New narratives for a ‘new normal’

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This post originally featured on the IIED blog. 

By Sheela Patel and Suranjana Gupta

Sheela Patel and Suranjana Gupta report that women at the grassroots are generating practical responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Their effectiveness in this crisis highlights the importance of including grassroots women in climate change planning.

Megan Rowling of the Thomson Reuters Foundation deserves at least half the credit for this piece. In a recent webinar on how grassroots groups are responding to the coronavirus, she called us out for using the ‘same old tired narratives’ presenting women as either ‘vulnerable’ or as ‘active agents’, leading us to reflect on why we use this language and to unpack some of the ideas behind these words.

Having worked with many grassroots women’s groups hit by major disasters, the Huairou Commission has seen repeatedly how organised grassroots women have dealt with disasters to get communities back on their feet. For instance:

  • In the most remote parts of Honduras, where no assistance reached communities for days after Hurricane Mitch, indigenous women fed their families bread made of an indigenous root that survived the floodwaters. The same group went on to create seed banks to revive indigenous crops and agricultural tool banks to restore farming.
  • In Turkey, earthquake-hit women monitored relief distribution and negotiated to improve sanitation and food in relief camps. They went on to organise women’s cooperatives that now run a country-wide network of women and children’s centres.
  • In India, grassroots women in earthquake-affected areas became communication assistants to the government, going door-to-door disseminating information on the housing reconstruction programme, and reported back to government on implementation problems.
  • In the Philippines, grassroots groups hit by Typhoon Haiyan initially monitored relief distribution in partnership with the national government and later created housing tool banks jointly managed with local government.

For nearly two decades now, Huairou Commission has supported hundreds of grassroots leaders from many countries – including Honduras, Jamaica, Turkey, India, Uganda, Zambia, Indonesia and Philippines – to travel within and outside their countries sharing practices, mentoring and advising their peers on reducing impacts of disaster and climate change.

What’s more, such exchanges have attracted the attention of local and national government agencies, getting them to recognise and legitimise grassroots women’s organisations.

At policy forums (particularly those focused on reducing disaster impacts), despite leadership roles played by grassroots women, they were conspicuously absent and persistently described as a ‘vulnerable group’, alongside children, the elderly and the disabled.

Paradoxically, women are caregivers to the other three groups. Like women, each of the other three groups offers valuable insights to address crises.

Despite the problems with bundling the four groups together, it has helped humanitarian efforts to considerably step up their responses to the special needs of these groups. But their narratives around vulnerability and responses to them essentially remain short term. They rarely examine the processes that impoverish and weaken the capacities of communities to withstand the onslaught of disasters in the first place. And the predominant narrative remains one in which women are cast as a vulnerable group, placing grassroots women-led scalable solutions in policymakers’ blind spot.

Promoting networks, partnerships and recognition

Social movements like the Huairou Commission, Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and WIEGO have consistently challenged this perspective. Years of investment in grassroots women’s movements have steadily built on grassroots initiatives – refining their practices, scaling them up through peer exchanges and government engagements – persuading governments to listen, learn and partner with grassroots organisations.

Can the COVID-19 crisis be an opportunity to mainstream such partnerships? Can the new normal we envisage turn grassroots-government partnerships into the ‘rule’ rather than the exception to it?

Grassroots movements play a critical role in collectivising grassroots groups through peer exchanges. Exchanges allow grassroots women to share practical knowledge, tell stories and build solidarity and even demonstrate how their leadership is recognised by local government.

This process of aggregation gradually elevates accidental initiatives, turning them into innovations which then coalesce to become scalable solutions. The consolidation of each solution lays the foundation for the next set of explorations.

Where there are responsive administrators or politicians, grassroots-government engagements can create an upsurge of collaborative action, pulling together grassroots and state resources to make concrete improvements in the lives of the poor, dramatically changing how women are perceived.

This kind of transformation, however, takes time. It can’t be accomplished through three-year projects. Resilience investments need to be long term. They have to produce a diversity of solutions to counter multi-generational deprivation and negligence that endangers the lives, livelihoods and wellbeing of economically and socially marginalised communities.

It is therefore vital to sustain community networks and maintain their visibility as drivers of development. As movements and networks gain public recognition, they are able to attract  an array of allies, expanding their reach to ensure that new investments produce lasting changes in the everyday lives of poor communities.

How grassroots women are delivering pandemic responses

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Grassroots organisations’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are building on years of organising, learning and collective problem-solving. When governments announced lockdowns, grassroots women acted swiftly, putting to work their relationships with each other and with government; and drawing on collective resources built over time.

