Building resilience in informal settlements: community participation in the distribution of state and non-state relief in Harare during the COVID-19 pandemic

Research into how initiatives helped people in three settlements in Harare cope during the COVID-19 pandemic has made 10 recommendations to address the gaps in social protection in Zimbabwe.

Recycled goods are sorted into bulky bags.

Recycling activities in Tafara. Residents of the informal settlement actively engaged in recycling efforts by segregating solid waste and selling it for income during the pandemic (Photo: KYCTV Zimbabwe)

State and non-state relief efforts during disasters are usually carried out under emergency conditions, so there is limited room for communities to effectively participate in social protection initiatives.

This has emerged as the biggest challenge to state and non-state relief efforts. Relief efforts become top-down, leaving out communities, which are typically the first responders to various types of disasters. In rare instances when communities are engaged, those in the marginalised parts of the city such as informal settlements are often excluded.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and amplified inequalities in cities, with informal settlements bearing the biggest burden of the crisis. Locally and globally, governments, NGOs and the private sector have provided relief in these settlements. However, entrenched forms of exclusion in cities in the global South have undermined the capacity of the urban poor to cope with crises.

Lack of meaningful community participation accompanied by inadequate basic services hampers prospects of reducing the impact of the pandemic. To document these social protection issues, an alliance between Dialogue on Shelter Trust and the Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation (the alliance) conducted a research programme using community-led settlement profiles in the three Harare settlements of Tafara, Hopley and Caledonia.

A map of Harare, Zimbabwe showing the location of three research sites: Hopley, in the south west of the city; and Tafara and Caledonia in the east.

Map showing the location of the research sites: Hopley, Tafara and Caledonia (Map: Dialogue on Shelter)

Research findings

The Zimbabwean government, like many others, responded to COVID-19 by implementing lockdowns and restrictions that required people to stay home and close their businesses. However, in many informal settlements in Harare businesses operate on a day-to-day basis, making these measures unfeasible and harmful to people's livelihoods.

To make matters worse, the local authority used the pretext of ‘cleaning up the city’ to curb the spread of COVID-19 to demolish dwellings and evict people, leaving them without jobs or homes.

Fortunately, some of the most meaningful responses to COVID-19 came from individuals in informal settlements who came together through existing networks, such as the Zimbabwe Homeless People's Federation. Communities organised themselves into solidarity groups and set up savings schemes to save money for different purposes, which helped them cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

Some have survived by relying on small projects, such as vegetable gardens, that continued to operate even during the lockdown period.

Low-income settlements such as Hopley, Tafara and Caledonia experience serious challenges in accessing basic services, as they are disconnected from the city’s grid of basic service provision. Many residents indicated that the long-term impact of the pandemic lockdowns on livelihoods meant that even during the post-pandemic period of the research (late 2022 to March 2023), they were still struggling to recover.

Therefore, state and non-state relief efforts would help low-income settlements to respond to and recover from the impacts of COVID-19 if interventions were delivered with meaningful participation of excluded populations, such as slum dwellers.

Community participation could be achieved by utilising community data collection on vulnerability and beneficiary targeting. Our recent research and the alliance’s experience in working in the settlements allow us to present an array of policy options that could enhance institutionalisation and refinement of meaningful engagement of vulnerable groups in post-disasters responses.

Zimbabwe has had various social protection programmes since independence in 1980 but it does not currently have a comprehensive national social protection policy framework. This resulted in serious limitations in the provision of social protection services during the pandemic and in other disaster situations.

Policy responses addressing the current gaps in effective participation of excluded groups would not only harness community resources, such as savings, but also guarantee the sustainability and resilience of targeted communities.

During the pandemic, people had to adapt and explore new avenues of income, such as poultry farming and gardening. These ventures allowed them to sell their products within their communities, eliminating the need for travel to distant markets. To promote their goods, they turned to online trading and informal methods like advertising on WhatsApp. Members of the Zimbabwe Homeless People's Federation who typically saved money for land, repurposed their savings to purchase groceries and sustain themselves during these challenging times.

Civil society organisations worked hard to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by offering relief to those in need. Some of the types of relief that have been provided include buckets and soap, food hampers and cash transfers.

Well-known organisations such as Goal, UNICEF and DanChurchAid have been among those leading these efforts in Zimbabwe. But it's important to note that the relief efforts have been concentrated on informal settlements that are well known, such as Hopley, and have neglected other informal settlements such as Caledonia and Tafara.

In Zimbabwe, social security and social protection are considered fundamental rights according to the Founding Provisions of the Constitution of Zimbabwe – in section 30 of chapter 1. The rights of children, the rights of the elderly, and the rights of persons with disabilities are provided for in sections 81, 82, and 83 of this constitution respectively. The government primarily manages public assistance schemes through the department of social services, but research has shown that these efforts have mostly been covered by civil society organisations.

According to UNICEF, Zimbabwe spends less than 0.4% of its GDP on social protection, which is one of the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, a comprehensive social protection system that includes benefit structures, funding strategies, management techniques and administration systems is necessary to address the gaps in social protection in Zimbabwe.

A row of lettuces in the ground.

