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“After all, in a world where the social fabric seems to be rapidly fraying, the economy is uncertain, and the future of the planet is at risk, is there a better way to hit the reset button than to come back to the neighbourhood level and begin to genuinely rely on one another again?” (Amanda Abrams)
If you wish to move mountains tomorrow, you must start by lifting stones today (African proverb)
Humans are hard-wired to focus on threats and problems. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism that has served us well for thousands of years. When faced with a crisis, we usually react in one of three ways – fight, flight or freeze. When faced with the unprecedented and existential threat of the 2020 corona pandemic, it’s unsurprising that our threat-response mechanisms have gone into overdrive. We may watch the news about this extreme public health emergency and some politician’s inadequate or ill-advised response and a) shout angrily at the television b) switch it off and do our best to ignore it or c) get overwhelmed and feel depressed and apathetic. Similarly, when we learn about the hunger crisis facing many households in South Africa as a result of the lockdown measures, we may a) leap into action and start organising food drives and donations b) try to ignore the suffering we are witnessing (usually unsuccessfully) or c) get depressed about the state of the world and moan about it to anyone who’ll listen (without actually doing anything).
As a community grantmaker and development practitioner for the past twenty-odd years, our tendency is indeed to leap into action, and we have done so, checking in with our grantees and partners and ensuring that we are available to offer financial, emotional and material support to weather this crisis. You may be surprised to learn that in most cases, the answer we got was along the lines of “Ya, we’re good, ABCD has prepared us” or “I have a contact for mealie meal, and I know this guy who has a bakkie, so we are organising, but could you send some airtime so we can finalise the arrangements?” People were concerned, but not overwhelmed, and were already hatching response actions before we called them. Community networks were activated, opportunities to help were identified, and plans were made.
How did this come about? The difference in our approach as a community grantmaker is that we start from the point of recognising and valuing what our community partners are already doing, and seek to augment and strengthen this, rather than rushing in as ‘experts’ with preconceived notions of what is needed. So rather than announcing “I’m arriving with a bakkie load of bread tomorrow morning!” our approach has been to ask “What are you guys doing? Where, specifically, can we help”? It may be that airtime or taxi fare is more useful to our community partners right now; or they need access to information on hygiene measures (how to build a tippy-tap from a cooldrink bottle). It may be the case that organisation A has a useful connection or practice or resource that could be of use for organisation B – so we put them in contact with each other.
For the past twenty years we have worked with our grantee partners from an appreciative mindset – asking how we can recognise, value, appreciate and support what communities are already doing with the resources they have. In our view, development always starts with individuals and informal networks and organisations that tap into social, natural and material assets at a local level to tackle some of their most difficult challenges. Our role as the ‘outsider’ is to bring to awareness the value that this volunteer labour, social trust and reciprocity has, and to support the community on their development trajectory ‘’from the inside out”, by working alongside them and linking them up with appropriately scaled support and other forms of assistance (connections, materials, ideas, information forums, decision-makers).
The corona virus catastrophe has starkly revealed our collective unpreparedness for a global crisis of this magnitude. It has laid bare and amplified the inequality and social injustices that were always there. It has forced us to face the uncomfortable truth that the crisis is made worse if the social fabric in communities is weak and fragile. What will get us through this crisis is our collective social capital – the relationships, associations, networks and friends that will make sure help gets to where it is needed.
Emergency relief is absolutely necessary at this time. However, it is temporary and unsustainable over the longer term. What happens when we all go back to ‘work’ and resume our daily lives? Joblessness, hunger and despair existed before the onslaught of COVID-19. What will happen when the next emergency or disaster strikes? It’s a sad truth that any natural disaster or public-health emergency always takes an increased toll on those groups who were marginalised or excluded before the emergency. They simply do not have the resources to buffer themselves from the severe social and economic consequences.
This is why, as concerned citizens, grantmakers or development practitioners, we must start to recognise that the individuals and communities we work with have so much to offer – aside from financial resources, every community has a range of different assets that are inherent in the human family. Poor communities survive what to us would seem insurmountable odds because of this mutual self-help and reciprocity, and because of leaders and networks and trust (social capital), as well as personal grit and determination that they draw on to solve problems and create opportunities. Because we have not paid enough attention to these assets, we have made people feel helpless and dependent on others to rescue them from their situation. We must return decision-making power to the local actors who know best what is needed for their own communities and are always the first-line responders in any crisis.
Scientists have recently discovered the power of the mycelium, an infinite, complex biological network of fungi beneath the soil that connects trees in ancient forests to each other and allows them to cooperate and communicate. Otherwise known as the Wood Wide Web, this dense microbial network is the real foundation of the forest, allowing trees to exchange nutrients and resources, creating a thriving, resilient and harmonious community. Trees also use the fungal network to send information (chemical signals) to each other about threats and use this information to raise defences. This miraculous network is invisible, but essential. We can think of our human social networks as an invisible social mycelium, connecting us to each other as an interdependent human family. If we can build regional, national and global networks of connection, trust, information, local knowledge and agility, our response to future disasters will look very different.
The post pandemic world will also look different. Predictions of severe and unprecedented economic contraction across the globe mean that we can expect a steep climb in unemployment, worsening material conditions and an increase in the associated pathologies of poverty (depression, addiction, domestic violence…). We believe our best chance at tackling this new reality is to move out of ‘saviour’ mode and begin to work more intentionally and deliberately with communities from the inside out. We must focus our and THEIR attention on their inherent resilience and ingenuity and amplify these. Demand will always outstrip supply if we continue to fill needs rather than encourage co-creation of solutions.
We have a unique opportunity to #buildbackbetter. Let us advance co-operation, co-creation and collaboration, and tap into the wealth of time, talent, gifts and skills of everyone for a more united and caring humanity and a healthier planet.
Bernie Dolley is the Director and Sarah Hugow is the Chairperson of Ikhala Trust, a community grant-maker and an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) advocate and practitioner. Ikhala Trust celebrated its 18th birthday in April 2020.
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