Using the Flexibility of Civil Society to overcome COVID-19

Civil society organizations often maintain close contacts with vulnerable populations. Photo: ADB.
Civil society organizations often maintain close contacts with vulnerable populations. Photo: ADB.

By Lainie Thomas, Lauren Whitehead

The local knowledge and adaptability of civil society organizations are proving valuable during the ongoing pandemic.

Adapting quickly and effectively to COVID-19 is challenging countries throughout Asia and the Pacific. Civil society groups have shown they are particularly valuable in the ongoing effort. Many have demonstrated their abilities to respond to the changing needs of the poorest and most vulnerable while maintaining the rigor of their development approach.

It is important to cooperate with civil society organizations for a range of reasons, including to tap their local knowledge, to build on their expertise, and to gain different perspectives to address these challenges. In addition, these organizations often have the ability to adapt to dynamic situations and to understand local needs. These qualities are proving particularly valuable during the pandemic.

We are seeing this firsthand in the Philippines with the use of the Graduation Approach, first developed in Bangladesh in the early 2000s by the organization BRAC. The approach provides assistance in stages via a variety of different methods. To respond to COVID-19, rapid adaptation was key. Within days of the general quarantine, households received SMS messages reiterating government health advisory warnings. Within weeks, messages were accompanied by a flurry of remote check-ins by coaches who serve as mentors and resources assigned to each household.

Messages were crisp and clear, with calls used to counter misinformation, amplify life-saving advice, and capture real-time analysis of the effects of the lockdown. Serious challenges-- not receiving emergency cash grants or quarantine zoning restricting access to health services-- were promptly elevated to government officials. Due to an adaptive response, though 50% of households in the program experienced economic setbacks, 91% accurately understood the health measures to protect themselves and 93% kept food on the table using emergency cash and savings.

The speed of a response can mean the difference between surviving an unprecedented calamity and children going to bed hungry. Another example is the Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative at BRAC uses processes that are not static, but enable adaptive, reflective, and reflexive responses to crises.

For example, digital monitoring before the pandemic enabled a quick review of data to identify the most vulnerable households to target. Families with livestock in rural areas, for example, have fared better than their urban and peri-urban peers who are dependent on foot traffic for sales and live in more compact and crowded surroundings. First response therefore went to urban and peri urban households.

The program was also able to quickly transition to a no-touch yet high-interaction digital outreach as families were used to frequent contact with their coach. This information set the foundation for a rapid diagnostic survey to confirm the worst hit households, unseen traumas such as domestic violence, and priority needs such as additional training in debt management to reverse new debts and livelihoods diversification to adjust to shifting market opportunities.

The speed of a response can mean the difference between surviving an unprecedented calamity and children going to bed hungry.

There are other examples as well. In Bangladesh, we are seeing civil society organizations who adjusted their plans before the pandemic arrived. Changes to the Graduation Approach include revising the content of the planned family development sessions to addressing COVID-19 risks and adding information campaigns about COVID-19 to the communities where they work. They also link poor families to new resources from government officials on confronting the pandemic.

In India, we are seeing civil society organizations who are planning to implement the Graduation Approach already adjusting their model, such as identifying opportunities for livelihoods in post-pandemic economies. Instead of assuming that old jobs will return, civil society organizations are exploring what new options participating households may want to explore to boost their incomes. 

Civil society organizations are often known for developing highly adaptive programs that respond to changing crises. Achieving this requires:

  1. Investment in government ownership and collaboration not only at national level, but also at provincial, municipal, and community levels closest to the people in need. In this instance, 76% of program households in the Philippines received food or resources directly from local community councils who also dispatched community health workers and social workers.
  2. Commitment to a culture of learning and iteration. Measure success by responsiveness and impact rather than static performance targets that do not reflect the situation at hand. Mechanisms like digital monitoring and staff feedback loops were in place well before the crisis struck, with adherence to a randomized controlled trial led by civil society partner Innovations for Poverty Action.
  3. Recognition that reassessment does not equate to failure because a program is only as good as its impact. In a changing context, the program must act flexibly to respond to the new situation. Knowing this prompted thorough analysis of the program design moments into the crisis, yielding revised recommendations to help households grapple with the dire consequences of pandemic, social isolation, and economic shock combined.

Collaboration and learning have always been critically important in successful poverty alleviation, and the pandemic is amplifying the needs for highly adaptive approaches that incorporate both. Civil society organizations have always been an important part of development work, but their local knowledge and adaptability have proven particularly valuable during the ongoing pandemic.