• Alex

Organized communities are more resilient to COVID

#CommunitySolutions | With the 2-month mark of the COVID house-quarantine approaching, the alarming news on the lack of access to water, the loss of livelihoods, and the decreasing food accessibility for poorer populations has made us worry about how the communities ADES and UNES work with are coping.

As it turns out, those worries were mostly unfounded. The COVID time has given me another lesson on what “community development” is, and how it helps communities build resilience to manage a crisis independently from what the central government response is.

Our past two COVID articles focused more on the political analysis and human rights implications of the COVID-management in El Salvador (Part 1, Part 2). In this article, we want to focus on some positive news, mainly how the communities ADES works with have reacted to COVID, and what the key elements were for a coordinated response.

Community organization = building local leadership and education

ADES is a community-based organization. As such, all its purpose is geared towards building strong and resilient communities via local leadership and education.

Santa Marta is ADES’ “flagship” community; or rather, ADES was born out of Santa Marta’s Resettlement Committee, one year after the end of the civil war in 1993. Since then, ADES has been involved in many aspects of rebuilding the community infrastructure and committees (i.e. school, health centre, youth groups, women’s groups, micro-finanncing cooperatives, communal land management cooperatives,…). Many of these organizations or committee operate independently today.

Why is this organisational history important for the COVID crisis? Because many of the people employed at ADES come from the community itself, and are active in the different community organizations – either as representatives of ADES, or as individuals living in the community.

As such, it’s almost impossible to distinguish what is ADES’ response, and what is the community’s response – because in most cases, they are the same.

The strategy that ADES/the communities pursued when the COVID lock-down was announced, was to ensure the community structures remain strong and, where necessary work with the government/municipal structures.

Based on an internal analysis by the ADES director, the key elements to building resilient communities are:

  1. a long-term investment in community empowerment, building leadership up from the youth through education programs

  2. building strong and independent community structures

  3. the community radio

So below is a small recap of the things I am aware have helped the response to COVID, many of them in Santa Marta.

1) Community and government/public institutions work together

One key strategy is to ensure the community members and community groups are collaborating with the civil protection unit.

Santa Marta has created various "Community Committee for Civil Protection" and a "Centre for Sanitary Control" where they volunteer to help distribute masks and alcohol gels, disinfect products or cars entering the community, and so on. They do this in collaboration with the Civil Protection Unit. Every community has a government-led Civil Protection Unit which manages the public/government response, funds and aid at the municipal level. It also works with the local health unit, the local police, and the municipal civil protection unit.

This collaboration is facilitated by the fact that Santa Marta has been investing in community leadership for decades and is currently very well represented in the local government.

If you have representation, the probability of your needs being heard and being met are much higher.

The same goes for the contact with the local police: According to the ADES director, there have been no instances with police abuse in the community, because the community leaders are in constant communication with the local police. The police are aware of the community initiatives that are being implemented. In turn, they adapt the government measures in accordance to the local context, instead of rigidly detaining anybody who leaves the house.

2) Strengthen water committees and ensure access to water

As described in a different post, many communities have a communal water distribution system. They have installed their own water reservoirs, pumps and the necessary infrastructure. These communal water systems are often managed by community members themselves, called “Junta de Agua” or water committees, who do the maintenance, water quality control, and accounting (as it is not free), etc.

ADES has a team that supports the Juntas de Agua in their tasks.

The team continues to provide hands on technical support and maintenance, and also promotes a more holistic approach to ensuring water access, such as supporting a healthy environment for clean water.

Thanks to the COVID lockdown, around 30 Juntas de Agua have created a WhatsApp group to communicate amongst eachother and exchange plans and tipps for maintenance or a just water distribution. For ADES, the group has made it easier to hear about and react to issues or needs that arise amongst the Juntas de Agua. While it will most probably not replace the personal contact and visits that ADES does normally, it certainly will continue to make their work easier.

It also seems as though many community are continuing their efforts in ensuring soil quality (better retention and filtration of water) for example through reforestation around the water catchment area, promoting chemical-free agricultural practices, installing rainwater catchment systems, etc. When asked how they are continuing this, the slightly cheeky answer was: "The government doesn't have thaaat much police either to control the movements in every village".

The community of Santa Marta has organized a water distribution plan. They rationed water to ensure that everybody had access (this was still in May/April, before the rain started). They also monitored the water points within the community to ensure the social distancing measures were maintained and equal access to water for all. And – if I understood correctly – they also physically distributed water to some of the households that are not connected.

3) Continue working with farmers and promoting agroecology

Food production is a hot topic at the moment, as the rainy season has started and it’s time for planting.

