Surveys Reveal the Grave Impact of COVID on Rural Communities of Guatemala – and the Need for New Development Actions

FROM: Jan van Montfort, Paulo Rodrigues – 25. January 2021

Rural communities in Guatemala are suffering from a major socio-economic and governance crisis. Surveys conducted in April and November 2020 revealed how the situation had unraveled: as the rural economy collapsed, many families went into a survival mode, having to eat less and sell their land. What do these findings mean for us and other development organizations?

About the surveys

This blog post is based on two surveys: the first one was conducted in April 2020 by Helvetas, IREX and twelve local partner organizations. In November Helvetas together with the Alliance2015 partners HIVOS and Ayuda en Acción re-assessed the impacts. Both times, we assessed the situation of a statistically valid sample of rural families in the Western Highlands and the Dry Corridor, as the information that is available nationally is highly dominated by the Government and has a clear bias towards bigger cities. Our assessments were done in-house over the telephone and cost less than 600USD (mainly in phone credit), allowing our teams and partners to analyze what is happening in the communities despite the lockdown.

How are things looking in the Western Highlands in Guatemala?

We discovered that COVID-19 and the containment measures have had a profound impact on families in the Western Highlands, causing not only health problems but also food and socio-economic complications.

In April, many families still had no access to essential bio-sanitary inputs such as face masks, gloves, soap and clean water. Most families were relatively well informed about the disease but lacked information about what to do in case of being infected. They also proved to have difficulties in complying with the obligatory social distancing and confinement measures.

However, most importantly, a large share of the households (51% already at the onset of the pandemic) have been experiencing food and income insecurity. At first, the problems were caused by the collapse of the rural economy and the harsh government restrictions on transport and mobility. Now that the pandemic has settled in and the crisis has matured, we find that about 25% of the families are eating less than before and 25% have switched to less nutritious but cheaper food. In addition, approximately 75% suffer from reduced income and do not see that their economic situation will soon improve.

Many farmers have delayed and stopped harvesting or have lost the market for their products. The majority of people who used to sell their labor are faced with a pronounced shortage of opportunities. Numerous micro-entrepreneurs have seen demand for their products drop critically. As a consequence, an important but grave phenomenon is emerging: many families now turn to selling their land, goods and livestock, or seek loans (although most are not clear how they will repay this). It means that they have reached the stage of mere survival: selling off whatever they have, but no longer counting with sufficient income and food.

© Alliance 2015 Report on COVID-19 & Community Resilience
                             The quality & quantity of food have decreased in rural Guatemalan households due to COVID-19. © Alliance 2015 Report on COVID-19 & Community Resilience

This is serious as it has a huge bearing on their socio-economic future for the next two years. There is an increase in mutual solidarity within communities and extended families, but this help is not very effective - as everybody seems to be impoverishing.

We see that what we already feared in April is happening: a fairly deep economic crisis has emerged, where many more people are trapped in poverty. Recovery is likely to take at least a couple of years, as the families are losing their assets, markets and money.

Further, it became clear that government health and emergency response services were largely inadequate, and that effectively the communities were on their own. The emerging crisis has created high levels of general anxiety and stress. Almost all families complain about feeling insecure, uninformed and not properly assisted. They also report an increase of violence especially towards returning migrants (who have massively lost their jobs in the USA).  Also, with the prolonged confinement, violence against women has increased sharply (30% of the surveyed women reported incidents of violence during the confinement) and as well as a disturbing rise in sexual violence against children (reported in 7% of the households).

Putting money where money is needed

The surveys have allowed Helvetas and its partners to focus their resources and efforts on initiatives that will truly solve the problems of the local populations.

Already after the first survey in April, we were able to adjust our projects, in consultation with the donors and the local authorities. We incorporated initiatives to inform people on how to deal with COVID-19 and the related social stress, and to better protect themselves, regulate the use of markets and public spaces, access clean drinking water and produce liquid soap and face masks. 

However, as the second survey revealed an even deeper social and economic crisis, we are on the way to implement more profound measures. In the next few years, we wish to focus on:

1.      Facilitating the socio-economic recovery of rural families, allowing them to replenish their assets and capital (mainly through market-based casual work opportunities), to recover the agricultural and micro-business value chain that they were engaged in (removing critical market and micro-financial constraints) and to exercise social monitoring and advocacy on the local government social recovery programs.

2.      Facilitating an effective community-based support network and institutional (response) environment for the prevention of and attention to violence against women, addressing the social norms that perpetuate this violence and constrain women to speak out about it, facilitating close-by response and protection (in the communities and through on-line support) and strengthening the response capacity in key institutions (removing main attitudinal and structural bottlenecks, and advocating for adequate resource and staff allocation).

3.      Strengthening the community and municipal capacity to anticipate, prepare and respond to major socio-economic emergencies, strengthening their access to relevant information, and their capacity to propose response measures, protocols and regulations, adapted to their context, and facilitating social auditing and advocacy towards municipalities.

These measures will allow Helvetas to pursue its mission and the goals of the United Nations Agenda 2030, namely that of leaving no one behind.

Read other articles related to the Alliance2015 survey and download the full report: