COVID-19: on the front line where crisis meets normal

It is time for the development community to rethink its attitude to risk. COVID-19 shows the need to challenge vertical hierarchies and top-down responses to global crises.

Liz Carlile's picture
Insight by 
Liz Carlile
Liz Carlile is IIED's director of communications
16 April 2020
Two women walking in a slum

The world's poorest communities live and work with risk every day (Photo: Jean Pierre Candelier via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Earlier this week, I talked to IIED board member Sheela Patel, who is locked down in her house in Mumbai. Sheela has worked for many years with grassroots and social movements, supporting their fight for self-empowerment and their right to agency. Over the decades, Sheela has witnessed communities of slum dwellers use their resourcefulness, resilience and innovation to break out of poverty cycles.

In our phone conversation we discussed the practical, immediate realities of these 'virus' times for these communities. They do not have the space to be two metres apart; they do not have enough soap and water for the regular hand washing recommended by health experts. Held in lockdown, they cannot find the daily income they need for food.

And we reflected on what we might learn. For at the heart of it all, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the old demons that, from Sheela’s daily experience, still loom large.

In the Indian Express, economist Amartya Sen commented that overcoming this pandemic is not like fighting a war. A war requires top-down direction and leadership.  A pandemic of this kind, what Sen describes as a “social calamity”, calls for “participatory governance and alert public discussion”.

Those of us working in development know that to find solutions to complex challenges we need to draw on practical, experience-based knowledge from people who are living these challenges in their day-to-day lives. The approach cannot be top down.

But the question is: how do we break down the vertical hierarchies against which decisions are still made, and resources are still delivered?

COVID-19: highlighting unconnected realities

Those dealing with the theory of how to tackle complex challenges are often worlds away from the realities of those struggling to cope with these challenges. Sheela cites a poignant example from her work with Slum Dwellers International (SDI), a network of community-based organisations of the urban poor.

In the COVID-19 lockdown, many assistance providers are seeking to work with SDI, looking to use its vast network of federations to reach out to urban poor communities – so these providers can offer support in, for example, the provision of food supplies.

This assistance following 'best practice' theory, while hugely welcomed and timely, comes across as patronising, ill-informed and frankly unrealistic. Communities receiving this support cannot afford 'best practice' – nothing of their daily reality matches the theory.

Failing to recognise this is a denial of their existence and divides us even further. COVID-19 has crystallised this: what good is health advice that cannot be followed? How would it make you feel anything other than more ignored, more marginalised?

We need a paradigm shift in development. We need a different way of working and communicating, a different way of creating solutions, of investing in ideas that can connect formal governance with informal practices and different realities. These real solutions do not align neatly with best practice and predicted outcomes. We need to be able to live with this if we want real change from development support.

Making room for risk

This is about unpredictability and risk in delivering change. The poorest communities on the front line of any crisis – be that a global pandemic or climate change – live and work by breeching the line between legality and illegality every day, from working illegal jobs to breaking rules to get water and electricity.

Running risks is part of their every day. They do not have the shelter or living arrangements, or the job or food security to follow the rules. The new ‘rules’ of social distancing and self-isolation amplify this. For these groups, going into lockdown would be a luxury.

This pandemic highlights that we in the development sector are completely risk averse. Donors provide support based on certainty of delivery. Projects are designed with outputs and outcomes laid down in advance. To fail is to lose the potential for further support. There is no room for trial and error.

But for the communities where Sheela works, risk is an ever-present reality. Every project is aspirational, every project carries uncertainty. If we really want to reach the poorest communities in a world where the threat of pandemics or dangerous climate change looms, we must decide what level of risk we can take on to allow change to happen.

We need to make room for risk, and room for rules to be broken. We need to give people the space to catalyse the change possible in their own reality.

At the close of our conversation, Sheela reminds me that alongside an acceptance of risk is the importance of trust. Trust that things can work, trust that builds bridges and firm relationships and crosses divides.

She tells me that her time in lockdown has magnified the importance of real relationships and understanding people’s perspectives. And that the greatest driver for change is connecting with people, and building trust.

We are all locked in our different spaces and look at the world from our own reality. We need to remind ourselves that people are living different realities and be careful to recognise that all these realities count. We should trust that people – with the right kind of development investment – can find good solutions and make good decisions themselves to forge a better future.

We are looking forward to working with colleagues such as Sheela to develop a series of upcoming blogs and interviews with community representatives and their experiences of COVID-19 that will explore these different realities in more detail. Watch this space!