How do we build resilience in difficult times?

The COVID-19 crisis is bringing extraordinary challenges for us personally and for the communities that we serve. As we adjust and adapt to the seismic changes, there are opportunities for us to model responses to the crisis, protect the most vulnerable and build back better after it has blown over.

PSJP is now using the platform of its learning community as a space to talk, share our experiences and strategies, as well as our anxieties, and to seek support from one another, offer solidarity and much more.

For the first stage of this process, we set up three calls on March 25 and 27  with 34 participants representing all corners of the world, spanning a range of organizations from community-based organizations to international donors. They are working on a variety of thematic areas from palliative care, education, child rights and other social justice and human rights issues. This diversity resulted in rich conversations and the reinforcement of the belief that we are stronger together.

We asked three questions:

  • How are you?
  • What are you learning?
  • What help do you need?

We want to share what is emerging from these conversations and use what we are learning in an iterative manner to shape further discussions, to build synergies with other like-minded individuals, organizations and networks in civil society and philanthropy so that we can support each other now and help formulate a vision for a stronger civil society when the crisis passes.

Here is a synthesis of last week’s discussions:

Solidarity: We are in this together and we believe that we will get through it together. We as organizations and individuals are reaching out where we can and communities are coming together locally to support the elderly and vulnerable, even strangers who have never spoken before. At work, organizations are holding virtual spaces to talk with staff, with partners, and – to the extent that we are able to – with the communities we serve.

A safe space to be vulnerable:  We are afraid, confused, disoriented, overwhelmed, tired, overloaded with information. Some of us are facing difficult choices related to finances, staff lay-offs, and the survival of our organizations. Many of us are separated from loved ones and are afraid. We are determined to adapt to the situation but are challenged by how and where to find the energy and creativity to adapt quickly enough so that we are relevant. We need and value safe spaces where we can be honest about our vulnerability.

Responsive and flexible: In the short term we want to protect the most vulnerable both from the virus and from the fallout of the lockdown: examples include the migrant construction workers in India, daily wage earners, the poor and aged, the refugees, people with underlying health conditions and other fragile populations, including those suffering from increased domestic violence. We are being responsive: those of us who work across countries or regions are listening closely to our own grassroots partners who understand their local and/or national contexts. We are trying to assess and respond to the needs of our communities in various ways:

  1. advocating with governments and advising them to develop responses that address the needs of vulnerable communities;
  2. identifying gaps in provision to communities that organizations like ours can fill;
  3. protecting against infringements of rights thrown up by the circumstances of various groups such as women in quarantine by ensuring that, where required, there are separate spaces for men and women;
  4. conveying factual information to communities in a culturally appropriate manner, particularly about basic hygiene matters;
  5. provision of basic sanitary and food products;
  6. opening of spaces, providing equipment and other services to assist public health providers where required; and
  7. anticipating the changing nature of risks for the communities we serve, preparing to act when required against, for example, anticipated spikes in violence against women and children.

Adaptable: We are adapting our ways of working, going online and learning how to make the best use of technologies in order to continue operations where possible and support our staff and communities. We are also adapting to uncertainties as the situation changes and are trying to focus on things where we can have an impact or where we can influence, doing one concrete thing at a time such as sharing facts about the virus or setting up handwashing stations. We are also adapting to life in lockdown, reframing isolation as personal development.

The value of experience: We are seeking to draw from the experience of people and communities who have lived through this and other disasters – of China when COVID-19 first hit, or of countries that lived through the SARS epidemic. We are learning from the climate crisis how to build community resilience such as through intergenerational learning and traditional knowledge.

Transforming systems: We are drawing lessons from the crisis to reframe the world we want to help build when this has blown over. The pandemic has levelled the playing field in the development and aid sectors between the North and the South with the North being harder hit at the moment. It has altered the balance of the relationship between donors and recipients. It has shown the value of flexible and unrestricted funding, the value of local assets and community philanthropy: that the answers in a crisis do not lie with top-down institutions and donors but with communities and grassroots, community-based organizations which are there when the crisis hits, when outside interventions cannot reach or when they withdraw. We will be tactical in drawing from these lessons as we strive to build the world we want. Prominent among these lessons is the need to build resilient communities and community organizations not by providing solutions to them but by investing in them as knowledgeable partners and active change-makers.

There is recognition, however, that some organizations are struggling to survive – with grant contracts that do not allow for flexibility or change, a need to continue to cover staff and other fixed costs but a reduction in fundraising and other income. At the same time, we recognize that the issues which we were dealing with prior to the crisis – poverty, vulnerability, discrimination – are still present. The pandemic, whilst levelling the field in that it affects everyone, will still hit the most fragile and marginalised the hardest – those without the resilience needed to survive. We will need even stronger charitable organizations to work on these issues after the lifting of restrictions, but this needs conscious investment now to bring it about.

In the long term, we want to transform systems so that instead of just surviving we are able to build a civil society that is stronger and more resilient. When ‘normality’ returns, we want that normality to be different. As one participant put it, we need to build an alliance of organizations and people around the world to create this new order and to say that ‘in a return to normality let’s build on the things that were good about this terrible time.’

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