Par Nadia Ben Ammar
Following the application of lockdown rules in Tunisia after the COVID19- outbreak, many citizens found themselves in situations of profession- al inactivity. Many of them, a part of the informal workforce of the country which accounts for approximately 50 % of the GDP found themselves in situations of economic and social hardship without being formally enlisted for social security aids.
People started anticipating a wave of social uprising, but an important number of informal social solidarity initiatives started to rise, led by citizens at the local and microlocal level. How were these social securi- ty nets formed and what can we learn from their success? UNDP Tunisia’s Accelerator Lab, as part of UNDP’s Leave No One Behind agenda, has conducted a series of interviews to make sense of these social solidarity initiatives led by citizens in Tunisia during the COVID-19 outbreak.
With the appearance of the first cases of COVID19- in Tunisia, and in anticipation of the limited capacity of the Tunisian health system to face a pandemic which was already having a devastating impact in neighboring European countries, the Tunisian Government opted for caution and lockdown rules were generalized across the country at a very early stage for a duration of 45 days and a planned progressive deconfinement afterwards.
The announcement of this 45 day-long lockdown and what it entailed in terms of professional inactivity for many sectors, including the informal one, brought a feeling of uncertainty and fear of a future with no revenues. With a weak and almost non-existing governmental social security system, everyone wondered how many people will subsist during and after the crisis.
We started to see the first symptoms of this fear in the first week of lockdown. People started to queue in front of social affair local delegations asking for social aids, some were registered for aids, others wanted to know how to be on the list of beneficiaries. Videos started circulating on social media portraying citizens intercepting trucks with flour and semolina causing riots in various parts ofthe country. All these events were not reassuring, and the speech ofthe government leaders did not seem to be a match to the rising turmoil. People were complying less with lockdown rules and regulations, “is this going to be the straw that would break the camel?” people began to wonder..
A ‘social solidarity initiatives’ boom
With many families in Tunisia drawing their resources from the informal sector (some studies estimate that the parallel economy accounts for as much as %57 of the GDP (World Bank, 2013), people started to worry about the revenues of their cleaning ladies, gardeners, construction workers, café owners, hairdressers.Except for local stores providing food and basics, everyone was affected.
Several municipalities and local NGOs started initiatives to provide aid to citizens in their communities/neighborhoods. People expressed the need to help and municipalities and NGOs capitalized on their organization and processes to provide a platform for people to contribute.
Most of the initiatives were entirely crowdfunded at the local and micro-local level. This stemmed from a genuine collective will to contribute somehow to crisis relief.
"I don’t think there is a single person in my entourage who hasn’t donated something to a hospital or a needy person." Leila Ben Gacem, elected member of municipal council in the region of Beni Khalled.
In Beni Khalled, a region in Tunisia well known for citrus production, several NGOs united to crowdfund and organize aid destined to healthcare structures (local hospitals and clinics). In this crisis, there was no political belonging, no ideologies involved, which is often seen in normal times, everyone wanted to unite to make a meaningful collective action for the local citizens. Crowds were starting to form in front of ministry of social affair structures to register for cash benefits, but the mechanisms were slow and counterproductive given the lockdown regulations in place. The ‘system’ was not ready to a timely response to the social impact of the crisis. Local NGOs who were mainly connected online through social networks and chat platforms mobilized themselves really fast, created an entire local ecosystem of aid provision and implementing agents and provided timely help to those in need. How did they do it?
What were the factors of success? How can we learn from their experience to enhance government-led social security nets? How can the local government capitalize on this work after the crisis is over ?
Creating informal social safety nets from scratch
We asked Leila Ben Gacem, an elected municipal council member to explain how this entire process was organized. A number of local NGOs and citizens united to organize aid provided for local clinics and hospitals decid- ed to continue their action further and start aid distribution to citizens most affected by the health crisis. Coordination was assured through online platforms. Each NGO drew from their network to identify partners
Aids were gathered from crowdfunding and forming partnerships with local business owners and individual local citizens who wanted to help (tailors, artisans, housewives with specific skills…etc.). The process has led to timely and efficient aid delivery to as many as 1366 of individuals in Beni Khalled.
What can government-run social security systems learn from this experience
A few weeks into the outbreak, the municipality had finally started putting in place a local committee to distribute aids from the government. The lists of people who were most in need were taken from the NGOs so the action initiated by the local NGOs was capitalized-on and a handover was made with the authorities responsible of the ‘formal’ social security aid system. Most importantly however, what could the local and central authorities learn from these pilot experiences.
