Leveraging digital for relief opportunities in a pandemic

Osama Manzar | Digital Empowerment Foundation

When the lockdown was first imposed in March 2020 and everything was shut down, rural and remote India was the worst hit. Unlike the urban populations, people from rural and remote locations in India didn’t have access to fast-speed Internet connectivity, many of them did not possess a digital device per household member or have access to the many mobile apps that made the stay-at-home a little more bearable for their urban counterparts. Transitioning to online banking, grocery and food delivery or work from home didn’t come as easy to them.

This population was not just unable to access services but was also ignored by the systems largely, leading to their further marginalization due to reverse migration, loss of livelihood, poor access to health care, reduced access to food supplies and disconnect from educational opportunities, among others. In 2021, the situation was worse. With the pandemic entering Year 2, rural and remote populations saw their economic capacity dip even further, their quality of life deteriorate even more and their access to basic and essential services made almost impossible.

Access to essential services

When the COVID19 pandemic began in 2020, the focus of government, civil society organisations and other stakeholders was to curb the spread of the virus through imposition of lockdowns and increasing awareness. The Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) too focused on creating awareness about Covid appropriate behaviour and ensuring access to sanitisers and masks last year. This year, however, the focus was more to ensure communities have access to their essential services, which had been rather abruptly disrupted during the first lockdown.

Several organisation have been using their experience and leveraging their networks and programmes to respond to the needs of the communities they serve, such as running helplines, ensuring access to food and healthcare services. We too responded to these challenges by leveraging our available Internet-enabled community-based digital infrastructure resource centres. These digital resource centres, which were operated and managed by young people from the community trained by us and called SoochnaPreneurs, acted as local service hubs. DEF’s SoochnaPreneurs, while ensuring all safety precautions, facilitated access to financial services for those with bank accounts, enabled access to government entitlements for those who relied on public schemes and benefits, and turned into classrooms for those who were missing out on regular schools.

It is worth noting that during the second wave young people’s participation and leadership has been integral to tackling local issues. This group, which faces great uncertainty and anxiousness about its education and livelihood aspirations, have been torchbearers in their communities when it comes to raising awareness around Covid-appropriate behaviour, vaccine hesitancy and ensuring their communities have access to essential services. We, too, witnessed this.

Our young SoochnaPreneurs ran hyperlocal relief work and resource mobilisation on the ground. This involved a barter system of sorts in the villages of India, to allow exchange of surplus ration supplies. Some SoochnaPreneurs, who had a large network on their social media, ran fundraisers online to reach out to well-wishers outside of their villages and districts, and encouraged them to donate cash via digital wallets like Google Pay and banking apps. One such SoochnaPreneur, Mohd Arif, managed to raise INR 25,000 for the people of Nuh in Haryana. This helped him support hundreds of people in his village by supplying rations to families, pay for mobile data of children to attend school, and ensure medical supplies for those struggling to access any. Arif succumbed to Covid a few months later but not before leaving behind a legacy of giving and caring in Nuh.

Access to healthcare services

Funders, bi-lateral and multi-later agencies have also been collectivizing young people both online and on the ground to champion various causes related to COVID. One such example is UNICEF’s Young Warriors Coalition, a partnership to catalyse a pan-India movement to mobiliseand arm 5 million“Young Warriorsto combat COVID-19. With the support of UNICEF, our SoochnaPreneurs or Covid Warriors managed to reach 35 lakh individuals online — via instant messaging and social media platforms— with their messaging to tackle the pandemic. Additionally, a partnership with DocOnline enabled these young men and women to provide village residents with online video consultations at a time when even basic healthcare was hard to find, let alone Covid-related treatment and care.

Access to educational content

Young people’s access to education has also been severely impacted due to the pandemic. Continued school closure and transition to online classes has led to disparate and restricted access and loss of learning. In DEF’s experience, while relief work continued, we heard from several communities that education was a pressing concern for their children. Several organisations in the country have been working tireless to ensure children’s education is not disrupted through access to services or resources, and even through the availability of infrastructure. At our end, to solve for the digital divide, we saw our responsibility in leveraging our networks on social media and messaging platforms to raise about 5,500 used laptops and mobile phones. These crowdsourced devices were then used to create 500 community access points (common facility centres) at the village level for school-going children so that they could access online educational content during the lockdown.

Access to livelihood opportunities

The pandemic has put major strains on the development sector in India with many CSOs and NGOs facing challenges in terms of funding and supporting communities on ground due to restrictions on mobility. However, several funders and philanthropists around the world have mobilized additional funds and allowed flexibility in existing funding to support organisations and the communities they work in through this time.

We need to understand though that change does not happen not overnight. While an organisation can offer immediate relief, it can often take a while for the impact to sustain or for change to be actioned. For example, between 2010 and 2015, DEF had trained some 500-odd young boys and girls in digital literacy in the town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh. And we recently found out that at least 80 households in Chanderi had managed to sell at least one product online during the second surge by leveraging social media and eCommerce platforms. This shows that even efforts we made almost a decade ago have allowed some families to sustain themselves during the pandemic. Similarly, our efforts at creating a pool of SoochnaPreneurs who can support their community members in these times of crisis will help some of the most marginalised communities stay afloat as we eventually recover from this pandemic.

