Citizen initiatives facing COVID-19: Due to spontaneous generation or the product of social capital in Mexico City?

21 de Julio de 2020

Photo: Thiago Teles, Unsplash.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Mexico, multiple citizen responses[1] have emerged to tackle its impacts: digital aid platforms such as Frena la Curva (Stop the curve) and México Covid19;  groups of makers that design medical and protective equipment; Zapotec indigenous women that teach how to make hand sanitizer at home; public buses that turn into mobile markets; and much more.

There are initiatives that aid 10, 20, 3,000 or more people; initiatives that operate inside a housing unit, a municipality or across the City. Some responses have come from civil society organizations; others from collectives of practitioners or from groups of friends and family; there are even those made out of groups of strangers that the pandemic turned into partners working for the same goal.

How will these initiatives evolve? We still don't know. The truth is that this is not the first time —nor will it be the last—  that the Mexican civil society organizes itself to move forward in times of crisis. It is also true that we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation. From the Accelerator Lab we have set out to explore these citizen initiatives to understand how they originate, what they can tell us about our social ties, and how we can better leverage them to face the challenges of the months to come.

Citizen initiatives may arise spontaneously, but not by spontaneous generation

Within the plurality of initiatives that have emerged, sometimes, seemingly in a spontaneous way, there is a common denominator: people are reacting in a collaboratively way to the crisis to solve the needs that the pandemic is leaving behind.

Different research studies connect social cohesion and social capital with the response's capacity of a community in situations of crisis and natural disasters; and with its subsequent recovery. These concepts —derived from sociology— include aspects such as the level of union; relationships and networks; and interaction between people in a community.

This can be seen when, for example, a group of people in a neighborhood gets together to buy groceries for neighbors who have lost their incomes. Also, when a collective of professionals react to the shortages of protective equipment for health workers by creating low-cost prototypes, or when a civil organization collaborates with local authorities to bring water to households that lack access to clean water.

It would seem that a high rate of social capital and social cohesion might ease the rise of the citizen initiatives that aim to tackle the challenges that ensue from the pandemic. These do not come out of nowhere.  

It is possible to say that social networks, along with the horizontal and vertical ties that connect us with others, are our most important defense against disasters[2].

The COVID-19 Social Inventory, the new line of exploration of the Accelerator Lab at UNDP Mexico, is located at the intersection between social capital/social ties and citizen initiatives.


COVID-19 Social Inventory: an exploration of the Accelerator Lab in Mexico

Our first objective is to map the citizen initiatives that are organically emerging in physical and virtual communities in Mexico City[3] to react to the impacts of COVID-19 and cross them with social capital indicators. In this phase, we aim to generate conclusions that can lead us to the achievement of our second objective: prototyping solutions that help to strengthen the civic response in areas with low deposits of social capital.

We still don’t know what we are going to find out or what we could end up prototyping. What guides us are the questions that need an answer.

What can we learn?   

Since accelerating learning to tackle development challenges is one of the main purposes of the Accelerator Lab, with our exploration we seek to learn the following:

  • What role do social ties play in the emergence and development of local initiatives in the context of COVID-19 in Mexico City?
  • What impact does physical distancing have on the activation or creation of social ties and social capital during cycles of high infection rates?
  • Under what conditions do citizen initiatives have a greater impact on the well-being of a community, during and after the COVID-19 crisis? (Conditions such as indicators of social capital, demographics, physical infrastructure, adherence to confinement measures, credibility of people towards the high risk of contagion, vulnerability of the population to contract COVID-19, to name a few).
  • Which communities have a greater social capacity to collaborate and how can this be strengthened in communities that lack such capacity?
  • Lastly, how can we leverage the collaborative capacity of society and grassroots innovations to envision new growth paths for the recovery process?

What is our process roadmap?

To map local initiatives, we started by launching a general survey. In order to reach more initiatives, we joined efforts with platforms that are already compiling them, such as Frena la Curva México, and government organizations and institutions that have important citizen networks, such as the Youth Institute of Mexico City (INJUVE). In the coming weeks we will interview some of the identified initiatives to find out about their process, challenges, successes and learnings.

To map the social capital of Mexico City, we will define —along with the experts on the subject— measurement indicators based on existing frameworks and analyses. Once we analyze the existing data, we hope to identify the level of social capital in different parts of the city.

We anticipate that one of the challenges of this study will be to make sense of the availability of data and complete existing gaps in some areas. Hence, from this first exploration we do not rule out the rise of efforts that will generate data for some indicators of social capital.

Subsequently, we will carry out a cross-analysis of initiatives and social capital to identify opportunities for prototyping solutions to strengthen the civic response in areas with low levels of social capital. And finally, we will implement a pilot project.

Once we know the indices of social capital and the way they interrelate with civic responses, we’ll be able to find ways for strengthening the capacity of reaction, recovery and resilience of communities.

Soon, we will be sharing our findings on the mapping of initiatives and social capital. Follow our blogs to learn more.

[1] By citizen responses or citizen initiatives we mean all those created by the inhabitants of Mexico, regardless of whether they are of legal age or their nationality.

[2] Aldrich, Daniel P. 2019. Black Wave: How Networks and Governance Shaped Japan’s 3/11 Disasters.

[3] We decided to focus this first exploration on Mexico City, since it will be one of the areas most affected by the pandemic. However, we hope that the learnings obtained here can contribute to the recovery of other areas in the country.

Join the COVID-19 Social Inventory — We are looking for allies to create an ecosystem for the recovery of Mexico City (people from government, academia, the private sector, organized civil society and citizens in general). Do you know of citizen initiatives that respond to the effects of the pandemic? Share them with us here. Are you interested in measuring the social capital of Mexico City? Are you looking to implement actions to strengthen the civic response?  Please write us at