A narrative has emerged in the fight against COVID19 that central governments are best placed to respond to the pandemic. And while an agile and strong central government is crucial, national authorities cannot succeed in developing effective policies and implement appropriate actions without the involvement of state and local governments.

In my view, however, the missing player in this narrative is the community; in particular, community-based organizations (CBOs). CBOs are critical for ensuring the translation of policies into concrete actions on the ground. They are critical because, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, millions of people unemployed, staggering losses and closings of small businesses, the pressure on citizens in general – and in particular, the poor and the most vulnerable – is immense. CBOs should be considered as pivotal players in any discussions at the national and local levels aimed at mobilizing and sensitizing the population to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are community-based organizations?

CBOs comprise groups of citizens that are concerned with issues that affect their lives. They are taking actions to remedy or improve their lives in an organized manner. Working on the frontlines, CBOs are made up of the same population they intend to serve.  They are farmers, teachers, students, small business owners, workers, men, women – young and old – who make up the fabric of their communities. Whether formed on the basis of religious principles or civic and secular values, these networks of citizens already exist within different communities.  Groups such as neighbourhood or village associations are doing wonders with the little that they have at their disposal.

CBOs have a number of advantages over national or even local authorities. Built upon the work of volunteers as leaders and members, CBOs are not governed by bureaucratic norms and procedures. They are accountable to their members in a transparent manner.  However, they also face challenges. Often dependent on small donations or meagre cash or in-kind contributions from their members, CBOs operate in an unpredictable financial zone, and are thus unable to develop long-terms plans and projects.  

From Ebola to HIV: CBO success stories

CBOs have achieved noted success in combatting epidemics in different parts of the world.  During the 1980s and the 1990s, we witnessed the effective work of citizen groups in combating HIV/AIDS in the developed and developing world.  In the following decades, CBOs demonstrated their value on again of working with the national and local authorities in combating a series of communicable diseases, including the ongoing fight against Ebola.

The UN and its various organizations have been supporting CBOs for decades.  All most 30 years ago, UNDP set up its first unit with a specific mandate of working directly with grassroots organizations.  A few years later, the organization established a trust fund to assist the work of organizations at the community level. 

CBO support is not limited to UNDP. For years, UNICEF together with UNESCO were investing in initiatives such as the Communication Support for Development, designed to enhanced community capacity to implement national campaigns for literacy, public health and more at the community level.  Different peace operations have worked directly with the communities to help with mediations and reintegration of demobilized combatants in post-conflict settings. 

A rebirth of support for CBOs

After some years of taking the backseat in terms of being included in the top priorities of UN organizations, it looks like there is a rebirth of supporting and working with the CBOs. The recently released, A UN framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19 highlights the necessity of working with community groups to assist and protect the most vulnerable portion of the population (i.e. the poor).

As countries begin to develop plans to ease population lockdowns and allow certain businesses to open, the role of CBOs in policy discussions and decisions is even more critical. Protecting the vulnerable cannot be done by a single authority – no matter how powerful and wealthy it may be. Mitigating the effects of the pandemic requires a concerted global effort that brings together the resources and the expertise from international organizations, national governments, authorities at the local level, the private sector, and citizen groups.

The engagement of CBOs in this process is a must, if protection and longer-term survival is the overall objective.  The involvement of CBOs in policy formulation and implementation should not be simply words but concrete and tangible practices.  The rationale is simple: the people who are affected by problems should be involved in their resolution – from start to finish.

The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.