The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a renewed focus on the role of local actors and local knowledge in responding to crisis. With planes grounded and movement within countries limited to prevent spread of the disease, external actors that might normally have travelled to local communities were limited to video calls at best. While these disruptions to the ‘normal’ way of doing things have led to adaptions of research and support by distance, they also beg the question of what local communities can and should be leading themselves.
People have stepped up around the world to support those around them through the Covid-19 crisis. What can we learn from this uncontrolled experiment of local response? This is the question at the core of the latest Covid Collective helpdesk report which explores approaches to participation in humanitarian response and evidence on the contributions of community engagement in effective response and recovery efforts.
The importance of local participation
The critical role of local participation in responding to – and recovering from – crisis is widely understood and well evidenced. Local participation can contribute to more effective information sharing, can mobilise local “life and livelihoods saving networks in the area”, and promote community empowerment, resilience, and trust. Not to mention that local participation is valuable in its own right, ensuring that individuals and communities are empowered to make decisions about their own needs, and how and what they want to rebuild. Yet agencies supporting communities often struggle to integrate participation in their operations. A 2008 review of local participation in humanitarian activities found limited integration of local participation in humanitarian activities beyond initial consultation in the project design phase and as in-kind labour in project delivery.
A number of decolonial, post-colonial and post-development scholars have initiated conversations on the epistemological foundations upon which Covid-19 response and recovery, and development more broadly, will be built (see Kwok, 2020; Leach et al., 2020; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2021; Rutazibwa, 2020, Vazquez quoted in Rutazibwa, 2020; Westboy & Harris, 2020). Rutazibwa argues that failures in international coordination and lack of support to lower-income countries have highlighted colonial legacies in unequal resource capacities and global solidarity. She also comments that “individual and local community initiatives painfully and sharply highlight where our structures and national and global systems of governance murderously fall short”. Many are now asking whether these revealed inadequacies may open the space for a reimagination of agency and power in the conceptualisation and realisation of development.
It’s still too early to know whether the rupture of Covid-19 has opened this space and to know how the space will ultimately be filled. We can however look to examples of increased participation and shifting of power towards local communities over the last year to learn how to do things differently.
Inclusive policy responses
An ongoing research project supported by the Covid Collective titled ‘Voices from the Margins and Inclusive Policy Responses to COVID-19 Pandemic’ led by the Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University, is seeking to put knowledge and understanding of marginalised groups at its centre. The research aims to create an information data-loop informed by the needs, aspirations and perceptions of communities at the margins of power to influence public policies and state responses on COVID-19 relief, recovery and resilience. The project is generating data from a representative panel survey on incidences and intersectionality of vulnerabilities resulting from the pandemic along economic, gender, locational, ethnic/religious and disability dimensions. The panel survey is exploring respondents’ access to information and services, agency to be heard and to be consulted in decisions that matter to their lives and livelihoods.
To ensure that the participation of locals is central to this project, formative research with affected communities was carried out to identify critical variables for the survey instruments and to ensure that the research approach was directly informed by communities themselves. During survey implementation, individuals from indigenous communities were capacitated through training and engaged in the field work. This helped to remove language and cultural barriers to implementing the survey while also building trust. The project also designed a unique data analysis mechanism called a ‘Policy Clinic’ where members from networks and coalitions representing marginalised communities directly analyse the data alongside policy makers, civil society members and social development thinkers. Through their analysis and dialogue, consensus emerges on prioritising policy responses.
A peer-researcher approach
A second project led by Covid Collective members at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) adopted a ‘peer-researcher’ approach to conduct a process evaluation of BRAC’s pilot handwashing station (HWS) installation. Travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic meant that the research team needed to find an alternative way to collect community-level data on sanitation in sampled communities. The team opted to recruit peer-researchers from within sampled communities who had lived experience of using handwashing stations. The peer research approach was adopted as a method in which people with lived experience of the issues being studied take part in directing and conducting the research. The approach aims to move away from the ‘extractive’ model of social research and to empower people to affect positive change by participating in research on their own communities.
Eight peer researchers were trained to conduct conventional anthropological tools including in-depth interviews, key informant interviews and focus group discussions. They were also trained to systematically observe the functional landscape of hand washing stations in their communities and were asked to collect visual data (e.g. videos, photographs and live video calls) to understand the context of the HWS intervention and the existing barriers in compliance in people’s daily lives. The full research team held daily debriefing sessions using Google meet to discuss findings from the fieldwork and visual content was shared regularly through WhatsApp. Daily debriefing sessions were based on themes and sub-themes emerging from the findings from daily field work and visual observations and the final analysis included a blending of field data, ‘visual observations’, peer-researchers’ observation and reflection and different level of discussion among researchers.