Proximity of social services
The ministry of social affairs operates in a very centralized way in Tunisia. Local antennae are responsible for registrations and collecting informa- tion then dispensing the aid. Most decisions however are made at the central level. This some how depersonalizes the service and places the beneficiaries at a distance from the decision-makers. This process involves a chain of individuals, a number of rigid administrative processes.
According to our local actors, many people are intimidated by the entire process. Many of them are also not willing to ask for help from “strangers” in the administration and tell them about their hardship. Identifying individuals who were most in need was, therefore, a first challenge. Some people were already enlisted to receive social aids and benefits, but many individuals found themselves in fragile situations after the pandemic outbreak and therefore neither knew the mechanisms of asking for help nor did they feel comfortable being in a situation of vulnerability. “Needy people come in all shapes and forms”,
Leila told us. Having several people onboard facilitated the process and people felt more comfortable asking for help from those in their community which they knew, a process which decreases the stigma linked to asking for help from government officials. People involved were close to the community, knew how to provide help.
Crowdfunding at the local level
Crowdfunding is what made the whole action possible. It is what made the operation timely as well. Crowdfunding at the local level can ensure a fast response to a crisis. Allowing local ministry f social affairs branches or local governance institutions to crowdfund social aids can be a very efficient way to not only increase budgets allocated locally to social aids but also to ensure adherence of people. Indeed, helping your neighbors and members of your community might be more appealing to individuals.
Civil Society and local citizens as strategic partners
Civil society and citizens with initiatives are often perceived by municipalities as implementing agents. Actions delegated to local CSOs consists almost exclusively of field work such as various reparations to local struc- tures, helping organize cultural events, which have been planned and approved by the municipality. According to our local actors in Beni Khalled, the municipality never collaborated with them as ‘strategic partners’ or as ideas generators but after they took over the local aid distribution, there was a realization on the part of the officials that citizens and CSOs can be more than implementation partners, they can lead initiatives, they can help identify partners and create PPPs at the local level, they can organize aid distribution channels.
Diffusion of accountability
In social psychology, diffusion of responsibility refers to “the phenomenon whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when other by standers or witnesses are present”. When it comes to crowd-funding for social aids to vulnerable citizens, people prefer to donate to one or just a handful of individuals in order to achieve a minimal level of accountability as to the funds donated. In La Marsa, a group of individuals who raised an important sum and supported more than 5000 families told us that fundraising was particularly efficient with “reputable” individuals onboard that people entrusted with their money. People said they wanted to give and help but were worried that this money would never reach the beneficiaries. With no accountability mechanisms within the public finance system, people were reluctant to give to the government.
A Local ecosystem of help
The CSOs and citizens of Beni Khalled created a network of volunteers at the local level where each person contributed by donating money, specific products (businesses), specific services (tailors creating Some NGOs have the know-how, others know how to mobilize resources, others have a good network of volunteers. Put these people together and you can create a very efficient social solidarity system. In La Marsa, suburban area of Tunis, a group of young volunteers gathered around a similar project and through micro-local antennae at the level of neighborhoods, they managed to identify and help individuals by providing food, paying for rent, medical fees…etc. They capitalized on what they had (car, volunteers, resources, networks…etc.).
Remote coordination means more inclusive coordination ?
Most actions were coordinated using online platforms due to lockdown regulations. According to actors involved in social solidarity actions in Beni Khalled, this meant organizing things from home and therefore everyone with an internet connection could contribute equally to the decision-making process. Another reflection was made by our local partners about gender-inclusive- ness. Indeed, remote work meant every- one could participate, the fact that meet- ings were held online allowed women with household responsibilities (this is usually the case in rural areas in Tunisia) to be an equal contributor to the decision-making process.
"Diverse channels are required to serve a diversity of needy people." Leila Ben Gacem elected member of municipal council in the region
What Happens after COVID19-
The question we would like toask is what is going tohappen to these emerging mechanisms of collaboration around solidarity initiatives. For Leila, president of local CSO in Beni Khalled, the main takeaway is that ecosys- tems must be created around meaningful local projects. As long as a number of citizens and local organizations work for the same purpose, motives no longer matter, leadership in organizing activities is futile, relief is what matters. It is therefore important to organize projects around objec- tives which everyone is enticed to achieve in order to have everyone on board no matter their expertise and their agendas.