Improving social protection for low income and informal settlements: reflections from the pandemic

This interview with a research team at Dialogue on Shelter and members of local communities reflects on the effectiveness of social protection schemes in Zimbabwe, the changing relationships with government and what lessons can be drawn from events during the pandemic.

A man wearing a mask bends over a wooden piece of furniture he is making outside.

A man engaging in carpentry work in Tafara informal settlement, which is one of the occupations pursued by men in the settlement. With COVID-19 depriving livelihoods, people relied on social protection programmes (Photo: KYCTV Zimbabwe)

This report describing the impact of COVID-19 on informal settlements was produced by the Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation (ZHPF) and Dialogue on Shelter Trust (DOST).

It forms part of the archive of materials generated with and by communities, reflecting on the social and economic consequences of the pandemic and the implications for future policy, practice and preparations for crisis conditions.

The information was gathered through a group interview undertaken on 29 June 2023 with Sheilah Muganyi, Sheila Magara (both ZHPF), Patience Mudimu, Tarisai Manyowa, Teurai Nyamangara, and George Masimba (all DOST).

Social protection schemes prior to COVID-19

Prior to the pandemic, there were a number of formal social protection schemes operating in Harare. These included:

  • Cash-based transfers provided by central government (Department of Social Welfare (DSW)): these were delivered directly or through NGOs, linked to community-based assessments of need. Payments were directed to individuals recorded on the DSW database. The scheme allocated US$12 per person, dependent on family size
  • Basic Education Assistance Module (PDF): a scheme run by central government to assist vulnerable children, orphans and children with disabilities to access education
  • National Social Security scheme (NSSA): a social welfare programme set up for people that have been formally employed and made contributions to the national scheme. It has limited access for people in informal settlements, as a majority of employment is in the informal sector
  • Vulnerable household agricultural input: central government supports urban agriculture by supplying maize seeds and fertilisers for vulnerable households, which are engaged in small-scale agriculture, and
  • Further programmes of food distribution from government, where maize was given to the elderly and vulnerable, but only for people that had been recorded by DSW as being in need.

Critique of existing social protection arrangements

As informal settlements are not officially recognised by the government, most of the residents in these areas are not included in the DSW database of individuals in need.

Access for people in informal settlements to social protection schemes is therefore very limited, other than through unofficial schemes delivered by NGOs or grassroots groups.

Where programmes were operated by NGOs (and not reliant on the DSW database) there was fairly equal access for people living in informal areas. But the scale of these initiatives was very limited and available to a small proportion of people living in informal settlements.

There are significant issues with the use of the DSW database to target the delivery of formal social protection programmes. These are:

  • Duplication of entries, with individuals obtaining multiple benefits from schemes
  • Poor information flow on social protection programmes and no clear justification why payments or other benefits are made, and
  • Issues of political interference in the operation of the schemes.

Some politicians claim credit for schemes during campaigning or hijack the programmes and target benefits to their supporters.

The DSW programmes operate through community case workers, who act as representatives of the department and gatekeepers for the client database. For NGOs wishing to deliver programmes in informal settlements, their entry point is through the community case workers.

This process ensures that the registered individuals on the database are primary beneficiaries of any new social protection schemes and DSW control any additional entries to the database.

As some residents of informal settlements lack identity documents and a formal address, they are unable to be registered by the DSW. This is a generational problem, where children born cannot have a birth certificate if their parents do not have a birth certificate, creating a vicious cycle of exclusion.

This has particular implications for individuals that are new arrivals to the city and/or are not resident in established low-income areas (such as Mbare). These individuals may lack identification and are resident in settlements that the government considers illegal.

The result is a minority of people in informal settlements are able to be registered and benefit from social protection schemes.

During stakeholder meetings, community members have expressed discontent with the DSW database. Its use results in the same people benefiting and the same people being excluded from social protection schemes. This creates conflict among community members.

Because there is limited coordination between humanitarian NGOs that are working in informal communities, the problems with the DSW lists are repeated where NGOs go through the DSW community case workers and use existing lists of eligible individuals.

Communities identify improving the DSW list, communication processes on social protection schemes and how people are selected, as priority issues.

The scale of social protection overall is far too small to meet the needs of people in informal settlements.

For example, an NGO is currently delivering a project that is distributing cash transfers to 20,000 households nationally, over a period of 18 months. While it is a relatively large-scale project, it has a limited impact on the millions in poverty in Zimbabwe.

Social protection schemes can be irregular or short term depending on the length of the donor funding. The project-based approach to donor-led schemes limited the impact of social protection schemes to address household poverty.

Also, for projects offering cash transfers, such as the $12/month scheme, this may not be $12 cash but voucher cards. Vouchers may have conditions that they can only be used in particular stores that are not near the settlement, or only used for particular goods, with both resulting in a loss of purchasing value. Where United States dollars are used, an exchange to Zimbabwe dollars will mean a loss in purchasing value, given the low official exchange rate.

