Harambee Spirit in the Time of COVID-19

Jaqueline Poni, Head of Experimentation for the Accelerator Lab at UNDP South Sudan, speaks during the launch event of GoSanitize, a "Made in South Sudan" initiative by the GoGirls ICT Initiative to produce locally made hand sanitizer.

By the Accelerator Lab Team in South Sudan (Lorem Aminathia, Jacqueline Poni, and Tong Atak)

Unprecedented, volatile, and ever-changing dynamics brought forth by the COVID-19 global pandemic demands collective response, in the spirit of Harambee.

Harambee is a Swahili word meaning “all pull together”, and its philosophy resonates widely across Africa and beyond, even appearing on the Kenyan national flag. Embodying harambee in the development sector means working together in an environment where each partner has to recast their traditional area of expertise in new ways.

Responding to COVID-19 presents an enormous call-to-action for UNDP, in South Sudan and beyond. For the first time in decades, we are witnessing a global reversal of human development. The nature of COVID-19’s socio-economic impact and the pandemic’s compounding effect on concurrent development challenges demands a rethink of traditional command and control approach to development. UNDP has experience dealing with unpredictable and complex contexts, where dynamics change in a matter of days rather than months and years, such as during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

UNDP’s initial investment in the Accelerator Lab global network in 2019 presented an opportunity to shake up traditional, linear development with an injection of “unusual” approaches, such as collective intelligence, in over 60 countries where UNDP works. The purpose of this “new way of working” was to unleash rapid and scalable development gains. Just as the global network took flight and embedded across the country offices, COVID-19 came to the forefront.

As a complement to our decades of crisis response experience, as well as deep relationships with partners on the ground, the Accelerator Lab’s system approach is making effective contributions to COVID-19 response in South Sudan, as we learn and adapt in real time.

As part of this year’s Mandela Day celebrations, the Accelerator Lab in South Sudan helped organize a panel discussion on ‘Skills for a Resilient Youth in the Era of COVID-19" featuring young entrepreneurs conducting and sustaining businesses during COVID-19.

Harambee = “all pull together”

Change is unpredictable. The probability of success in a dynamic environment is more likely if people and partners work together through a regular process of experimentation and adaptation. Pursuing unusual partnerships in South Sudan can offer an opportunity to deploy rapid and adaptive COVID-19 response/services, while preventing social and economic backsliding.

In this regard, the Accelerator Lab in South Sudan is working on a number of initiatives with a range of stakeholders to mitigate the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of our work is focused on opportunities to mainstream youth entrepreneurship and harnessing the energy of young people to contribute in full force to South Sudan’s national COVID-19 response efforts, as well as broader economic development.

During World Youth Skills Day, the Accelerator Lab partnered with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, MTN South Sudan, and Junub Open Space to host a virtual panel with young entrepreneurs sharing their experience building skills and businesses in South Sudan adapted to the COVID-19 era. The online event streamed with watch parties in Bor, Torit, Yambio and the American Corner in Juba. The discussion highlighted youth-led enterprises receiving support from MTN South Sudan’s Business COVID Support Programme, such as Aramweer Organic Skincare (organic shea butter products), Ubuntu Farms (healthy, locally sourced produce), Fresh Start Cleaning (cleaning, fumigation and pest control) and JuHub (human-centered information and communication technology solutions).

Our Lab efforts also sought to map private sector actors pivoting to the COVID-19 “new normal” in locally relevant ways.  One of the fellow #WorldYouthSkillsDay speakers was Dut Majak of Shilu Ana, a local taxi hailing company who managed to adapt their platform to offer food delivery services. 

Most recently, the GoGirls Initiative, an organization promoting STEM education among girls and boys, is leveraging the work of artisanal producers of alcohol to produce hand sanitizers. This is part of the Accelerator Lab’s experimentation approach and an attempt to test the viability of a COVID-19 response production opportunity for small scale producers.

The COVID-19 situation is aggravating a number of socio-economic issues such child/forced marriage and poor resilience at household level. We are working with a number of partners to find innovative and impactful ways to alleviate some of these issues, including an innovative grassroots solution that provides safe havens for young girls in abusive relationships or forced marriages. Additionally, we are exploring experimentation on joined-up financial literacy training coupled with small seed capital for strengthening women-led SMEs. One of our key aims is to break silos through collective intelligence. Unfortunately, there is a danger of COVID-19 health guidelines reinforcing siloed approach to work.

GoGirls ICT Initiative worked with local women, including alcohol, aloe vera and orange extractors, to produce local affordable hand sanitizer.

Systems thinking and complexity

The issues spawned by the pandemic are complex, forming a web of relationships that cannot be easily classified nor reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Challenges on the massive scale of COVID-19 often prevent any single actor or stakeholder to know with certainty what is going to happen. On the other hand, challenges of this nature increasingly demand systems thinking. Effective responses also require a recognition that those closest to the ground, the community themselves, are in a far better position to create rapid and significant impact.

At UNDP South Sudan, our team working on human development and inclusive growth have collaborated with different local communities in six locations to produce face masks. UNDP is working with sister agencies and authorities to support local stakeholders who are well placed within their networks to quickly get the face masks produced and distributed – within weeks – in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Beyond the current pandemic, a systems approach can provide a more holistic view for addressing development problems and foster agency within local communities to set their own priorities and deploy their own solutions. It empowers people, which builds resilience and promotes sustainability.

UNDP is working with sister agencies and authorities to support local stakeholders who are well placed within their networks to quickly get the face masks produced and distributed – within weeks – in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Fast feedback and the way forward

The complexity and breadth of issues unleashed by the pandemic demand multiple solutions. During an initial mapping in March, the Accelerator Lab in South Sudan started with a list of ten possible directions or implementation ideas that we saw on the “fringes”, with the potential to contribute to the national efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. As the COVID-19 situation was rapidly evolving, some of the ideas became irrelevant and we had to shelf them almost as quickly as we wrote them down.  

Addressing complexity effectively means being open enough to try, knowing that failure has a high probability, and ideas or interventions will require several rounds of iteration before an “aha” moment is unlocked.

This type of work is tough in South Sudan where need is high, and resources are limited. The Lab’s learning cycle tends to disrupt the traditional rhythm of doing business that many are accustomed to in our office, across agencies and amongst our multi-stakeholder environment. The Accelerator Lab believes strongly in the power of community-based experience sharing, learning from others and advancing our collective ability to effect change.

We firmly believe that this harambee spirit in the face of COVID-19 will make collective efforts more effective, more impactful, more reflective of the needs of the communities, and provide an opportunity for sustained systemic change.


Learn more about UNDP's Accelerator Lab in South Sudan