most affected were the people at the bottom of the pyramid particularly in developing and underdeveloped countries, who were still living below the quality of life which would be acceptable by any international standards. However, this gloomy environment also presented a few stories from among these poor communities that demonstrated high resilience and presented a model of community-led crisis response that met the international humanitarian standards which most of us struggle hard to match. While working with the Mahila Housing Trust (MHT), I had an opportunity to have first-hand experience of such community-led responses.
MHT has been working with urban poor communities across 34 cities in 8 states of India over the past 25 years. These are urban poor communities residing in slums characterised by high population density, inadequate access to water & sanitation facilities, and poor housing infrastructure. With these inherent vulnerabilities, they are at high risk from a pandemic like COVID-19. But these vulnerabilities didn’t stop them from trying their best to fight this unknown invisible enemy – COVID-19. And what helped them to have this confidence was their social capital, manifested as the form of the Community Action Groups (CAGs), which were formed over the past few years mainly to address their community development issues. These CAGs have undergone systematic training delivered by professionals of the Mahila Housing Trust (MHT). What is interesting is to see how promptly and systematically these CAGs responded to this unknown crisis and that too by matching international humanitarian standards. The below given figure represents their response model.
On 24th March, 2020 the Government of India ordered the world’s largest nationwide lockdown as a step to contain the COVID-19 spread, merely giving a few hours for people to be prepared. As the movement of people was restricted and businesses came to a standstill, these CAGs soon realized that the near future is going to be challenging for their communities and they need to act quickly to mitigate its impact to the extent possible.
CAGs, under the guidance of MHT, quickly carried out a needs assessment of their communities in consultation with members of their community. It was a bottom up community led approach wherein they were able to identify their immediate needs and quickly conveyed it to MHT and other stakeholders. Their community led approach ensured that people affected by the crisis receive assistance appropriate to their needs (Core Humanitarian Commitment 1). To address their needs, MHT immediately came into action and designed proposals based on this impartial assessment of needs and risks, particularly focusing on the most vulnerable groups even within this poor community.
MHT leveraged its relationship with existing donors to mobilize resources to address survival needs of these poor communities. While approval of the new proposals was in process, a few donors were very kind to allow the repurposing of existing grants so that resources can be quickly deployed. MHT also deployed its core funds to ensure that people affected by the crisis have access to the humanitarian assistance they need at the right time. (Core Humanitarian Commitment 2). As needs were overwhelming and not in the scope of any single organization to address, MHT forged partnerships with other like-minded agencies with relevant technical expertise and mandate, and advocated for these needs to be addressed.
Once funds were secured, MHT carried out consultation with CAGs using a digital technology platform as movement of staff and volunteers were restricted due to the lockdown. During this consultation it was jointly decided that procurement of relief goods will be made locally preferable from vendors from within those slums or neighbouring areas with the aim to boost local economy (most of the local vendors had lost their business due to lockdown) and more importantly to restrict movement of staff and CAGs members to contain the spread of infection. This decision ensured that people affected by the crisis are not negatively affected and are more prepared, resilient and less at-risk as a result of humanitarian action (Core Humanitarian Commitment 3).
Governments pro-actively responded to this crisis by announcing various schemes and subsidies for the affected communities. As literacy level in urban poor communities is low, it is challenging for them to understand the eligibility criteria and application process to avail this benefit. To address this issue, MHT started educating affected communities regarding various subsidies and schemes declared by central & state governments with the aim to ensure that people affected by crisis know their rights and entitlements, have access to information and participate in decision making (Core Humanitarian Commitment 4).
Relief goods and other services were delivered by CAGs with guidance from the MHT field staff. CAGs were trained by MHT regarding safety precautions to be taken during relief distribution and also to ensure that social distancing is followed by recipients. Reputation of local leaders ensured that required social distancing and safety norms are strictly followed by recipients. To seek feedback from the community and address any complaint, MHT printed a dedicated feedback mobile number on relief kits. Thus, people affected by crisis had a safe & responsive mechanism to handle complaints (Core Humanitarian Commitment 5).
During needs assessment, only MHT recognized that needs were overwhelming and can’t be catered by single agencies. Hence, MHT carried out a detailed assessment to assess what is being provided by governments and other humanitarian organizations, and then designed its relief efforts accordingly to address gaps. This proactive and systematic approach ensured that people affected by the crisis receive coordinated, complementary assistance. (Core Humanitarian Commitment 6).
The COVID-19 crisis has had an unexpected impact on poor urban communities. Moreover, lockdown and social distancing norms compelled MHT to develop new ways of reaching out to its target audience. As the scenario was novel, it was important that we learn from our experience and improve our approach. To facilitate this quick learning and adapting process, MHT established a system of virtual staff meetings. Meetings were organized twice a week and team across 8 states participated. Similarly, meetings were organized by the MHT team with women leaders from within the community. The main agenda was to share experiences to help them continuously learn and improve. As a result of this process, communities and people affected by the crisis received improved assistance as MHT team learned from experience & reflection. (Core Humanitarian Commitment 7)
Such prompt and systematic response to a novel crisis was only possible because of the capacity building efforts put in by MHT during peace time, wherein the Community Based Organizations (CAGs) were trained to map their community, assess their needs, and work in a participatory manner to address the identified needs. Social capital created over the past few years helped communities and people affected by this crisis receive the assistance they require from competent and well managed staff & volunteers. (Core Humanitarian Commitment 8)
The existing relationship between MHT and affected communities clearly emerged as a key success factor for this effective response. As a result of this trustworthy relationship, communities and people affected by the crisis can expect that the organization assisting them are managing resources effectively, efficiently and ethically. (Core Humanitarian Commitment 9)
Though response to this crisis has brought many new learnings, the one that was re-emphasised was that resilience is the function of investment into communities to build their social capital over a period of time. It is the social capital of the poor vulnerable communities that will help us to be more effective both individually and organizationally. As civil society, we are more effective through our communities, with whom we have established strong trusted bonds.
Author: Siraz Hirani