Informal methods of social protection

In response to COVID-19 and the limited support available from government, ZHPF adapted its existing savings schemes model to provide support to its members during the pandemic.

The savings were, prior to the pandemic, used for education fees and building materials, but during COVID-19 the savings were repurposed to buy food for families and to fund for market gardening and skills training. 

The Urban Poor Fund (Gungano) national scheme was also repurposed to pay for food for members.

ZHPF organised solidarity groups at a settlement level that provided a way for people to organise, without becoming a member of the federation. These helped to extend mobilisation within communities and these groups are now preparing for the next pandemic.

ZHPF members relied on existing burial societies within communities and these were very active during the pandemic. When deaths occurred, the burial funds sustained people up to and during the funerals.

Additional savings schemes included informal ‘merry-go-around’ (rotating savings) schemes, and were vital to supplement reduced livelihood incomes. Communities also relied on the traditional ‘Chema’ (‘grieving’ in English) practice, where friends and relations offer a funeral token contribution to bereaved families to assist with funeral costs.

There were also informal mutual savings, which were used to fund the purchase of food (cooking oils, vegetables and sometimes meat) and also to contribute to funeral costs.

The repurposing of the existing saving schemes was managed on a community-wide basis to create a safety net of support for individuals and families affected by the pandemic. Community members faced problems in paying hospital bills when they fell sick from COVID-19. The federation schemes were used to help people to cover some of these unplanned costs.

During the pandemic ZHPF started to repurpose funds at a community level first and then up to the regional and national level funding – distributing resources to meet needs.

At the local level, some of the savings were completely exhausted and people had to start again with the savings after the lockdown requirements had ended. At the national level (Gungano), not all the funding was used up.

But what ZHPF and DOST found was the pandemic proved the importance of the savings-based model to organise communities and to provide a financial safety net for people that were excluded from formal social protection programmes. There are now more people attracted to the idea of savings as a way of cushioning themselves against future shocks.

The initial responses by city and national government

Government response

At the start of the pandemic, national and city government in Harare set up a unified command centre, which was managed by the civil protection unit. This centre developed the COVID-19 protocols and disseminated information.

But government also initiated a programme of demolitions and evictions in informal settlements, as a way of containing the virus.

 There were extensions to some of the social protection schemes identified above and containment measures that limited the opening of some supermarkets and closed down the informal market areas.

The closure of informal markets significantly impacted on low-income communities, as they were important sources of income generation and employment, and locations for purchasing food and other essentials. 

COVID-19 medical centres, such as the Wilkins Hospital in Harare, were set up where patients with COVID-19 were sent to for treatment or self-isolation. There were also water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) protocols implemented, a requirement to wear face masks and temperature checks.

The government issued daily COVID-19 updates, but most of these were through TV and radio that were not available in informal settlements. Much of the official information did not get to the informal settlements or was in a limited form. The importance of hygiene and handwashing led to an increased drilling of boreholes to improve access to water in informal settlements.

Community response

Dialogue on Trust created communication groups, using WhatsApp, through the federation leaders to improve the distribution of information on COVID-19. Public information was disseminated through local structures within communities (beyond federation members) to raise awareness of the changing rules and requirements to fight COVID-19.

While the use of WhatsApp was effective, misinformation obtained through the internet and other social media was also picked up in communities.

The federation also started to gather data on COVID-19 impact in communities. They gathered information on the spread of the disease and the impact that COVID-19 and the public health regulations was having on informal settlements. The data was used for advocacy, for example being shared with local authorities on the need for boreholes to increase the supply of water for handwashing.

With the informal markets closed, people were unable to sell or buy agricultural products. The federation encouraged people to create gardens next to their shacks to grow food, so they could have greens and also to distribute produce within their communities. The gardens were impacted by inconsistent water supply that resulted in some crops being lost.

The federation and DOST also arranged members to be trained to make soap, detergent and masks during the pandemic. This enabled people to better observe the COVID-19 regulations and provided a source of income through the sale of masks and soap.

The demand for these products diminished after the end of the lockdown, but provided a source of trade during the pandemic.

Lasting effects of the pandemic

Some residents of informal settlements continue to be excluded from health and social protections schemes after the pandemic. Key issues concerning the accuracy and use of the DSW database continue to restrict registration by people that lack identification documents or a permanent address.

The loss of income during the pandemic is continuing to affect communities. There was a loss of business due to the closure of markets and the demolition of property that have been difficult to recover from in the context of continuing low-income levels and slow economic recovery in Zimbabwe.