A community garden in Tafara. Gardening also serves as a means of livelihood in informal settlements, particularly during and after the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo: KYCTV Zimbabwe)

Considerations and recommendations

Based on the study that we carried out between June 2022 and March 2023 in three informal settlements in Harare – namely, Caledonia, Hopley, and Tafara – we have the following recommendations:

State-led options

1. Prevailing structural issues that need addressing post-pandemic

Since informal settlements in Harare are illegal, all interventions, including those that provide essential services, are evaluated considering their legality. Current regulations prevent improvements to settlements, including basic services such as water and sanitation, unless they are part of approved long-term ‘regularisation’ programmes. To increase the pace and broaden improvement of basic services in informal settlements, policy change is needed to allow short-term community-led slum upgrading to install the basic services needed to cope with pandemic conditions.

2. Social protection policy

In Zimbabwe, the right to social security and social protection is defined generally in the founding provisions of the constitution of Zimbabwe and administered by the department of social services. A social protection policy exists, but it is not comprehensive and there is a huge gap in its implementation. The government must offer a comprehensive social protection policy framework and make sure that it is implemented fully. Meanwhile, there is a need to ensure that the policy addresses challenges encountered by residents living in informal settlements who are often excluded from social protection responses.

3. State recognition of the many community actors that catalyse participation

There is a need to acknowledge the various community actors, beyond those found in formal settlements. State institutions must be aligned in a way that enables them to work well with non-formal groups, typically from informal settlements. This is crucial to ensure that whenever the state promotes community participation it is all-inclusive.

4. State investment in building community structures to facilitate meaningful participation

Establishing strong community mechanisms for effective participation is a very protracted process that requires resources from the state. For example, building long-lasting structures takes time and effort and there has to be commitment from the state to support these community-level processes.

Non-state-led options

5. Deploying community profiles to improve beneficiary targeting

The current social protection process encourages vulnerable people to register with the department of social welfare. The database is then used to target beneficiaries whenever there is need, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the research showed that the database is not transparent, it is not constantly updated as there are no vulnerability assessments that are done regularly by the government.

These flaws resulted in some deserving households being excluded, while some ended up being multiple recipients of social protection benefits during the COVID-19 crisis. Non-state actors such as civil society organisations could support community profiles, participatory mapping and socio-economic needs assessments so as to create real-time data on community needs.

6. Adopting a multi-dimensional approach towards social protection responses

COVID-19 required a multi-dimensional response (ie it is not only a public health issue, but also a social issue). The impacts on informal settlements were mainly on livelihoods rather than health, with the number of deaths due to COVID-19 extremely low in informal settlements. Residents lost their source of income, which was mainly from informal businesses.

Social protection programming should adopt an approach that not only addresses emergency relief, but also structural issues that disadvantage slum communities. The post-emergency period should be followed by developmental interventions that address the underlying issues that result in the exclusion of informal settlements.

Community-led options

Communities are first responders to disasters so there is a need to invest resources directly in them so that they can scale up their interventions. It is crucial to prioritise and scale up locally led adaptation principles for the communities to be more resilient.

7. Mainstreaming young people in social protection responses

Youths play a very key role in strengthening documentation activities, not only around the impacts of the pandemic, but also informing responses through capturing pandemic experiences through a range of media tools. The alliance’s experience demonstrates that young people have contributed during and post-COVID-19 through documentation in their communities and sharing videos and photos on impacts and responses. However, there is a need to train them and strengthen their capacity in documentation.

8. Embracing and supporting community savings groups

Saving groups form the basis of collective action in urban poor communities, especially informal settlements. Groups in informal settlements save for different purposes, such as buying land and building houses. These savings were used as a financial cushion during COVID-19 as they were repurposed to respond to the pandemic. The communities have recognised the need to save for disasters to ensure they are prepared.  

Savings have enabled communities to set up revolving urban poor funds. It is important to manage these loan funds so that they adapt to given situations. Organisations offering social protection services should support savings groups.

9. Utilising community-led data collection processes to inform beneficiary targeting

There are knowledge gaps around beneficiary targeting in informal settlements and needs and priorities in terms of relief provision during emergencies. Community-led data collections increase capacity by filling the knowledge gaps to help shape both emergency and policy responses. There is a need to co-produce data through participatory data collection, which could then be used by both state and non-state organisations to address highlighted gaps in relief provision.

10. Organising community-wide structures

Grassroots organisations need to mobilise and organise at a community-wide level to build a broad-based movement of community members. Arrangements such as savings groups, informal settlement networks (ISNs) and residents’ associations provide useful starting points for organising and mobilising across the entire settlement. This approach is key as it establishes community-wide structures with legitimacy and capacity to include the majority of the residents.

COVID-19 created an extraordinary humanitarian disaster on a worldwide scale, necessitating emergency responses. In the absence of infrastructure connectivity in disadvantaged neighbourhoods such as informal settlements, off-grid alternatives for essential services must be prioritised; this will increase the community's ability to react to pandemics or disasters.

The arrival of COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for more comprehensive and community-led approaches to relief activities. Finally, the response to the pandemic could have been more effective if communities were at the forefront of the relief effort.