Following the large-scale global survey Helvetas carried out with Alliance15, we immediately began adapting 149 of our projects to better respond to the pandemic. In this episode of the Discussions for a Better World podcast, we spoke with three Helvetas experts about what guided the decisions to make these adjustments, the data on which they are based, and, most importantly, how their concrete implementation is happening in our partner countries.
In November 2020, Helvetas collaborated on a large-scale study that surveyed 16,000 people from 25 countries, testing the resilience of communities while focusing on the impact of the pandemic. Helvetas led the survey in eight countries: Guatemala, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Shocking results came to light about how the pandemic and the measures taken to contain it have affected food security, WASH, health, education, income, indebtedness, and psychosocial conditions of households.
Social media campaigns teach soapmaking in Guatemala
In Guatemala, the data findings were particularly significant because they showed the effects of COVID-19 over time. In addition to the study with Alliance2015 seven months after the outbreak of the pandemic, Helvetas Guatemala conducted a survey in 350 communities just two months after the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in the Latin American country. "Even seven months after the outbreak of the pandemic, the situation in the health sector has not changed for the better since our first survey. This is despite the fact that a lot of money has flowed to the government for this purpose," said Jan van Montfort, Helvetas’ Country Director in Guatemala.
To launch effective COVID-19 interventions, decision-makers at the local level had to be brought on board. Community leaders, along with representatives of other NGOs and the press, were invited to four webinars where they were informed about the results of the survey and the next steps Helvetas would take. These webinars were very well received, even though the virtual setting was still new to most participants. The survey results were also valued at a local level: following the webinar, safety protocols for marketplaces were issued in collaboration with local leaders, providing guidelines on how to create safe public spaces to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has also led to the installation of hand-washing facilities in many places.
During the pandemic, it has proven important to also communicate directly to the local population, which led the Helvetas Guatemala team to launch two social media campaigns. "We were really surprised; we just used our Facebook and Twitter account and the followers exploded! It seems like people were really waiting for it," said van Montfort about their successful social media engagement. The first campaign provided practical tips on how to make your own soap or masks, what to do if someone in the household contracts COVID-19, and advice on homestead gardening, since almost 50% of respondents indicated that their food intake situation had worsened. The second campaign was an information campaign on human rights and how to deal with violence, which has risen sharply in the country. The rise is partly in the domestic sphere against Guatemalan refugees who were turned away at the U.S. border and blamed for the spread of the coronavirus upon their return – a theory boosted by misinformation in social media. Helvetas Guatemala and a partner organization have launched an additional campaign to raise awareness about fake news.
Clean hands in Nepal thanks to innovative pedal-pump handwashing stations
In Nepal, more than 1,000 women and men were interviewed by telephone in a record time of three days, followed by the no less difficult task of compiling and acting upon the survey results. “The impact of the new severe corona wave in Nepal makes it difficult to make the necessary project adjustments," said Om B. Khadka, Helvetas’ project coordinator in Nepal who managed the survey process. At the time the survey was conducted, people in Nepal were still confined to their homes; case rates in October 2020 peaked at more than 5,700 reported new infections per day, prompting strict protective measures.
But Om and his team are not discouraged by the challenges of carrying out projects amongst all these restrictions, because they can draw on a major advantage: Helvetas has been active in Nepal for over 60 years, especially in the WASH and bridge sectors, and is very well established with local actors. Thus, despite the difficult circumstances, they’ve still managed to provide technological and financial support in the WASH sector at the community level.
In rural areas, where the simple but immensely important measure of regular handwashing is a challenge, a pioneering spirit is called for. “Together with local companies, we improvised and created a technology for pedal-powered hand washing, requiring only few resources,” said Khadka. The imitator effect has been immediate, with replication of the devices spreading quickly.
Relief measures are also underway in isolation centers and other health facilities, where personal hygiene products such as soap, masks and disinfectants have been provided. In the health centers, we have also been able to help with urgently needed personal protective equipment (PPE).
Since measures can only be implemented effectively if people know about them, creative methods are being used in communication. If you turn on your radio in Nepal, sooner or later you will hear a jingle reminding you of ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Coping with multiple disasters in Madagascar
In addition to the pandemic, Madagascar is being hit by the worst drought in years. “The results of the survey surprised us because we didn’t know the extent of the food crisis,” said Nicolas Morand, Senior Program Advisor for Helvetas Madagascar. “Southern Madagascar has been experiencing drought for the past three years and COVID has increased the pressure on the farmers.”
To stop the food security situation in Madagascar from deteriorating further, Helvetas is teaching people how to best respond to extreme weather. In the arid desert-like region in southern Madagascar, farmers are advised to follow crop rotation and diversify their produce. This technique retains the groundwater and improves the quality of soil.
In this ongoing crisis, it is difficult for the population to stay away from the crowded markets or refrain from maintaining their relationships with family and neighbors. “But the survey showed that people are aware of the situation and the necessity of social distancing and wearing masks,” said Morand. So, the task at hand is to keep improving hygiene and sanitation by distributing essentials such as soap and PPE, while also continuing to create awareness and uncover what it takes for safety measures to be implemented under these circumstances.
The power of an alliance
What makes this global survey especially relevant is the fact that it was done by actors who are networked and have ongoing projects on the ground. These factors enabled actors such as Helvetas to make adjustments immediately and, based on data analysis, to optimally address the needs of program participants to make sure that no one is left behind.
It is impressive what can be achieved in such a short time when organizations work together. “It was really interesting to see collaboration happening at the country level,” Paulo Rodrigues, Advisor Maket Systems in Fragile Context at Helvetas says. This global survey showed how efficiently data collection can be conducted and used to tailor projects to best meet needs. Paulo sees a lot of potential in in the collaboration between different actors in development cooperation. “I believe there will be more initiatives like this,” he said. “This type of collaboration will intensify in the future when we or the other Alliance2015 members start a similar effort.”
Listen to the full podcast with Kruthikaa Lakshman to learn more about how Helvetas is tackling COVID-19 challenges worldwide.