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Community organizations provide crucial support to crisis-affected vulnerable workers


Gillian Dowie

Senior Program Officer, Employment and Growth
Headshot of Sandra Gagnon

Sandra Gagnon

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

Martha Melesse

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

Informed Responses. Recovery for All.

Despite unprecedented efforts to support vulnerable populations over the last two years, social-protection systems globally showed the limited reach of government policies, especially for those who need the most assistance. 

IDRC supports research on responses to the pandemic in the Global South. This work underscores the important role played by community organizations during crisis situations in support of small-scale farmers, micro-entrepreneurs, home-based workers and other vulnerable groups employed in the informal economy. Community organizations such as cooperatives, grassroots networks and social-advocacy groups, channel public information, food subsidies and income support. Their advocacy efforts also amplify community voices to improve public policy that affects informal workers and other vulnerable groups. Recognition and support for their role can benefit all. 

Cooperatives support smallholder farmers 

Lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions that limited people’s ability to earn a living were particularly devastating for the majority of the world’s workers who are employed in the informal economy. Typically living on small incomes and low capital reserves, these unregistered workers and micro-entrepreneurs often fall under the radar of public policies and had little government support available to them to weather the crisis.  

Research in sub-Saharan African countries documented the effects of restricted mobility and disrupted supply chains on smallholder farmers. In West Africa, research led by SOCODEVI found that some farmer cooperatives stepped in to support their members’ livelihoods in several ways. In Côte d’Ivoire for example, one agricultural cooperative secured the necessary certifications for farmers to continue selling their products. It provided training, credit and access to equipment and facilitated bulk purchasing and selling. 

Just over half of these cooperative members experienced a loss of income during the pandemic. While this loss was significant, the proportion of farmers who lost income in less proactive cooperatives was much higher. 

By supporting their members, cooperatives helped keep parts of the beleaguered food systems moving during critical moments of the pandemic. Without this support, local food insecurity would have been worse and many vulnerable smallholder farmers would have faced even greater financial hardship due to the pandemic.  

Home-based workers fare better with organizations representing them 

Home-based workers are also a vulnerable and often invisible segment of the workforce. They produce handicrafts, food, clothing, textiles and other goods as pieces to be assembled or final products for large national and global supply chains. During the pandemic, their lack of visibility translated into high levels of marginalization and loss of income.  

In Nepal, home-based workers represent 22% of total employment. By August 2020, HomeNet South Asia reported that the weekly incomes of those in the city of Kathmandu had dropped to 53% of pre-pandemic earnings and had fallen further to 38% by the summer of 2021. Many of these independent workers had no income at all for some time, and they received little or no compensation through government relief programs because they were not employees.  

Through its research conducted in seven countries, HomeNet South Asia found that community-based networks in many locations stepped in to support their members and affiliated workers. These networks and membership organizations provided food for those who had no income. Where export markets shut down, the networks encouraged members to pivot to producing goods for local markets and set up training opportunities to develop new skills to produce new products. They also urged vaccination among their members and helped connect workers to what government relief programs were available.  

Communicating needs to policymakers 

In some cases, the interventions of community-based networks on behalf of their members helped them to become more effective advocates for their constituency. In a 12-city study, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) found that organizations representing domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors and waste pickers gained recognition because of their expertise on the disadvantages these workers face. In their efforts to address their members’ concerns, they improved their connections with government officials and policymakers and amplified the voices of workers in informal employment. 

The Federation of Informal Workers of Thailand presented the WIEGO study results for Bangkok and a platform of action items to the Ministry of Labour. As a result of their advocacy, workers in informal employment were granted a six-month reduction in social security contributions. The government gave them access to occupational rehabilitation centres previously available only to formal workers and opened COVID-19 check-up centres to workers in both formal and informal employment. Significantly, these decisions recognized the needs of informal workers as being on par with those of workers in the formal economy. For Thailand’s vulnerable workers in informal employment, these advances made a significant difference in their lives and lessened their vulnerability during the crisis. WIEGO noted many such examples of grassroots networks acting as a key bridge between governments and informally employed workers during the pandemic.  

Collaborative governance leads to better responses 

Research led by IDRC partner Asuntos del Sur also demonstrates the value that social advocacy organizations can bring to government decision-making. In six Latin American countries, the research team documented the frequency that national executive branches of government met with social organizations, local governments, independent scientists and the private sector to discuss pandemic-related policy. 

“National governments that created their pandemic policies in collaboration with other governmental and nongovernmental organizations tended to see fewer COVID-related deaths. Collaboration, in this sense, saved lives,” wrote Matias Bianchi, executive director of Asuntos del Sur, and Jennifer Cyr, associate professor at Universidad Torcuato di Tella said in a Washington Post article. 

Their Collaborative Government Index shows that soliciting diverse input and critical feedback produced better responses to the crisis and promoted cooperation in the use of limited resources. To better prepare for the inevitable global shocks to come, we need to draw lessons from our ongoing pandemic response and recovery efforts.  

IDRC-supported research is showing that greater collaboration between governments and community-based organizations is vital to building resilience and providing systematic support for unregistered workers and other vulnerable groups hardest hit by crises like pandemics, natural disasters and climate change. 

With their localized knowledge, participatory nature and demonstrated impact, community organizations are also essential actors and key stakeholders for the implementation of our Strategy 2030, aimed at delivering research and solutions to building a more inclusive, sustainable world.