  • In the Philippines, grassroots leaders reached out to their networks in 24 rural barangays (districts) to disseminate information to educate communities on COVID-19. In informal settlements in the national capital, women-led water cooperatives used their savings to buy food for distribution.
  • In Nepal, women’s cooperatives coordinated with local governments and municipalities to distribute relief and community resilience funds managed by women’s cooperatives were drawn upon to give livelihoods restoration loans.
  • In India, women’s federations worked with village councils to distribute relief. They surveyed villages to identify those most in need of assistance and have already supported more than two thousand households to claim government entitlements. As early as March 2020, predicting food shortages, grassroots women encouraged their peers to plant vegetables. Three months later, vegetables from kitchen gardens are ensuring that families have nutritious food.
  • In SDI federations in several countries, including India, Kenya, South Africa Nigeria, Malawi and Zimbabwe, explored many possibilities based on stories of mask-making, soapmaking, quarantine management and food distribution – exchanged by their peers.

Are grassroots women driving these initiatives also victims of the crisis? Are they vulnerable to discrimination or exclusion?

Of course they are. But as movements focused on empowering grassroots women, we choose to emphasise grassroots women’s leadership as the foundation upon which their collective power is built.

When women are classified as ‘vulnerable’ they tend to become disempowered voiceless entities, excluded from decision-making. When we see grassroots women as drivers of change, we turn the spotlight on their innovations and contributions. And we can clearly see the value of involving them in public planning and decision-making.

So whether it is managing the COVID-19 crisis today or forging new pathways to adapt to the changing climate, shifting the narrative to focus on grassroots women’s agency is already a crucial step in the right direction of constructing new narratives for a new normal.


Sheela Patel is the founder and director of SPARC India and former chair of the SDI Board. Suranjana Gupta is advisor on community resilience at the Huairou Commission. 

Responding to Covid 19: Update from the Botswana SDI Alliance


4 June 2020


Botswana is one of many other African countries that are facing the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic and it is one of the first African countries to register a Covid-19 case. The pandemic has caused borders with the neighbouring countries to be temporarily closed as an effort to control the spread of the disease. It is undeniable that the disease is highly contagious and has caused economic challenge, especially to the low-income earning communities, and the normal way of life has been disrupted.

The government of Botswana declared a State of Emergency from 02nd April 2020 to last for six months, and also declared a full lockdown to run for two months. Currently the government is easing lockdown rules with caution. When the full lockdown =was declared most low-income earning communities who live from day to day sales and other daily wage jobs were caught unprepared, with no surplus of resources or supplies.

At the time this was written, Botswana had recorded only a few Covid-19 cases with most of people recovering except for one who was an elderly woman and sickly.


The Trust for Community Initiatives/Botswana Homeless and Poor Peoples Federation met with the Francistown City Council and the greater Francistown Covid-19 Response Team to come up with strategies to disseminate information and help to assess the impact the pandemic is causing within the communities. As it is mentioned before, the measures that were imposed on the nation at large had a significant impact, as low-income communities struggle to stay afloat without their regular livelihoods.

Even though the country had registered few Covid-19 cases, the effects or the outcome of the pandemic left people without food and other necessities. Those mostly affected beside the locals were the foreign nationals. Most foreign nationals depend on the employment given to them by the locals or nationals and lock down severely affected their work and source of income.



The KYC profiling exercise that was carried out in Francistown identified families without water and toilets that were affected by lock down. Because of the lockdown rules, these families could not ask other members of the community to use their toilets – eliminating the only access to clean sanitation facilities.  It is issues such as one mentioned above which poses threats to the control and defeat of the Covid-19

In Botswana as it stands it is not the Covid-19 infection that is the main problem, it is the indirect results of the Covid-19 that is the challenge as people cannot do what they need to do in order to feed their families.


Strategies implemented as follows;

The Trust For Community Initiatives/Botswana Homeless and Poor People’s Federation partnered with the Francistown City Council and the Diaspora Volunteers living in Francistown to combat challenges that came with the Covid-19.

120 households were budgeted for through the donation from SDI. Households were identified through assessment of those who were mostly affected during the lockdown, however the number of the people on ground kept growing. With the partnership established between the Federation and the Diaspora Volunteers we were able to sustain 230 households with food hampers and non-food items such as bathing and washing soap, sanitary items, just to mention a few. And some of the items to cover 50 households were donated to the Francistown City Council to contribute towards the city’s Food Bank which was meant to cater for only locals as a way to strengthen our partnership with the City Council. Items donated include formula for newborn babies, sanitary items, and food items.

12 families were assisted with 12 temporary toilets during this extreme lockdown period; these are some of the families that were identified during the Know Your City campaign to be without water and toilets. Some of those who were identified were able to install water and toilets after a consultative meeting with them.

Areas that were covered during the period were 18 and are as follows:

Aerodrome, Areas S, Area A, Blocks, Blue Town, Coloured, Donga, Gerald, Kgaphamadi, Maipafela, Monarch, New Stance, Ntshe, Phase 6, Selepa, Sommerset East, and West, as well as Riverside.

