While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the globe, it’s also illuminated some fundamental truths that our societies need to: learn from – embrace – and amplify. The aid narrative around communities on our continent has underestimated and even undermined the inherent capacities of these very same to develop the solutions to the challenges they face. This challenging season we find ourselves in has highlighted the stories of community solutions that have existed for years and often gone unacknowledged.
At TrustAfrica we are privileged to focus on supporting, promoting, and advancing African agency through African actors to respond to the most pressing challenges facing our communities. And for us this has meant solidarity with the communities most affected by these challenges and learning from their paths in responding to these to inform how best we can accompany processes underway. In this sense, we’ve always considered ourselves catalytic partners – from thinking through the big questions with civil society leaders, community leaders, activists, academics, and progressive public sector actors; to channeling catalytic resources to solutions developed by communities affected by issues ranging from illicit financial flows, mining affected communities, participation of smallholder farmers in agricultural policy, pro-democracy social movements and more.
And in all these processes, our definition of catalytic goes beyond simply giving of resources and voice to communities.
Because voice is not something that can be given – it needs space to be heard, and agency needs space to be demonstrated.
And even voice is not enough – it is the space and time to experiment and prototype solutions that enlivens agency in communities and builds authentic partnerships. Over the years, we’ve been privileged to create space and enhance collective capabilities for communities to self-organize and generate the solutions and thought leadership around the complexity of issues they are facing.
After all, who knows better what’s needed for development than the very community that is sidelined from the gains of the extractive industry that has taken over their town or village? Or the smallholder farmers who are adversely affected by policies that disenfranchise them.
Community actors, now more than ever, are longing for effective and accessible ways to participate in shaping their future. In April this year, Mark Lowcock, the coordinator of the UN’s aid relief operation since 2017, actually said “The humanitarian system is set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what we have to offer, RATHER than giving people what they themselves say they most need.”
When we talk about the potency of decolonizing practices which acknowledge the deep worth of indigenous intelligence, this fundamental practice of building trust with change agents and communities is really at the heart of it.
The following are a few examples where we have experienced this practice of listening to what communities are saying and subsequently co-investing in the journey of catalyzing and developing solutions which are not only sustainable, but also transformative.
In Zimbabwe we’ve been partnering with Kufunda Learning Village and ORAP across the rights, socio-economic and ecological domains in an initiative called Gateway Zimbabwe with a purpose to catalyze agency, enhance social cohesion, build healthy communities, and contribute to reweaving the social fabric of Zimbabwe.
As part of this initiative, we launched an 18-month Fellowship program in 2019 without being prescriptive or having any assumptions about the nature of the transformation that the community cohorts would pursue. Actually, that’s not true. We all said, “as long as we don’t come out with chicken projects”. And low and behold when we launched the complementary Community Initiatives program which provided catalytic funding, it was chicken projects and fencing projects that prevailed. In that moment, we stepped back and made a very intentional decision to stop and listen to what the community leaders that we were accompanying in this fellowship were saying – about chicken projects and fencing projects. And taking this time to listen confirmed our impulse to walk alongside communities as they explore what becomes possible when we reweave the social fabric of our communities.
In the Fellowship Program we work with targeted community and civic leaders who journey together as a community cohort of 3-5, learning participatory practices that support shared leadership, learning inner work and embodied practices, and deepening appreciative community engagement processes as a path to awakening and enlivening agency. From this place of wakefulness, we journey with emerging Community Initiatives from the cohorts as they start dreaming again and co-creating the future that they see possible when they tap into the resourcefulness that they are rediscovering.
One of these community cohorts is in a village called Chikukwa in the eastern part of Zimbabwe along the border with Mozambique. The timing of COVID coincided with the first cycle of seed grants from the Community Initiatives program. Everything was online and we were far removed from the communities where these cohorts are spread across Zimbabwe. So, we started by innovating with the application process, knowing that many of these community leaders rarely had access to funding opportunities. We invited WhatsApp voice notes for the application process – which has greater reach in Zimbabwe – and then worked alongside the applicants to explore and flesh out the intention of their projects. And we very quickly saw that, THE PROCESS of developing the chicken and fencing projects being proposed had great transformative potential of bringing fragmented communities together in pursuit of a vision they had co-created.
Through Gateway Zimbabwe we supported the fellows in Chikukwa in hosting a participatory community engagement process called GoDeep, through which they articulated a community vision that led to them using the catalytic grant for providing clean water to 160 families, which further led to community members putting in their own resources to fence the much loved Cultural Center, and most recently the community came together to bridge the digital divide by organizing as a community and advocating for internet connectivity for the village from their local representatives. Especially at a time where everything is happening online Chikukwa Village could see itself at risk of being left further behind by the online pivot which is benefiting mostly urban communities. Chikukwa Village has been an innovative community finding solutions to help them thrive. For years they have been experimenting with permaculture and other agroecology practices, and this was one of the reasons that they were more protected than other communities from the devastating effects of Cyclone Idai.
If we take the time to listen to what communities around us are learning, our responses in partnering with them will have relevance and it is that relevance which contributes to the sustainability of solutions. To me, this is what locally led development looks like. And this path to agency which Chikukwa Village is demonstrating could only be designed by the community itself and not by any grant parameters we imposed. So, the inquiry we continue to track is how much the philanthropy and aid community of practice are ready for embodying the practice of emergence – where we give the time and space for this level of self-organizing and self-realization to surface and use our systemic reach to channel needed resources and to connect the emergent nodes for collective impact.
This same intentionality in listening to our partners led us to reach out to partners in our work against gender-based violence to ask them if they needed to repurpose any of the grants which they had received to respond to the COVID crisis. And they did. By listening to what was happening in communities of women’s group in Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal, we established a Rapid Response Mechanism to help these partners respond to the main risk factors and acts of violence against women and girls that were exacerbated during the COVID lockdowns. Given the impact of lockdowns on women both in terms of GBV and the increasing economic strain, a number of these partners also focused on strengthening the leadership of women to participate meaningfully in COVID-19 related decision-making processes to advocate for gender responsive policies to protect women facing violence in their homes and communities, as well as to secure the necessary social safety nets for women.
Through the TrustAfrica Solidarity Fund which was set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, 44% of the funds were allocated to community-led responses because we realized how important it was to enable proximate leaders to respond in their communities to the variety of challenges emerging from this public health crisis. The growth of mutual aid networks in response to the COVID-19 outbreak underscored the importance of supporting community-led responses and the injection of investment and confidence in these community ecosystems laid a strong foundation for greater resilience. We truly believe that this type of solidarity can only come from listening and being with communities as they chart their path to the solutions which are best suited to the complexity of challenges they face.
Let me end with a poem I wrote during one of our Gateway processes reflecting on this question of solidarity with communities.