Subsistence farmers and small-holder farmers generally receive agricultural packages with seeds of Maize or Beans (or one bag each) and one bag of fertilizer from the government in April/May.

However, on 7 May, one of the measures due to COVID was to suspend the distribution of agricultural packages until 22 May (the end of the current quarantine-decree). This might mean that people will miss the window for planting their crops, impacting their entire production. Most subsistence farmers produce their own staple foods and, if possible, buy tomatoes and some vegetables in the market. But with restricted mobility and rising market places, those markets are no longer accessible.

One strategic pillar of ADES is the promotion of #agroecology and food sovereignty. A core element of agroecology is the own production of seeds, fertilizer, and “plant medicine” (pesticides, fungicides, and other methods) on an organic basis; as well as the diversification of production beyond the staple food of beans and maize.

Farmers who practice agroecology are less impacted by the interruption of the distribution of agricultural packages and rising food prices.

This is actually one “positive” which could come out of the COVID-crisis: That farmers that have previously been critical of agroecology might recognize its usefulness for food sovereignty and a healthy diet.

Santa Marta has built a greenhouse and agroecology center in 2003 and has constantly been extending the diversity and quantity of its production. The community has a reasonably strong local vegetable production, although it does not cover the entire community’s needs. In response to COVID, it has increased production, particularly of fast-growing cultures. As mentioned above, the farmers within the community aren’t being kept from their fields, so those that have the inputs, can continue their field preparations and planting.

4) Support health centre

ADES and community members have been volunteering with the community’s health centre and helping where possible. There have been no reported cases of COVID in the community yet, thus many of the measures are more of a preventive nature.

Santa Marta already had a group of volunteers that have received capacitation’s in psycho-social and mental health accompaniment processes, guided by a psychologist. They are supporting the community in dealing with the stress of quarantine, but also attending to cases of domestic violence.

Another challenge that comes with rainy season is “dengue season”. So, in addition to COVID, Santa Marta’s community members have started implementing the campaign for dengue prevention.

5) Transparent and clear communication through Radio Victoria, keeps community mobilization high

All over the world, the COVID crisis has increased the flow of information, and unfortunately also the flow of misinformation.

A look into the radio booth in Victoria, a few kilometres from Santa Marta.

The community radios have an important role to play in verifying information and correcting false information, keeping the community informed of measures that are being taken by the community and the government, and spreading positive messages.

They also provide a balance to the fear-based messages the government has been spreading. Many people don't have internet, and there is hardly any other media accessible currently.

Especially in the COVID-time, journalists are amongst the only people that can travel without restrictions (in theory, not always respected). As such they are key in keeping the communities mobilized and preventing isolation.

6) Within ADES: modest home-office working structure

At a much smaller level, the COVID crisis has also led to an interruption of communication between the ADES team members, mainly for technical reasons: About half of our team members live in communities that only receive a phone signal, and internet, at very few points. This is also the case in Santa Marta. So, one positive consequence of COVID has been that some project funds have been reassigned to install an antenna in Santa Marta to improve connectivity.

Of course, many project activities couldn't be implemented and the plans first needed to be adapted, in negotiations with donors. A different way for paying out salaries had to be found (not everybody has a bank account). In addition, modest home-office working structures have been introduced, amongst them regular online meetings, a sistematisation of information, and a remote file-sharing system. While this is all good to have, a large part of the work remains outside of the “home” or the “office”.

The difference between implementing NGOs and community NGOs

On a personal level, the COVID crisis has definitely taught me a whole lot more about community development – despite being separated from the team. At the beginning, I was wondering why ADES wasn’t doing more. Why weren’t we discussing response strategies within ADES? Why was the team not communicating more? Why weren't we creating direct response projects and reassigning funds (more so than what was done)? WHERE IS OUR REMOTE MANAGEMENT STRATEGY?

But what I’ve come to realize, is that ADES didn’t need a new strategy, it doesn't need to be hyper reactive. ADES/the community’s long-standing strategy of prioritizing organizing and capacity building definitely showed their value during the COVID crisis, as basic needs continue to be met in Santa Marta. Some “home-office” tools might help to systemize the information flow – so that even people like me, sitting far away in San Salvador, understand what’s going on.

But ADES’s primary purpose isn’t to manage projects, it’s to organize communities. And they’ve done most of that work before the crisis, so they didn’t need to go into overdrive during the crisis.

Most pictures and videos were taken from the Facebook Site Comunidad Santa Marta.

It's worth scrolling through it to get an impression of a northern-Salvadoran rural community.

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