These are low-income areas were most of the federation members reside and foreign nationals find themselves staying.



It was through the City Council that we were able to identify the Diaspora Volunteers living in Francistown. Partnership was established and it is through this partnership that were able to assist 230 households.

This partnership is not only functional during the Covid-19, it is planned to continue beyond the Covid-19 emergency period.  The Diaspora Volunteers has pledged to assist the federation in the projects we will find common ground in.

Meetings with the City’s Mayor and Clerk have been scheduled for August 2020 with the hope that the COVID 19 will not be as it is now. The meeting is aimed to strengthen and work on the issues identified, particularly focusing on water and sanitation in the areas where the KYC profiling was conducted. It will also focus on strategies to empower NGO and funding. The Mayor indicated that his office is open and that he intends to build strong working partnership with communities. He said that the office of the mayor was not operating the way it should in terms of community engagements and it is his intention to make sure that community representation is felt. In as much as Covid-19 is a bad thing, it has opened his eyes to so many things that needs to be done focusing on inclusivity and leaving no one behind.



The federation played a critical role in assessing, distributing, and disseminating information on the Covid-19 prevention. Some leaders of the federation are part of the District Covid-19 Response Teams. Their role is to advise and caution the community on severity of the pandemic as well as work with health and social workers.

The following are practices made to curb the Covid-19 infections, and this comes as an instruction and advice from the health sector:

  • Emphasis on exercising social distancing
  • Every office and shops register people for contact tracing
  • Wearing of mask in public places
  • Use of sanitizers or soap and water to clean and keep hands clean at all times.

Find posted pics on TFCI Facebook page.


Impact of Covid-19 on Nigeria’s Informal Settlements


An update from the Nigeria SDI Alliance, comprised of Justice & Empowerment Initiatives – Nigeria (JEI), the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation (the Federation), and the Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative (PCEI).


On 1 April 2020, Justice & Empowerment Initiatives – Nigeria (JEI), the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation (the Federation), and the Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative (PCEI) launched a quantitative survey and a qualitative storytelling campaign both designed to understand the impact of the COVID19 pandemic on informal settlements and vulnerable urban poor populations i n Lagos. With over half of Lagos’s 23 million residents living in informal settlements and slum communities, i t i s essential that policies and interventions aimed at curtailing the spread of the COVID-19 and mitigating its effect on livelihoods be informed by data that reflects the real l ived experiences of the urban poor. This dual-pronged effort aims to support more effective policy-making and public health interventions in real time. This report captures findings from research to date and real voices from across Lagos.

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Community Awareness and Prevention Measures 

Accurate information and awareness about COVID-19 is key to preventing its spread. In March 2020, the Federation and PCEI launched a community awareness campaign through peer-to-peer, door-to-door education and distribution of fliers and facemasks, as well as demonstration hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer production. The survey aims to assess the reach of this and other awareness campaigns as well as the prevalence of prevention measures.

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Across the 144 slums and informal settlements surveyed, the Federation was the primary source of information about COVID19, followed by the government, and then other community groups and NGOs. Many communities reported no awareness campaigns had reached them. Physical infrastructure like public hand-washing stations remain very limited in communities.

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Lockdown, Stay at Home & Testing 

Two of the most effective government policies to control and curb the spread of COVID-19, across countries, have been lockdown and proactive, widespread testing. The Federal and Lagos State Governments have both taken steps to replicate these approaches during the first months of the outbreak in Nigeria. The survey aims to assess the effectiveness and reach of these policies in informal settlements and for the urban poor in Lagos.

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Encouragingly, a relatively high percentage of communities reported that all or most people were staying at home during the strict lockdown that was in place from 1 April – 4 May 2020. These numbers have steadily dropped as lockdown measures have been eased and general attitudes towards compliance have relaxed — a fact that is in stark contrast with the exponential growth in cases over the same period based on public data from the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

A strict lockdown followed by gradual easing is a strategy that has been used in some countries to increase preparedness of isolation centers, health facilities, and testing capacity. Unfortunately, access to testing remains extremely limited for the urban poor populations surveyed. Across communities, 83% of respondents reported that no one in the community had tried to get tested for COVID-19; 11% reported people had attempted but encountered challenges; only 6% reported someone in the community had been tested successfully. Anecdotal evidence suggests several reasons for these extremely low rates of testing: (1) Inability or unwillingness to identify COVID-19 symptoms; (2) fear of going for testing or helping an unwell person to go for testing; and (3) unavailability of localized testing in LGAs where the testing facilities are not yet active/accessible. The solution of proactive government door-to-door screening or testing campaigns had been announced in Lagos on 10 April 2020; however, as of date, only 7% of respondents report that the Lagos State Government door-to-door screening has reached their community.

