Trust, Politics, Exhaustion and Anger: findings on Emergent Agency in a time of Covid

April 6, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

The Emerging Agency in a Time of Covid project is buzzing along nicely. Today (12.30pm, London time, 6th April) Niranjan Nampoothiri will summarize his findings from sorting, summarizing and coding the 200 cases for the project database. Register here. Headline findings here.

We had a stocktake webinar recently looking for common patterns from a burgeoning set of discussion groups on everything from peace building to HIV/AIDs to children/youth and beyond. That poses a bit of a problem in blogging terms. Conference write-ups that try to do justice to every input can be unreadable, so I’m not even going to try. Just some personal takeaways:

The Social Contract: the pandemic is acting like a political pressure cooker, pushing the relationship between citizens and states in different directions. For people living with HIV/AIDs, the contract already looked pretty broken before C-19. Civil society organizations working in this area have had to shift to meeting basic needs – food, shelter, access to treatment, plus mental health. Sometimes they are doing this in collaboration with governments, sometimes despite them.

Emergent Agency

In conflict-affected places the state is often absent/predatory, and community groups are used to being the first responders. C-19 has reinforced that role. That may have bestowed on them a degree of additional power and authority – faith organizations, customary structures, women’s rights organizations etc hold the relationships of trust with communities that authorities need to get access. Eg in Tajikistan, the government’s belated response distributed PPE and food based on access via CSOs. For peace-building organizations, that has involved being flushed out into the public eye, when previously they often preferred to work below the radar. How will they renegotiate their roles post C-19?

Could it be that C-19 will act as a ‘common enemy’, building trust between citizens, CSOs and states that will outlast the pandemic?

And a further, mildly heretical thought. Many CSOs over the past decades have shifted away from service delivery towards holding governments to account for providing these services. The pandemic has triggered a shift ‘back’. Carnegie Endowment argues that has actually increased their legitimacy with local populations. Is that true, and if so, what happens next – could we have seen the high water mark of the ‘advocacy before service delivery’ model?

Trust is what matters during the pandemic, in terms of public legitimacy and the ability to persuade people to do the right thing, eg on vaccination or self-isolation. E.g. this from a Kenyan widows’ organization:

‘Widows are giving ‘light and hope’ to communities – they have become the pillar, the place where people go for help. We are the ones holding society together. Grassroots women leaders are stepping up, giving care, offering support, organizing microfinance, meeting in their houses, sending food to the cities, to their families.’

Shifts in who/what people trust, and the map of trust between different actors (eg CSOs, faith organizations and the state) will shape what changes we can expect in the post-pandemic landscape. How well do we understand trust? Not very, I would say. Can we move from trust being a hand-waving word (like ‘culture’ or ‘transformative’) to something that is more specific and even (gasp) measurable?

Fear and trust

But hold on, everyone’s knackered. As Irene Guijt, who chaired the webinar, put it ‘we’ve moved from activism tourism to concern over burnout and exhaustion.’ It’s all very well grassroots organizations stepping into the breach for a few weeks, but after a year of running on commitment alone, a lot of people are in a bad way.

Which brings us to the issue of whether the aid system has stepped up to the challenges of the pandemic. The emerging view from this group of conversations is ‘not really’. The discussion portrayed aid institutions and mechanisms as inflexible, slow and unable to adapt to fast-moving contexts. Will C-19 be a tipping point in the decline of aid’s relevance in many places?

Take the issue of funding, for example. Pandemic response requires fast, flexible funding – not usually the aid system’s forte. Instead, more of the funding for grassroots/non state actors has come from local sources (for example zakat, or contributions from middle classes or Diasporas). Could this accelerate the shift to domestic funding sources for activism, perhaps backed by smaller pots of more agile, localized aid (Religions for Peace might be one example)?

But both non-aid and aid sources of funding seem to be focussing on the short-term, especially providing food and healthcare, whereas the research is showing lots of activity in other areas such as access to justice, research, or mental health, that are being starved of cash.

‘INGOs all want to understand what is happening at the grassroots, but they don’t want to resource it. A year into C-19, our partners are keen on mining data without paying. They have reverted to old bureaucratic ways – mistrust and milking knowledge.’ Not much sign of power-shifting or localization there.

Protest movements show a complex picture.  A lot of innovation, eg on labour organizing. Together with a general closure of public space (C-19 gives repressive states a perfect excuse to ban just about everything), there have been some extraordinary outbreaks of public resistance – in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Indian farmers, BLM, or the Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar. Why the disparity and what role has C-19 played (or is it just coincidence/ correlation v causation)?

Finally, the issue of sustainability/durability is now emerging. What will endure out of all these changes, the shifts in relative power, the new actors, roles or tactics? That is likely to be a growing focus of the remaining 5 months of the project.

These are just a few headline impressions from a research project that is really bearing fruit as a new, less hierarchical way to understand a fast-moving and multi-faceted process of change. Looking forward to the next few months.

And here’s the recording of the full 90m discussion

April 6, 2021
Duncan Green