Community World Service Asia - Lessons in Accountability Towards Affected Communities During COVID-19
By Shama Mall, Community World Service Asia, Pakistan
At the onset of COVID-19, guidance put forth by Sphere and the CHS Alliance reminded us about the importance of ensuring human dignity, rights of affected people, as well as principled and people-centered approaches in our response and adaptation to COVID-191. There are many lessons to be learnt from experiences of organisations during COVID-19 in this respect.
Localised approaches and ownership are crucial in shaping the degree of access, inclusion and relevance of assistance. Some of the operational challenges of COVID-19 could not have been addressed without the engagement of local and community level structures (village groups, steering committees, community leadership, local govt. Line departments, etc.). Their involvement in decision making processes and implementation is helping to ensure assistance is relevant to the needs of and access to some of the most vulnerable groups – such as people with disabilities, women, children, the elderly and minorities.
Supporting local capacity and engaging community structures, including trust-building is essential to accountability and must be a long-term approach, not only during a pandemic. Organisations that have invested in such processes over the past many years are relying on such structures and continue programming to meet the needs of affected communities. There needs to be a more consistent effort to strengthen and scale up localised approaches and make such processes more meaningful.
Community level capacity must be strengthened to hold each other to account in order to avoid conflict of interest and exploitation of any kind. Remote management has resulted in an increased level of responsibilities and reliance placed upon the community level structures, without necessarily involving a due process or factoring in power-imbalances within such structures. It has increased prospects of individual interests taking precedence and even financial exploitation of affected communities by some individuals in community structures, causing negative consequences. Besides discourse on such issues with community level structures, organisations must support affected communities with strong remote monitoring, verification and complaints processes to ensure that they are not misled in any way, especially when assistance is in the form of any resource transfer.
The risks organisations perceive for affected communities and those communities perceive for themselves vary, so the engagement process must include sufficient dialogue to develop mutual understanding. For affected communities, risks are often defined by context, needs and day to day challenges. For instance, the health implications of COVID-19 for many are relatively insignificant compared to loss of livelihoods, providing for their families or meeting other immediate/long-term healthcare needs. This is affecting social and behavioral changes to limit the spread. Community engagement needs to involve listening to as well as addressing the concerns and on-going needs of communities, whilst supporting them in making informed choices and decisions in risk mitigation. Local organisations and community level structures are best positioned to achieve this.
COVID-19 has exposed the in-ward looking bureaucratic systems of funding partners/Governments. Some local organisations are left in a difficult position owing to immediate suspension of on-going projects by funding partners re-directing funds for their own needs. This is depriving local communities of life-saving services at a time when they need it most. Such action undermines the principles of partnership – by putting own needs before the needs of affected people without due consultation or a dignified exit process.
Though some funding partners are demonstrating flexibility by allowing their partners to adapt existing projects or use reserved funds to meet the needs of people affected by COVID-19.
The current operating context is going to be the new normal, experts predicting more global pandemics, increasing in size and impact. The humanitarian and development sector must take concrete actions based on the learnings of COVID-19 and scale up people-centred and localised approaches to be truly accountable to those most affected.