By Sarah Alexander
Senior Advisor, SELCO Foundation
COVID-19 has shone a bright light on the pervasive societal evils of inequality, capital bias, absence of safety nets and dependence on centralized systems just to name a few. This focus ultimately exposes vulnerable economic and health systems across the globe. At the onset of the pandemic, India imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in order to curtail an impending catastrophic public health emergency. Unfortunately, this also had unintended consequences on the economy. People such as street vendors and construction workers who are dependent on daily cash flow were suddenly forced to deal with an immediate loss of income. Indigenous craft makers suffered cancellations of existing orders overnight. Small holder farmers and fresh food businesses faced an immediate shutdown of transport, rendering them unable to deliver seasonally harvested crops, resulting in the loss of perishable crops and goods – and the income they provide as they were unable to get to market in time. In the case of blacksmiths, many were confronted with an unexpected lack of market because farmers, tea industries/operations were abruptly closed, instantly halting the demand for agriculture tools.
Almost as immediately as countries shut down, some national governments acted quickly to roll out economic stimulus initiatives to support private citizens, philanthropy, businesses and civil society. There was also rapid response by frontline workers and grassroots NGOs to offer support to struggling communities by assisting local authorities with testing, quarantining returning migrant workers, supporting ration distribution and so on. Perhaps due to a lack of visibility, a dearth of communication capacity, or simply being immersed in rapid COVID-19 response efforts, many solutions by these community-based groups were not publicized.
The Shine COVID-19 Recovery Fund Grant intentionally seeks to bring together different practitioner perspectives to help construct meaningful support for community-based initiatives. This is particularly timely since there is a sense that these highly local practitioner initiatives are not at the forefront. The initiative is deliberately more inclusive in how it is designed, ensuring that the support being offered is different from other types of COVID-19 assistance, and also targets specific vulnerable populations whose needs are often drowned out.
I am truly excited to see how Shine’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund Grant can support vulnerable populations in building their recovery in a manner that enables them to be more resilient in the future and offers a blueprint for how appropriate solutions can be crafted during such a crisis.
A grant like this, for example, could provide immediate support in remote tribal villages such as Kurokalain in eastern India’s Jharkhand region where a many small and marginal farmers grow and sell a unique type of rice only during one season a year. In Kurokala, a women-based self-help group (SHG) with 20 members decided to purchase an energy efficient decentralized solar powered rice mill system that can be operated within the village where there is high demand. The nearest rice mill was a large centralized system in a town about 10 kms away that primarily catered to large farmers bringing in paddy rice in larger quantities to be hulled. The machine was procured through a subsidy scheme from the local state livelihoods program. Through multiple training sessions the women were able to operate the machines, handle packaging, accounts, registers, maintenance and so on. They are able to charge slightly less than the centralized mill and give back the husk from the milling for additional value add for the farmers. They are able to own and operate it through a service model where they sell their produce through middlemen who come regularly and pick up the milled produce as well as the paddies from the farmers. In this manner, the women’s group has been able to continue providing a critical service to the community, reduce dependencies on external or long supply chains, maintain service despite power cuts and overall earn more for themselves and the local the farmers, who pay less for their transport and additionally can use the husk. Creating a shared prosperity model for all involved.
These types of deep community-led initiatives are critical to ensure that we are placing the power of decisions and control within the hands of local groups who are often unable to undertake these model shifts due to lack of adequate financial resources. Therefore, it is my hope that Shine’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund Grant will help reach these grassroots communities via channels that are often invisible to larger initiatives. Through the fund, we will be able to demonstrate alternative development pathways to resilience and recovery Support must be centered around re-building community incomes and economies in a manner that is inclusive and transformative via the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7: clean, affordable energy access for all.