Call to international funders: address grassroots organisations’ priorities, not yours


This article was originally posted on the IIED blog.

By Sheela Patel 

As COVID-19 persists and spreads, urban poor organisations need funding that is flexible enough to meet the evolving needs of their communities.

This series of blogs focusing on the transition to a predominantly urban world began before COVID-19 took hold. The pandemic brings devastating current and future health and economic impacts, and demands our attention and commitment to work together to overcome it.

Here, Sheela Patel explains why saving groups supporting organisations of the urban poor need flexible funding to respond effectively to the many challenges emerging from the virus.


International agencies are failing to provide the support that organisations of the urban poor desperately need to fight COVID-19, and to cope with its devastating economic and social impacts. Few if any structure their support to match grassroots organisations’ needs for flexible funding.

So is international funding actually helping these grassroots organisations – including the thousands of savings groups that make up Slum Dwellers International – cope with COVID-19? Or to survive it? And to enhance and support the many roles these savings groups have in fighting the pandemic and reaching vulnerable groups?

You would think that savings groups would be perfect partners for international funders. They are organised, they can manage money, they are trusted, they have capacity, and they operate in the poorest urban communities.

When an international agency wants to help low-income communities in informal settlements, how do they decide on what will be funded, and by whom? It often takes weeks for the funding to arrive when what is needed is a rapid response.

And does the international funding address the local community’s needs? Does it understand roles of grassroots organisations in responding to COVID-19? Are they asking these organisations what form of external support would work best for them?

The growing pressures on savings groups

In the last six months, women’s collectives within SDI are facing very local crises of their own. Their most precious savings and loans programmes have completely collapsed. And with that, all the revolving funds that they built through repayment of loans. Regenerating it without external support will be next to impossible.

And as people move away from neighbourhoods, networks of the federations are beginning to collapse – some going to their rural kinship homes, others exploring other ways to earn.

Low-income residents with infectious or chronic diseases have difficulties accessing health care as hospitals and governments struggle to deal with the pandemic. Immunisation programmes are not reaching large sections of the population.

Women and girls are facing real hardship through so many changes. Many girls are not going to school, and experiencing an upswing in violence in households as deep depression and frustration take hold. Cases of rape and pregnancies in teenage girls are rising.

Most if not all cities in the global South are locked in their own crisis of how to pay sufficient attention to the challenges of the urban poor. Initially, money was available to help feed people. But reaching all those in need has become a continuous challenge, especially the most vulnerable households.

Flexibility to respond

So, what do the thousands of savings groups around the world need? The answer: flexible funds that enable these groups to respond quickly to their communities’ most pressing needs.

For some, this may be food; for others, medicine. Funds may be needed to help struggling community health facilities or to deploy safety patrols that help keep girls and women safe.

Without being able to anticipate what’s coming next, it’s hard for savings groups to write smart proposals requesting money for specific activities. What savings groups really need is to be able to focus on their own priorities, not those of international funders.