The case for localisation amidst COVID-19
COVID-19 has caused massive disruption to large-scale national and international mobilisation. Reduced international travel and the lockdown of stations, ports, borders, transportation and supply lines has disrupted the operations of many INGOs, making it virtually impossible to deploy surge capacities. As a result, many local organisations have been forced to step up and carry out locally coordinated responses to this pandemic.
Start Fund Bangladesh (SFB) has disbursed around 0.55m GBP through 11 SFB member agencies to strengthen COVID-19 responses, covering 4750,000 people in 23 districts. But how has this helped to localise their responses? Were the innovations employed worth the time, effort and challenges faced during their implementation?
The COVID-19 crisis has called for an immediate response, adapted to a unique set of parameters. Its scale, magnitude and intensity required both the SFB mechanism and member agencies to adapt quickly. The virus’ contagiousness put staff safety at risk, slowing down the response of many humanitarian organisations. Furthermore, top-down, medically oriented messages and interventions were limiting the space for civil societies and communities on the frontline. It was therefore important to convey the power of local organisations to tackle the pandemic and to demonstrate a “whole of society approach” that addressed the broader communities in terms of precautionary, preventive measures and the immediate impacts at personal, household and community levels. Did the Start Fund Bangladesh really add value beyond the numbers?
New humanitarians on the block
The initial confusions and apprehensions from local NGOs were understandable — how can we realistically contribute? Do we know what to do? What if we are infected? How do we procure PPE and other precautionary gear? Which masks do we wear and how? Nevertheless, their first attempts were commendable, printing awareness leaflets through their personal budgets and distributing them door to door while wearing raincoats and gumboots. It was initiatives like these that pushed us to consider whether SFB’s role could fill certain gaps and kickstart the tough journey ahead for these organisations.
It was clear that there was a need for rapid decision-making, direct financing and flexibility toward adaptation and innovation. Such challenging times also called for the expertise of the organisations working in various areas of humanitarian response. Thus, we produced Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) to lay out the required procedures for ensuring staff safety, selecting project participants, distributing relief and raising awareness, with renegotiated COVID-sensitive compliances. The SOPs provided members with the necessary combination of operating in an epidemiological/pandemic context, while maintaining international standards and ensuring the safety and security of project participants, volunteers and staff members, even during the implementation of essential non-medical services.
Trusted intermediaries in myth-busting and risk communication
Top-down, medically oriented messaging poses the risk of fostering stigma and triggering treatment avoidance. However, local organisations can position themselves as trusted intermediaries, thereby reducing the chance of distrust, conflict and breakdowns in social cohesion due to disease control measures. For example, in Bangladesh, the nationwide risk communications were mostly media-based and therefore did not reach the distant peripheries, islands and hilly areas. Furthermore, hygiene measures such as handwashing points were all located in mostly peri-urban or urban areas. To tackle this, local NGOs and youth clubs printed leaflets and communicated risks using mikes, bikes, boats and bicycles. Rapid and additional resources enabled them to scale-up their risk communications to cover more areas. COVID-19 awareness messages were also translated into local languages and popular forms: Ashika in Rangamati, CHT translated messages in ten different languages for different ethnic groups; ESDO produced Gombhira, a traditional folk musical form popular in the north-western region of Bangladesh; and SKS in Gaibandha used community radio to reach communities through jingles and interactive discussions.
Non-medical but inevitably essential
With inadequate health facilities at the peripheries, and a lack of resources and knowledge about standard hygiene practices, vulnerable populations are most at risk during this pandemic. That is why local NGO staff members and volunteers are proving to be so effective as frontline service providers for essential, non-medical services. Services by most of the local NGOs are essential for public health and hygiene management, from equipping local healthcare facilities with supplies (like personal protective equipment, oxygen cylinders, and nebulizers) to providing nutrition and hygiene supports (like vitamin supplements, WASH packages, distance circling, handwashing points and disinfecting public spaces). Although not initially regarded as “essential”, the role played by local NGOs to deliver non-medical services has been invaluable.
Locally inspired innovation
Project flexibility has inspired frontline workers to think differently and try out new things. As a result of their interactions with local communities, many staff and volunteers have been coming up with new ideas that started on a piecemeal basis, but gradually matured to more comprehensive, collective efforts like the COVID-19 resilient village model, market value chain for farmers, and the installation of precautionary measures for doctors and patients outside district-level hospitals (with disinfection gates and sample collection booths). This proves that an equitable partnership and flexible approach with local partners in the driver’s seat can support the building up of COVID-19 response from the ground.
Reinforcing collaboration to influence COVID-19 response management
A locally coordinated response at sub-national level and below seems to be the most feasible alternative amidst the lockdown scenario. It was envisaged that local agencies could play an active role in the district-level coordination mechanism by positioning themselves as essential frontline service providers, engaging with the disaster management structures at local levels. The local organisations were in an advantageous position to work as conduits between the local authorities and the most affected vulnerable communities; if united, they could enforce a collective voice for informed, accountable resource utilisation at local level.
For example, the COVID-19 interventions have seen the emergence of three local civil society organisation (CSO) platforms in Barguna, Barishal and Satkhira district. Some have done it specifically to address the pandemic and some want to continue beyond the crisis. All the platforms, with local leadership, are thriving within their respective districts with their very own, albeit similar agendas. Two of the common objectives include: 1) collecting, collating and communicating information to local COVID-19 management committees and 2) supporting the committees to generate a list of the most affected households to reduce the chances of duplication/nepotism and to be followed by government/non-government agencies providing support to affected communities.
What does it all mean?
All of the evidence may well mean that more money, directly channelled to local NGOs can deliver a more localised response. But how much of the COVID-19 money will go directly to these local organisations? COVID-19 is not over yet and the impacts will continue — we need to have a more comprehensive approach rather than a compartmentalised one. Interventions by local NGOs have already blurred the boundaries between relief, public health, and development. So, locally rooted agencies and CSOs, with more resources and capacities, can be instrumental to delivering a more localised response.
The COVID-19 situation has morphed into a humanitarian crisis, which could exacerbate social exclusion, economic inequality, conflict and the forced displacement of people in the future. The business-as-usual model of the humanitarian system will not work — the situation demands more of a Humanitarian-Development-Peace (HDP) Nexus to tackle the changing nature of conflict and crises. If we make space for the participation of wider civil society actors at local levels, there is evidence to suggest that the scarce resources from donors and the private sector could be used more efficiently.