Why informal networks will be key to the COVID-19 recovery

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mouchka Heller, Project Manager, Seamless Integrated Mobility System, World Economic Forum


  • Informal networks including community organizations and faith-based groups are stepping in to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • They often fill gaps in resources and services to assist vulnerable populations.
  • The informal networks forming today may have lasting effects on society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the creation of many formal emergency responses, initiatives and partnerships. But often the first people on the scene within communities most impacted by the outbreak are informal networks, groups of people connected by social ties, including community organizations, faith groups and clubs.

Here are four reasons why informal networks are essential to enacting meaningful change and must be an important part of the COVID-19 response.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

1. Informal networks fill gaps other organizations don’t.

Around the world, informal networks often provide bridges over systemic gaps that, for one reason or another, are not filled by existing institutions. Lower-income, socially isolated and disenfranchised households who live in mobility deserts, areas where people cannot access core services without a vehicle, are often the first hit during crises.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, many community organizations have stepped in to deliver food and basic supplies to those who need it and help their neighbourhoods self-quarantine. For example, some community organizations are fundraising and using the money raised to provide digital gift cards to supermarkets that will deliver, helping families make meals for events including Easter, Ramadan and Passover. In addition, UNICEF partnered with informal networks including Joint Learning Initiative of Local Faith Communities and Religions for Peace to help support organizations handle decisions about providing resources to their communities over the holiday weekend.

They are also many examples in the mobility space. In car-centric cities like Detroit, where transportation costs 30% in net income for the poorest 20% households, and where public transit is lacking, residents leverage a network of social favours and informal car sharing to get to job interviews, buy food and get to school. In neighbourhoods like Washington Heights in New York City, the Dollar Van network, a network of off-the-grid ride-hailing and shared-mobility solutions helps people cope with insufficient public transit, with higher ridership than some private mobility providers.

 

2. They are natural focus groups.

Leaders of informal networks concentrate knowledge of their specific groups in order to support them. This means that for organizations going into a new region or deploying a new technology or testing a new concept, often the fastest way to get reliable and complete data is through the leader of a community network.

Many organizations might get involved in data collection from marginalized communities even while they acknowledge the gaps that may find their way in their insights. For example, consider communities like First Nations in Canada, which represent indigenous populations in the country and which closed its borders to limit the exposure of the COVID-19 outbreak. The network generates interest from non-profit, governmental and academic organizations around the world for the data it collects on its community.

Data from informal networks can be uncoordinated, lacking in the most basic operationalization best practices, but that is partly because there is no defined framework for approaching informal networks. Instead, community leaders often store information that they deem relevant, following practices that they deem best, and retain the full picture of the needs, wants, failures and successes of their people. As we consider more inclusive initiatives, we need to make it appealing for these leaders to join the table and share their knowledge.

3. Informal networks have people’s trust.

Informal networks are often motivated differently than public or private entities. Faith-based entities often adopt a “flock” mentality, with promises of spiritual rewards. Neighbourhood organizations often create their own tribal system to build a microcosm they work hard to preserve.

An informal network is often built on a piece of identity that finds itself threatened by the greater mass, like international student groups who connect to cook food from home on college campuses. Many immigrants have experienced the happy surprise of unexpectedly hearing a phrase from home, said just like their mothers would, and the immediate resulting sense of trust connection. These informal networks tend to be the first to show up in a crisis, to take more risks for each other and can become powerful allies.

When COVID-19 hit Westchester, for instance, days before the Jewish holiday of Purim in early March, while public institutions established a lockdown, and private companies reconsidered commercial opportunities, faith leaders from the Chasidic network of Chabad read the Megillah at the door of locked homes. In Tokyo, Seoul, Rome and Milan, the network adapted to the rapidly unfolding situation by celebrating the holiday in new ways, approved by health authorities.

4. They might be invisible, but they can change the world.

The Arab Spring is perhaps the most noteworthy example of an informal network. People, apparently without much organization, enacted change dictated by their common values, bringing about a revolution that could have hardly been born from any civic, public or private organization.

There are millions of people around the world that are vulnerable to shocks and disruptions like the one caused by COVID-19. When the World Bank recently attempted to quantify the economic fallout from COVID-19, their Chief Economist for East Asia and the Pacific said “the worst suffering could be for informal workers, people who are… invisible and very hard to go identity, find and help.”

The coronavirus crisis has meant that there are now many people who have lost their jobs over the last month or are holding their breath for a check from the government to bring some relief to their families. Some of these people would rather risk exposure than not deliver a parcel, and they are those who have had to take public transit to reach test centres and shelter. There is little way to predict how much their pain will cost the global economy in healthcare, rise in crime, space in shelters and relief funds.

A community is forming, right now, posting on Facebook and Instagram, sending texts and phone calls, singing from their balconies, writing messages on their windows, and waving across at their neighbour standing six feet away from them in line to the supermarket. If it got organized, what could it do? If we could reach out, what could we do?

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