Sharp increases in the cost of living – especially rises in food and energy prices – are happening across the world, pushing many into poverty and hitting the poorest the hardest. In times of crisis, communities often come together to aid and support each other, and there is a growing recognition of the importance of community-led approaches as a vital component of crisis response. Whilst the critical role and responsibility of governments to support their citizens through the cost of living crisis cannot be overstated, people are increasingly turning towards their communities for mutual aid and help in coping with the crisis.
The Covid-19 pandemic sparked a new focus on community-led innovations, as grass-roots level responses across the world were able to organise and respond quickly and effectively, often helping those most in need that more formal processes struggled to reach. This was the focus of the latest Covid Collective helpdesk report which explores examples of community-led innovations and actions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic across a variety of countries.
“Community-led” can take on a variety of meanings, but approaches are broadly seen as being bottom-up and driven by the community themselves, who hold the power and resources, make key decisions and own the process. Although community-led approaches are in their very nature context-specific, there are a number of common features and lessons that seem to recur across the examples.
Community-led Innovations and Actions in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic
Work locally and with communities in crisis response
Communities have their own ways of innovating. These are usually practical, immediate responses to crisis which are culturally appropriate and more likely to be impactful and sustainable. For example, residents in Mathare, a collection of informal settlement in Nairobi, typically trusted community organisations more than the government, with community health volunteers (CHVs) seen as especially effective during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. They played a pivotal role in public awareness raising of the reality of Covid-19, encouraging vaccines uptake, and providing health referrals.
Cooperation, informality and spontaneity were key in the success of community-led initiatives
The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated how collective action and grassroots-level networks were able to mobilise quickly, flexibly and effectively, often more rapidly than formal government-led mechanisms. The informality and spontaneity of community-led initiatives was a key factor behind their success and their ability to reach people. Initiatives employed a variety of traditional and new methods of organising, local knowledge, and shared local resources. Cooperation among volunteers, community-based organisations and authorities and an emphasis on collective action and collective solutions were also significant elements in efforts.
For example, a movement of over 170 self-organising, neighbourhood-level Community action networks (CANs) formed rapidly over 2 months from March 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. They contributed significantly to the community-led response to Covid-19, setting up Covid-safe community kitchens and food distribution schemes, mask-making groups, access to water, and community care centres. Key features of the network included: emphasising and building interpersonal connections and trust; having an informal, adaptable structure; and collaborating with existing structures (including government) while resisting co-option.
The key role of women and youths at the forefront of community-led initiatives
The important role of women and youths in many of the examples stands out. In Mathare, street art and videos by a local youth group were geared towards both entertaining and educating the masses about Covid-19 and countering misinformation (Kimari et al., 2022). The murals were inspired by similar work in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak.
Women’s rights organisations and women in particular were consistently at the forefront of Covid-19 volunteer efforts and mutual aid. They are uniquely positioned to act as first responders during times of crisis – with their ability to adapt quickly, their deep contextual knowledge of local needs, and their grassroots connections and relationships. However, the significance of women’s roles in community-led responses is often overlooked.
Significant strength comes from pre-existing groups and networks
Although new groups and collaborations emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic, the majority had a long history of investment in social structures, capacities, organisation and relationships before the pandemic. A key feature in many of the examples was the utilisation of existing formal and informal community networks and building on the strength of pre-existing groups (women, youth, and neighbourhood), which were able to leverage established trust, presence, access, and contextual knowledge to act quickly and pivot to deal with the threats from Covid-19. In the Philippines, community-led responses built on the Homeless People’s Federation Philippines Inc (HPFPI), a national network of urban poor communities established in 1995 and active in 20 cities.
This also demonstrates the key role of past shared experiences and existing social capital in emergency response – many communities already had experience of coming together in difficult times before Covid-19. For example, mutual aid in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (oPt) in response to Covid-19 built on existing self-help groups and utilised traditional solidarity systems and coping strategies that have been forged over time.
Need for investment in and recognition of the value of strong communities
Experiences from the Covid-19 response demonstrate that resilient, confident and capable communities are the foundation on which swift and effective local responses to future crises will be built. Key to this is appreciating the variety of communities within a place and the diversity of perspectives that typically exists within communities. Flexible funding in particular is also important to support efforts.