What kinds of ‘Agency’ are emerging as grassroots organizations respond to Covid?

February 18, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Six months in, the ‘Emerging Agency in a time of Covid’ project is coming along nicely, and starting to generate some interesting insights. We recently spent 90 minutes on a call with the ‘cluster convenors’ – people who have offered to host discussions with groups of people around the world on particular issues (faith organizations, social movements, women’s rights, peace-building etc – it’s a growing list). They’ve mostly had 2 or 3 online discussions so far and we asked six of them to share some initial thoughts, with the other half meeting next week. 

Process: I was surprised by the large numbers some clusters are getting – 20 or 30 people showing up to some, with those with smaller numbers diving deeper. Some feel a real buzz from ‘‘Engaging with new people and organizations, all grappling with Covid and what we can salvage from the pandemic.’  

But on-the-ground activists aren’t joining the calls, which tend to involve INGOs and academics. They may be just too busy, or don’t see the value of a meta-discussion about their work on Zoom (baffling, I know). In the faith organization group, we’ve switched to a ‘hub and spoke’ approach where members (mostly academics) commit to interviewing activists and feeding in their thoughts. Zoom fatigue means some groups are switching to Google Docs, Miro or other share sites to share examples/sense-make in their own time. 

Emergent or just becoming more visible (to us)There’s an important assumption behind the title of the project – ‘emergent’ requires an observer, who declares that something has then ‘emerged’. But it may well be that the pandemic has merely brought things that were happening anyway into the (our) light.  

That particularly applies to the world of social organization beyond formalized Civil Society Organizations – spontaneous protests, cultural groups, all those forms of people coming together that don’t involve agendas or minutes (or Zoom). We came up with this rough pic – the pandemic is leading us to look more at the outer blob of ‘informal forms of community response’, whereas business as usual often concentrates on the smaller group of formalized CSOs in the middle. That outer ring has internal structure of course – different kinds of groups such as member-based organizations, private sector, spontaneous/episodic self-help groups, identity-based groups etc. 

Formalised CSOs within informal forms of organised response

Tactics and Strategies: Understandably, lots of organizations have pivoted to basic needs – helping people with food and shelter, rather than, say, advocacy for topics further up Maslow’s hierarchy (see below). Only time will tell whether that boosts their public and political standing (Carnegie) or waters down their politics and turns them into ‘service delivery’ organizations. 

The HIV/AIDS cluster also detect a switch to ‘the self’ – greater autonomy through self-testing, home deliveries and self-administration of drugs. These had long been a demand of activist organizations, but have now been  accepted by some governments and shown to work rather well. They hope this will outlast the pandemic. 

The shift to digital organizing is both obvious, and profound, with longer term implications that we need to think about and look out for. The Peace-Building cluster said that in its world ‘We had always presumed resolving conflict had to be face-to-face. But a lot of organizations have embraced new online approaches, with spaces evolving online to become more inclusive, eg via Facebook.’  

There’s a danger of elite capture in all this, e.g. who controls the panels and processes of an online consultation, who remains excluded from the digital world. But that is no different from power disparities in the analogue world, and organizations can try and counter it, eg via radio phone-in programmes. Power dynamics can go both ways in the shift online. 

Another aspect of the shift to online organizing is that youth are coming to the fore, both because they are digital natives, and because they are less affected by the disease itself and are at the heart of many of the mutual aid initiatives. 

Of course, there are also downsides – lots of concerns about how growing online abuse is causing harm and promoting violence, and many attempts to counter online disinformation. 

Social Contract: The pandemic is clearly affecting the relationship between civil society and the state. In some cases, it has been conflictual – faith organizations fighting to defend the right to worship against government-decreed lockdowns. Elsewhere it has been more positive – some states have been relying on CSOs to gather the population data they need to respond to the pandemic (food and cash distribution, vaccination programmes etc). 

Social Protection: shocks like the 2008 global financial crisis (which to be honest seems like a bit less of a crisis these days…) demonstrated the value of social protection programmes – having a pre-existing system to distribute food or cash makes it much easier to scale up support in an emergency, whereas trying to set up something from scratch in the middle of a pandemic is always likely to flounder (Test and Trace in the UK, anyone?). This time around, that seems to be true at both state and civil society level. CSOs with pre-existing distribution networks have found it much easier to scale up in the crisis. 

Trust as the Currency of Responsea lot has been written about how Covid has zeroed in on pre-existing inequalities of all kinds, exposing and exacerbating them. But the response has also highlighted the role of pre-existing bonds of trust, which have proved absolutely invaluable. One of my favourite examples so far (from the faith cluster). In El Salvador, the evangelical churches negotiated with the maras (gangs) to get access to the poorest barrios to distribute food and help. That’s because many of the gang members had parents in the evangelical churches. By contrast, the Catholic Church negotiates directly with national authorities – that’s where their bonds of trust lie. 

Other favourite story from the faith cluster? The invention of socially-distanced baptism practices – aka using a hose. Now that’s what I call innovation.  

February 18, 2021
Duncan Green