What are we seeing so far on Emergent Agency in Covid? Top insights, plus next steps.

November 18, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Spent an intense two hours last week on a webinar discussing the initial findings, hypotheses etc of our Emergent Agency in a Time of Covid project. We had some great panellists (Laurence Cox, Yogesh Ghore, and Katherine Marshall) on social movements, livelihoods and faith organizations, respectively. I cross examined, Irene Guijt chaired, and a good spread of activists and researchers around the world listened in and kept the questions pouring in. Thanks to all of you.

Some purely personal highlights and impressions:

Katherine Marshall drove home just how important faith is to a bunch of things that are moving up the NGO radar: trust, agency, norms, wellbeing (funerals, rituals, the ability to worship – should spiritual support be seen as an essential service? If not, why not?). ‘Our basic argument is that faith belongs at the table’. One example of why that is: ‘without religious engagement the vaccine process will not succeed’.

Laurence Cox gently reminded us of the danger of seeing what we want to see and missing the rest. ‘We circulate stories we like, or that we find meaningful, but are they accurate?’ That is a particular risk when we can only see (and select) a tiny fraction of what is out there. ‘Assume that more is happening than we see, but that what happens is less familiar than we imagine.’

How do we keep our eyes open, rather than see everything as a mirror of our prior opinions about how change happens, what matters in poor communities etc? His (somewhat Delphic) advice? ‘leave space around the margins; active listening; don’t dismiss things because they don’t fit a particular story. Listen more and be sceptical about standard sources.’

As for funders looking for ways to support these movements ‘help people not so much from above, but by putting them in contact within one another. The process of helping people make alliances, find peers and say ‘oh, we’re like that’ is something where a limited amount of money can go a long way.’

Yogesh had some striking updates to his April blog on the grassroots livelihoods response to the pandemic. At that point, he recorded ‘Across the 24 states of India a little over 65,000 rural women, part of around 15,000 self-help groups (SHG), produced over 20 million masks by April 12.’ That number has now risen to 230 million. The creation of new networks or mutual aid groups is proving fundamental for preserving the livelihoods of vulnerable people. How much is that a survival strategy, how much a lasting shift, eg to re-localisation of production, like farmers who set up (using whatsapp) local home delivery for their vegetables?

Reflecting on the overall event, and its implications for the project:

The turnout and level of discussions suggests we are onto something; that emergent agency in the pandemic is a topic worth studying and building a conversation around. Phew!

But I keep coming to Laurence’s challenge on the difficulty of being able to really see the new and unexpected. That is compounded by the challenge of synthesis. The project is designed to hoover up as many examples and stories as possible, and then spot patterns and make sense. We’re keen to crack on with that (the project is only for a year, after all), but if we move to pattern-spotting too early, there’s a risk we will squeeze out the odd and unusual, and see only the usual suspects. How do we guard against that?

One other thought. Listening to the speakers and the discussion, not much struck me as really new, but the benefit of the conversation may lie elsewhere: not so much finding out new stuff, but rediscovering what was always there, but had somehow been lost from our understanding. The diversity and richness of civil society, the importance of faith groups, the levels of local human action and support that long predate the aid sector.

Rather than discovering some major new story, we (by which I mean those of us in formal aid organizations) could end up in some kind of much-needed refresh, broadening our understanding of how change happens at the grassroots to recognize that the world has always been much more diverse and complex than the standard narratives allow. Sounds good to me.

Those are my impressions, but I’d love to hear from others that were on the call – what struck you? What advice do you have for the project?

What happens next? We agreed to kick off a bunch of more focussed and independent ‘cluster’ conversations. On 2nd December, we’ll be launching them on faith groups, social movements, livelihoods responses, children and youth, HIV/AIDS, education and other subjects to be determined (let us know if you want to convene one of them on another topic). Expect a blog reminder beforehand!

And here’s the video of the webinar

November 18, 2020
Duncan Green