Communities at the frontline exchange during sixth COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus

Communities at the frontline exchange during sixth COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus

Nairobi, 15 May 2020  

About 85 participants joined the sixth COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus session to exchange on the central role of community organizations to support the most vulnerable in cities during the pandemic. Organized by the World Urban Campaign, the webinar hosted community practitioners from different regions and faiths in a lively exchange and debate.

Noting that the coronavirus pandemic is more than a health crisis and should be seen as larger human crisis, governments not only need to work with scientists and experts, but also organized communities and their leaders, including faith-based organizations. Those have the ability to reach out to large groups, mobilise and share information. “They represent a voice of hope for all and compassion for vulnerable groups” said David Boan, Director of Relief and Development and COVID-19 Global Task Force at the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), an international organization with a Special Consultative Status in the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

Faith-based organizations represent vast networks of health and education services and represent trusted intermediary between government and local communities. Multi-faith platforms and networks have also shown a strong value explained Nadyia Hussain, Violence Reduction Unit Delivery Manager, Education and Faith Lead at the West Midlands Police Office, UK. Such platforms are very effective to build an interface in order to disseminate the right messages, adapting to different faiths reaching different captive audiences. Organizations are more operational in some countries which have faced the Ebola or Leprosy, explained David Boan, such as in Congo or Sri Lanka, where WEA has been particularly active.

Violet Shivutse, Chair of Huairou Commission and Coordinator of the Shibuye Community Health Workers in Kenya, explained the central role of community leaders in the coronavirus pandemic. They had to reinvent new modus operandi in a very short time she said, training people on using new technologies to communicate remotely on emergency measures, translating government guidelines in simple language to explain the risk of an invisible disease in the most remote places. As care givers, these associations were not always equipped while facing multiple challenges such as the floods in many parts of Kenya. They had to adapt quickly to respond through health care, food distribution, farming or education. However, without such organized support groups, local governments would have been unable to reach many vulnerable settlements.

New communication and tracking tools have emerged as fundamental to the work of community leaders. Lana Finikin from Sistren Theatre Collective, a grassroots organization in Jamaica explained how her group started to use safety audit tools to identify danger zones, advising on improvements and empowering women to alert others on safety issues. Using mobile phone apps, they have been able to gather information and assess the needs of the most vulnerable in order to deliver care packages to residents that required specific support and  medications, particularly the elderly. Also, the collective has been able to organize local farmers markets by connecting urban communities to rural ones, in partnership with the local governments.  Josephine Castillo, National Programme Coordinator of DAMPA Philippines, a federation of 230 women grassroot organizations, explained how, together, they have build a space to exchange in order to better deliver on the ground in collaboration with local governments. Practical operations have been carried out for the distribution of masks, sensitization programmes on social distancing and ensuring food security in the most fragile settlements.

“The pandemic has triggered an unprecedented crisis that is much more than a health crisis” said Eric Berg, Chairman of Habitat Norway, a voluntary, non profit advocacy and information association. This is the result of the lack of attention by decision makers and development agencies to the urban poor in the last five decades. This crisis should be seen as an opportunity to give a stronger role to community organizations because they have the knowledge to reach the most vulnerable. Grassroot and civil society organizations represent the missing link. Multi-stakeholder platforms are also essential to mobilize a diversity of actors and build robust alliances to address current and future challenges. Sri Sofjan, Co-Chair of the World Urban Campaign and representative of the Huairou Commission also emphasised the need to develop new modalities to recognize the grassroot communities and amplify bottom-up processes in decision-making. The fundamental role of community leaders has been demonstrated once again during the coronavirus pandemic. They have become indispensable partners of the humanitarian space in urban areas.

Three Urban Thinkers Campuses on COVID-19 will be held online on 20, 27 and 29 May on facing the wage gaps and social security, pandemic resilient urban planning and reporting during the coronavirus crisis. For more information and to register go to

Article by Christine Auclair, UN-Habitat
Photo Credits: An elderly man from Soweto, covers his face with a face shield while queuing at a SASSA (South African Social Security Agency) pay-point in Soweto on March 30, 2020. (AFP Photo)