Delivering Development in the Time of a Pandemic

Alternative Approaches through Micro Task Activation Activities

February 10, 2021

As we all know the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing development challenges as well as created novel obstacles. In South Africa as the lockdown measures increased, the infection rate grew, and the economic impacts began to have dire consequences, at the UNDP Accelerator Lab we knew we had to reach vulnerable communities to support them with emergency relief measures. But how to do this during lockdown, in communities we had no existing relationships with, and with infections rising dangerously?

We began by bringing together diverse voices through an unusual collaboration between the private sector, NGOs, and UN agencies to design an intervention (these included Naspers Labs, iSpani, Capacitate, Afrika Tikkun, UNICEF and the UNDP Accelerator Lab).

What we knew: we needed to gather data on vulnerability, particularly regarding basic needs such as food security; we needed to deliver emergency relief to vulnerable households; we needed to support the most vulnerable sectors of society, including youth and women; and we needed to increase awareness of preventative measures to protect against Covid-19.

What we designed: a training programme for unemployed youth to become data collectors in their communities; an application for micro-task activation activities that was zero-rated (and could be used on feature phones); a framework for coordination, feedback and support;  the use of a cloud-based transactional platform for the delivery of emergency relief vouchers; and relationships with key retailers for the redemption of these vouchers.

After a week of training, armed with their cell phones and PPEs, the youth set off on an exploration of their communities. Here are some of the lessons we learned along the way:

Task-based Work Works

Youth unemployment in South Africa is over 40% (which in real terms is close to 9 million people). Though we aim to build a world where all have the opportunity for decent work, this is unlikely to come about in the near future. In the meantime, though not ideal, task-based work can create opportunities in smaller systems.

This short term paid work provided immediate relief to the youth and their families, as well as building their experience to apply for future opportunities. In addition to the core training, we added a few ‘unusual’ topics to better prepare the youth such as community engagement, sales and customer service, understanding vulnerability, and gender awareness. The youth reported that exposure to these topics shifted the way they saw and engaged with their communities and added much value beyond being able to deliver on project targets.

Another interesting finding was that many of the youth said that through the project they had started to see many further opportunities where they could contribute to their communities, particularly through the creation of their own small businesses. As one participant noted, “Above everything the project awoken the entrepreneurship ideas and the importance of registering small businesses”. They also reported increased confidence in themselves, with many who called themselves introverts saying they now felt socially comfortable.

Working with Youth Works

Working with youth meant we could draw on their knowledge and relationships with their communities. This assisted in overcoming issues regarding understanding the local context, access to households, as well as research fatigue.

An interesting finding which surfaced as the project progressed was a changed perception and attitude towards the youth from their communities. Researchers working on issues related to youth have noted a “social ambivalence” towards youth, where there are calls for their participation, but they are at the same time seen as irresponsible and risk-takers (for example see Prof David Everatt’s paper on “Why we Hate our Youth”). Though there was some mistrust and hesitation in the beginning, this project allowed the youth to prove themselves as valued members of the community, as active citizens that could help the most vulnerable. The youth also reported feeling a stronger connection to their communities and felt more invested in their wellbeing.

As one project participant noted, “During the project I learnt a lot, talking to different kinds of people around my community some people were opening up to us.  This made us very happy because that showed that we are trusted.” Another youth agent told us that “When the first group of people received their vouchers the joy I had was out of this world because all I wanted to do was help my community”.

55 youth collected data, delivered emergency relief vouchers, and advocated for Covid protection measures in over 6800 households in under 3 weeks. The success of this project demonstrated that youth can be agents of change within their communities. By delivering development through community members themselves we can increase social cohesion while gaining a ‘truer’ understanding of the lived lives of communities to inform programming.

Food Parcels Work, Vouchers Work Better

The project experimented with an alternative method of food distribution by supplying money through a cloud-based transactional platform in the form of vouchers. These vouchers could be redeemed at the major retailers near the communities, and the project additionally registered local spaza shops and informal traders as vendors for voucher redemption in an effort to support the local and informal economy.

This mechanism was introduced to avoid the challenges associated with traditional food parcel delivery such as packaging and storage, delivery costs, as well as novel challenges such as the lockdown limitations. Additionally, without a needs-based assessment, we wanted to provide community members the ability to choose for themselves rather than being passive recipients. Although limited, this mechanism did create some sense of autonomy.

It also enabled us to look at spending patterns. Unexpectedly (and so interestingly) a large percentage of the vouchers were redeemed at pharmacies, demonstrating that medications were prioritised in household spending.

As our implementing partner Afrika Tikkun noted, “We would support the recommendation that this process be adopted in areas where regular food distribution is undertaken by relief organisations, as apart from removing the logistical challenges, it also boosts the micro township economies, which extends the impact to include these traders and their families”.

What Didn’t Work?

One of our hypothesis ‘failed’ (though in the Accelerator Labs this is a success as failing fast means learning fast).

This hypothesis was: If we provide vouchers to community members, they will redeem these at local vendors and traders (thus providing support to the informal economy). This did not play out in reality with the vast majority of vouchers being redeemed at formal retailers. This failed experiment surfaced lessons which you can read about in our next blog (coming soon!). 

In delivering development, real success goes beyond the numbers. One of the youth participants expressed this by saying through this project “The spirit of trust and Ubuntu was awoken” in their community.

If you would like to find out more about this model and how it could be implemented in your context, please get in touch with me at