Finding purpose and meaning through
By August 2020, over 750,000 people had died from COVID-19. For the one billion people living in informal settlements and vulnerable communities globally, the expectation is that this number will rapidly increase due to the pandemic and ineffective responses to it throughout Africa, Asia and South America. The United Nations estimates 71 million people will be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, the first rise in global poverty since 1998. “Lost incomes, limited social protection and rising prices mean even those who were previously secure could find themselves at risk of poverty and hunger” (UN DESA, 2020).
Standard responses to crisis typically involve large injections of time and resources from outside agencies. Current first-hand evidence from on the ground partners proves such responses are largely unavailable to address the needs of informal settlements and vulnerable communities. This is due to the disruption of travel restrictions and in-country lockdowns. Importantly, many of these responses do not prepare communities for the next crisis, nor do they deliver self-sufficient and sustainable development pathways.
Communities are battling COVID-19 induced disruption and unprecedented spikes in a range of areas such as low food security, poor mental health, domestic violence, child abuse and job loss. The lessons learned with past pandemics such as Ebola are not being applied. Reports from slum areas indicates that hunger is spreading more furiously throughout the community than the virus. Limited attempts at sending in food and providing water have been disjointed and disrupted.
The disruption demonstrates that the virus itself is not the core devastation, but the longstanding, structural dysfunctions that COVID-19 now highlights. The disruption caused by the pandemic, whilst needing to be addressed urgently, presents an opportunity to address these longer-term issues.
And so the journey began...
The pandemic has shed light on a world where issues of inequality are stark. Now is the time to address the systemic and structural dysfunction that has led to inequality by developing new models of community development. Stakeholders are seeing opportunities to tailor responses for informal settlements that do not rely on the broken (and now disrupted) systems. Examples of the opportunities arising from disruption include:
Capitalising on the keenly felt interdependent nature of informal settlements and workers with the rest of the city and its economy.
Realising vulnerable health systems capacity to deliver the care required during a pandemic.
Developing data models unique to informal settlements that aid in the prediction of the spread of disease.
Acknowledging the digital divide that leaves people in vulnerable communities unable to access online resources and education.
Working with the relationship between rural and urban communities as migrants to cities without work and food flock back to their rural villages.
The fundamental opportunity and new model is to strengthen the assets within communities and use them as a springboard to flatten the COVID-19 curve whilst simultaneously cushioning vulnerable communities for the long term. It is true to say that 100% of informal settlements and vulnerable communities already have strengths that can be utilised to respond to COVID-19. For stakeholders, one of these strengths is seeing communities of faith (churches, Mosques etc) as community development assets.
The story emerging is of faith groups addressing their broader community’s challenges with the resources they already have. Networks of faith communities have sprung into action with food distribution, hygiene education, providing soap and water, making and distributing masks, and supporting people with pastoral care and accompaniment. They have rapidly adapted the services they have long undertaken such as education and rituals for the dead. Technology, posters, t-shirts, radio, and cell phones are all being used in creative ways to bring hope and healing to communities.
Essentially, work is happening on the ground through diverse faith communities who are already in the informal settlements of cities globally. The role that religious groups can play in the age of COVID-19 is acknowledged by global and regional organisations such as UNICEF, UN-HABITAT, UNEP, International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development, and Religions for Peace among many others. In the past, the focus has been on religion-government dialogue more than on action and is not focused on the most vulnerable communities in informal settlements. Consequently, responses to COVID-19 have now been brought into these communities in top-down strategies that ignore the social groups and knowledge that already exists (Corburn, et al. 2020). Communities must be able to speak into their own inquiry process. The complexity and adaptivity of community dynamics within the various cities from across the world makes this essential. The asset-based approach highlights the need for innovation coming from the disruptive opportunity created by the pandemic.
Innovation and Sustainability
Fresh and innovative asset-led responses can now be deployed, to both mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and its subsequent governmental responses, and position informal settlements and vulnerable communities to develop sustainable pathways toward their goals and aspirations. The COVID-19 crisis has potential utility to help deliver flourishing cities and their communities for the long term.
The dynamics of informal settlements have been identified to correlate with the effectual logic model - a rigorous, innovative and credible new approach to development. This model rejects the linear, project management, risk averse styles of the minority world, and embraces the agile, can-do and networked style of informal settlements. As the major drivers of globalization have been exposed as vulnerable by COVID-19, the community-based methods and cultural reserves of social entrepreneurship now have an opportunity to innovate and contribute to the global well-being conversation. For example, the reality of informal settlements as the “commons” points to emergent ideas of reclaiming communal dignity and challenging privatisation processes. In developing this new model through the power of partnership, the impact will occur when it is applied, ongoing, to the one billion people who live in informal settlements around the world.
In conclusion, our research demonstrates that the pandemic response is not helping most people who live in informal megacity settlements, particularly with methods such as lockdowns and curfews or actual neglect (Muggah and Florida, 2020). We propose that it is the mosques, churches, temples and faith-based organizations who are already on the ground and who have been working within these communities that are best placed to respond in an effective, contextual and sustainable manner. UN-HABITAT issues an appeal that supports this measure: “Traditional and religious leaders along with youth and women organizers can effectively mobilize their communities, train volunteers, and lead awareness-raising efforts if given the right resources” (UN Habitat, 2020).