There have been a number of lasting impacts on young people. With the long closure of schools, there was an increase in the number of young people engaged in drug and substance abuse. There was an increase in early child marriages, teenage pregnancies and commercial sex work, and this has continued after the pandemic.

There have been lasting issues of gender-based violence that was rooted in the additional stress caused by declining incomes and partners isolated in their dwellings unable to work.

There was a reduction in federation membership during the pandemic. This was caused by the demolitions, with people either relocating elsewhere in the city, where they lost contact with the federation; the loss of sources of employment; or people returning to rural areas.

There was a notable difference in impact between people that had land and those that were landless. The former group were able to consolidate their activities (ie craft trades) on their land when other facilities/markets in the city were closed down.

However, the landless had fewer options and were typically displaced within the city when informal settlements were demolished. The landless were unable to afford to rent space when settlements were demolished, meaning both a loss of homes and a loss of sources of income.

In the Zimbabwean culture body viewing is a cultural/traditional norm. When a loved one passes away, the bereaved family believes that body viewing gives them a chance to pay their last respects to their loved ones.

Therefore, when COVID-19 protocols such as the disallowing of body viewings were introduced, most communities were left confused as to why they could not carry on with this tradition. Matters of mistaken identity also worried the communities, with concern they could possibly bury a relative or friend that is not theirs.

Mental health problems are an issue that has increased since the end of lockdown and people are still feeling the wounds of loss and the trauma of the pandemic. When people lost their jobs or were told to stay indoors, this negatively impacted on their mental health.

Changing relationships with government

During the pandemic there was an excessive use of the military personnel by government to enforce COVID-19 restrictions on closure of public spaces and self-isolation. There was also an increase in evictions without court orders.

Communities perceive that the government used COVID-19 as an opportunity to carry out evictions and in the process increased homelessness.

These factors have had a lasting impact on relationships with authority and expectations of government, resulting in a reduction of trust in government: citizens had expected government to provide support, not evictions.

There was also an increase in class discrimination, with the rich seeing people in slums as the greatest risk to contagion, whereas poor people thought that the virus was spread by rich people travelling abroad.

More positively, post-pandemic there has been an increased interest by stakeholders to discuss public health issues that impact on informal settlements. Communities, government and NGOs have come together to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 and the responses during the pandemic.

It has also increased collaboration on data collection with NGOs, to strengthen evidence for advocacy. This has helped to challenge the top-down approach by government to sharing information, as experienced during COVID-19.  

DOST has noted that since the pandemic, government has been more interested in coming up with pro-poor policies. At the city level, the government is now speaking about settlement regularisation.

Even though it may be less than hoped for by communities, it is a positive indication of changing attitudes towards informal settlements. This is also being echoed at a national level through government departments.

DOST has also noted that government is more accepting of the importance of WASH issues for informal settlements. In response to the pandemic, there has been a realisation that improved water and sanitation is a pillar for public health in low-income and informal settlements.

There has been recent interest by the City of Harare in small- and medium-sized enterprise policy. An initiative has been launched that indicates a move towards recognising the informal sector in Harare.

DOST and ZHPF see this as a significant step in the right direction given the treatment of street vendors during the pandemic, where traders were banned from public places and lost their livelihoods.

DOST was cautious that while new policies are positive, implementation is another issue altogether. However, the existence of frameworks gives DOST and the federation something to work with to challenge exclusionary practices.

Lessons from the pandemic

It is important:

  • For government to recognise that organised communities are the first responders when crisis hits. Involving communities in planning and decision making, as a partner, is vital.
  • To break the top-down process and have decentralisation of decision making and resources to the most appropriate level, in order to improve the responsiveness of systems.
  • To establish a disaster management fund that is accessible by communities.
  • To have strong disaster management structures that can be implemented quickly in times of crisis. The experience of COVID-19 was that policy was being made as the crisis was unfolding, giving little space to design the most effective responses.
  • To recognise that cities are not homogenous and there needs to be flexibility in the system to be able to differentiate responses to meet the specific needs of communities. This is essential in the planning to make cities more resilient and prepared for future health, social and climate disasters.
  • To learn the lessons about dissemination of information and the limitations of using media routes to channel public health warnings. Planning needs to take into account the specific needs of low-income communities and methods of disseminating information to the whole community. The lack of effective communication channels led to disinformation and reluctance to take vaccines as well as observance of wider rules during lockdown.

When COVID-19 first hit it was treated as primarily a health issue, but the evidence showed how it affects lives and livelihoods in a variety of ways. The primary impact was through social and economic facets of life.

Future planning should consider the environmental impact of personal protective equipment to have arrangements that dispose of waste materials in an ecologically sensitive way.

The article was compiled by Tarisai Manyowa,Teurai Anna Nyamangara and Shiela Muganyi from Dialogue on Shelter, with the assistance of IIED senior associate Wayne Shand.