Public authorities working to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus often remark upon its invisibility. As a policewoman in Ahmedabad said: “This time the enemy is all around us and cannot be seen”. But also invisible during this crisis are many who work quietly to help others. These are public spirited individuals who make societies resilient and sustainable. They defy any kind of label. They are sometimes called social workers or community workers, terms that have come to be viewed with derision in recent years.

Many of them work independently, while some are part of civil society organisations, also called non-governmental organisations or NGOs, which have also faced suspicion from society and harassment from governments. During the coronavirus crisis, these community workers did not wait for projects to materialise, plans to be drawn, funders to come on board, before deciding where to work and how.

Instead, they saw the need around them, knew they had to respond, and found a way to do so. As the lockdown was announced, while most of us scampered to ensure that we were stocked up on groceries, these public spirited individuals hurried to reach out to the people who they knew were very extremely vulnerable: the elderly, the disabled, the recovering addicts, single women headed households. They assisted them with their own resources and when that fell short, they mobilised more from their networks. Despite the fact that many of them did not have incomes higher than those they were trying to help, they opened their purses for others generously, well before those with greater wealth and resources.

This generosity has come at a cost: many of them find themselves infected with the very same disease that has ravaged the lives of those around them. And yet, even now, what worries them more is the well being of the people they think they have let down. They carry the images, the faces, the voices of people they know are in desperate need of support, whom they can no longer help because they are confined to isolation spaces.

Unfortunately, many such extraordinary people will remain nameless. But take the case of Ajaz Sheikh, a community worker who is also doing a Ph.D. from Gujarat University. After arranging for 250 food ration kits for those who he knew would be immediately affected, he went around his neighbourhood mapping out those in need. With his group of volunteers, he identified over 4,000 daily wage migrant workers who were stuck in their workplace. Each cluster was geo-tagged by reporting his WhatsApp location with a researcher in the back end. These efforts led to larger organisations with more resources stepping in.

With the help of the local police, a unique model of community kitchens was set up, in which each cluster of workers is provided rations and cooking material. The model not only allows workers to cook food of their taste and preference but also gives them dignity.

A management question

In contrast with development professionals who probably have been preoccupied more with things like process, scheduling, attributions, branding, there is a spontaneity in the action of community workers. An instinct and impulse that guides them. Unfortunately, modern management and the emphasis on “impact” has instilled in us the idea that the strengths of these community workers – spontaneity, prioritisation of immediate needs and the customisation with context – make them appear ad hoc and inefficient on the metrics we use.

To give an example from pre-Covid-19 days: a couple of years ago, some of us at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad contacted community workers to seek their help in ensuring students from low-income families were able to access private schools under the “25% mandate” of the Right to Education Act. Under the law, private schools must offer 25% of their seats to economically weaker sections at subsidised rates.

While the response was positive, community workers would often share their frustrations with us about not being able to help in a focussed way since their NGO did not have a “project” on this. They would instead be staffed on a “project” about collecting loan repayments, for instance, even though they were convinced that working on the Right to Education actually had greater transformative potential.

It would be foolish to deride modern management completely and what it brought in terms of
innovations, resources and talent. However, its actual impact on enhancing efficiency cannot be
examined without looking at the objective we are trying to pursue and the nature of resources
needed to pursue it. For instance, how important is the timeliness of the response? How important are location specific information and resources? What needs to be privileged: localised or generalised knowledge?

As the coronavirus crisis has laid bare, there really can be no one way to work with diverse communities and handle complex problems like poverty, food insecurity, education, gender inequality and domestic violence. And yet, because the rules that determine funding and the fact that strings to financial resources are invariably controlled by those sitting at a distance, only certain ideas of efficiency gain prominence. This is not necessarily a reflection of the people making these decisions, but the distance from which they are made. The distance ensures knowledge that can be generalised, compared and contrasted is automatically more appreciated and valued.

Since academic research in most disciplines is built primarily on the idea of generalisability, this reinforces the bias. This bias then permeates over the design and implementation of any intervention, influencing the flexibility built into programming, measures and methods used for evaluation, the level of autonomy provided to organisations, and more importantly those who actually work on the ground.

If even in the face of the current crisis, these conceptual frames do not change, it heralds a return to business as usual. A usual that has clearly failed in helping us – including civil society – prepare adequately for the multi-dimensional crisis we are facing today.

For funders, philanthropists and governments to reimagine a different kind of world, it is also essential that they reimagine how they manage themselves. How do they ensure that the voices of those at the frontline are amplified, heard and not censored by well-produced reports and narratives that gloss over the imperfect reality we live in.

An acceptance of this reality requires not only greater trust but also an understanding that it is not these frontline workers who should be accountable to us, but it is we who should be accountable to them. What good would our resources and knowledge be, without those who actually worked on the ground? After all, it was not they, but us, who are finding ourselves helpless in the crisis that has hit us.

The author teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.