Today, access to a smart device and fast-speed Internet has become a necessity to access quality educational, livelihood, governance, financial and even entertainment content. Considering the intense adverse effect that digital divide has created across rural India amid a pandemic, many organisations like DEF have been strongly advocating to make smartphones affordable and Internet accessible for all homes. Funders, too, need to step up and see hardware and connectivity as key investments towards change. It is imperative for the government to consider digital access as a fundamental right and make provisions in welfare schemes to make the Internet available for vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Digital Empowerment Foundation is one of the 10 organisations that has been covered as a case study in the report titled ‘Buffering Now’, published by the 10to19 Dasra Adolescents Collaborative. This report spotlights organisations that have had a head start when it comes to leveraging digital technologies in a pre-Covid world, and thus sharing learnings and recommendations for organisations that want to adopt to digital tools and technologies amid the pandemic to serve their communities.

Photo Credits: Digital Empowerment Foundation 

Reference Example for easy understanding

Table 1

The policy gap(s) addressed by the program

The exclusion of young people in the decision-making process for policy issues surrounding adolescents

Community need(s) addressed by the program

Greater awareness and understanding of adolescent issues regarding their education, sexual and reproductive health, and early marriage

Opportunity for innovation addressed by the program

The opportunity to bring and work together with critical stakeholders on a single platform

Table 2

Day-to-day program activities

Stakeholder management, vendor management

Periodic program activities

Monitoring, Reporting, Training of Personnel

One-off program activities

Government advocacy, designing campaigns

Tools/frameworks/systems & processes/ways of working from the program

Systems Change Framework

Table 3

Program practices

Is the practice impactful? If yes, list down why?

Is the practice sustainable? If yes, list down why?   

Is the practice scalable? If yes, list down why?  

Is the practice innovative and/or unique? If yes, list down why?  

Youth-led social audits and presenting youth-centric priorities directly to decision makers

Yes, as it allows young people to directly engage with decision makers and contribute to the decision-making process

Yes, as it equips young people with leadership skills. It is also cost effective due to the long-term gains it offers upon initial investment

Yes, as such training modules can be replicated across multiple initiatives by other practitioners & organizations. In addition, trained young people can also train other young people

Yes, as it follows an approach which centers its design and delivery around young people, in an end-to-end manner

+

+

+

+

+

Table 4

Promising Practice

Youth-led social audits and presenting youth-centric priorities directly to decision makers to: (i) create a platform for youth to exercise their agency (ii) effectively engage decision makers

Source

  • Verbal evidence from community
  • Verbal feedback from on-ground team members
  • Project report & surveys

Details

Community feedback of adolescents feeling confident, understood, and acknowledge

On-ground team feedback on creation of government champions for the project’s objectives

Project report and surveys observe greater youth involvement and efficacy in engaging directly with decision maker

Table 5

RECOMMENDATIONS

Promising Practice

Youth-led social audits and presenting youth-centric priorities directly to decision makers to: (i) create a platform for youth to exercise their agency (ii) effectively engage decision makers

The demographic it addresses

Adolescents from the age of 10 to 19 years

The gap/ need/ opportunity it addresses

The exclusion of adolescents and young people in the decision-making process for policy issues regarding adolescents and young people

Govt stakeholders

Holding consultations with critical stakeholders and young people from the inception of a program

Funders

Taking inputs from all stakeholders and young people before initiating a new project to ensure a deeper visibility and understanding of their demographic and its needs

Other Practitioners

Engaging young people in decision-making processes to adopt a more collaborative approach between stakeholders and young people

Community Stakeholders

Undertaking youth-led social audits and engagement with decision makers to engage directly with young people, understand their needs & concerns and influence change at the community level

5

Objective Review

Outcome

Promising Practices and recommendations ratified by at least one member/ partner organization/ community/ MEL partners outside of ‘the team’

5

Objective Review

Objective

To validate the final promising practice and recommendation(s) by at least one person/ partner organization/ community/ MEL partners outside of the team.

4

Document

Outcome

2-3 promising practices documenting:

 

  • What gap/need is addressed
  • How it is addressed and the change that is created
  • The potential for replicating along with recommendations for implementing

4

Document

Objective

To document the promising practices in a detailed manner

3

Develop into a recommendation

Outcome

Well-articulated recommendation(s) addressing:

 

  • Demographic to cater to
  • Gaps/needs/opportunities addressed by the practice
  • The change brought in by implementing such a practice

3

DEVELOP INTO A RECOMMENDATION

Objective

To construct a recommendation in a brief, specific and clear-cut format which would assist other initiatives in implementing the same

2

CALIBRATE & SUBSTANTIATE

Outcome

Obtaining qualitative and/or quantitative data to assess the promise of the shortlisted practices according to the five guiding factors

Arriving at first list of promising practices

2

CALIBRATE & SUBSTANTIATE

Objective

To substantiate the shortlisted practices by collating gathered data in the form of:

 

  • Feedback from the community
  • Verbal accounts of the ground team
  • Documentation reports
  • Other valuable data

1

List & Shortlist

Outcome

Identifying:

  • Policy gaps
  • Community needs
  • Opportunities for innovation and other aspects that the program is addressing.

    Creating a list of program practices that are working on-ground in bridging gaps/needs/opportunities.

1

List & Shortlist

Objective

To identify gaps/needs/opportunities and to shortlist program practices that are impactful, sustainable, scalable, innovative and/or unique.