Impact of the Pandemic on Lives & Livelihoods 

As the government imposed stay-at-home measures, shuttered non-essential businesses, and limited public transportation options, residents of informal settlements – already locked in a daily struggle to put food on the table – faced price hikes and widespread loss of income. Across communities, 78% reported people are unable to meet basic needs. Meanwhile, the vast majority of urban poor communities (85%) reported government-provided “palliatives” intended for the vulnerable had not reached them.

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“Something wey we dey buy 11,000, dem dey call am 22,000… they go try to kill us with hunger before sickness go come kill us…”

Corona Diaries of the Urban Poor; Stories from the Front Lines

Alongside the survey, JEI, the Federation, and PCEI have undertaken a community-driven storytelling campaign that has brought together a diverse array of perspectives from across informal settlements in Lagos – comprising over 50 stories thus far from over 30 communities – creating a body of narrative evidence to further-inform the picture painted in the data. Stories of hunger. Stories of insecurity and nighttime vigilante duty. Stories of a suspected COVID-19 case unable to access testing or get evacuated despite the efforts of neighbors and community health workers and an old man dying quietly in his beds.

Picture3These stories have spanned a diverse array of topics – often interweaving more than one person’s experience – that together situate the unfolding pandemic within the context of urban poverty in Lagos, and help to tell the “human side” of the charts and data points referenced in this report

You can explore the full collection of stories from across Lagos at:





Key Lessons Drawn from Survey Data & Narrative Accounts to Date 

  • As the Lagos active-caseload of coronavirus has steadily increased, adherence to social-distancing directives has decreased among informal settlement residents – peaking in the second week of April 2020 with 94% of communities reporting all or most of their residents are staying at home, and since declining to 11%. The fact that this trend began even before the official easing of lockdown measures suggests that desperation for food and basic necessities began to force urban poor populations to venture out even when there was a risk of arrest or prosecution as well as a risk of exposure to the virus With the easing of lockdown measures starting on 4 May 2020, this trend has worsened. Anecdotally, across the city we have witnessed reduced rates of compliance with mask wearing requirements, avoidance of larger social gatherings, etc. These trends should be cause for great alarm from a public health standpoint, combined with the limited access to testing and case reporting.  

LESSON: Absent government mandated and supported lockdown measures, stay at home will not be a reality for urban poor.

  • The limited rates of access to testing speaks to the extent to which official numbers of cases reported by the NCDC likely underrepresent reality on the With only 6% of communities reporting that anyone in the community has been tested for the virus, there is no basis for isolation and treatment of persons affected or other precautions to be put in place. The low number of reported cases from across communities surveyed – with only 6 reported cases and 1 suspected COVID19-linked death – reflects more on testing than on actual prevalence of the virus. Anecdotally, we have identified several deaths in informal settlements where COVID-19 symptoms were present prior to death but no testing was done to ascertain the cause. Starting from June 2020, we are adapting our survey approach to better understand the barriers to testing and also launching a pilot door-to-door screening in urban poor communities to try to link suspected cases with available testing facilities.

LESSON: Absent major outreach (such as door-to-door screening), rates of testing in urban poor communities will remain low.

  • Should the government consider reimposition of lockdown measures as the upwards trend in infections continues, lessons must be learned from the April 2020 Our data points to key problems that require careful planning to avoid:
    1. Limitations imposed on business and movement lead to price-hikes on foodstuffs in informal While some price-increases may be opportunistic, supply constraints caused by movement restrictions appears a secondary cause.
    2. Dissemination of food aid and other assistance must leverage existing social networks – e.g. grassroots networks such as the Federation and PCEI – in order to reach the necessary scale and reach the most vulnerable residents of
    3. Insecurity threatens to undermine future “lockdown” directives if unaccompanied by effective government support and increased community-government partnership to increase security on ground. The government must also declare legal and paralegal services providers “essential workers” to enable access to justice for the urban poor during

LESSON: Future lockdown measures should be carefully tailored and co-designed by government, private sector, civil society, and communities to prevent insecurity, avoid disruption of food supplies, and ensure assistance reaches the most vulnerable.


ABOUT US: Justice & Empowerment Initiatives – Nigeria (JEI) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization working to empower poor and marginalized communities to innovate their own justice and development solutions. The Nigerian Slum / Informal Settlement Federation is a movement of the urban poor for dignity and development with membership from hundreds of communities in Lagos and Rivers States and expanding to other cities across the country. The Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative is a grassroots movement of urban poor people living with disabilities.

Since before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Lagos, we have together led the charge on community health education, distribution of fliers in five languages and facemasks, as well as distribution of food assistance to nearly 30,000 urban poor households affected by lockdown with generous support from the Indian Community of Lagos, in addition to the efforts reported here.

The survey and storytelling efforts discussed in this report are simultaneously being replicated in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and Cotonou, Republic of Benin. Reports on the findings of those reports will be published separately and available at