Trust Truly Local Leadership: To protect children during and after the pandemic, support the grassroots organisations that know them best

Banner image: Amid rising unemployment in Thailand, Zy Movement Foundation launched an entrepreneurship program for youth and their families. Here, participants pose with food they have prepared through the organization’s new skills-building programme. Credit: Zy Movement Foundation

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing children and youth worldwide. Job losses have pushed families into hunger and homelessness, school closures have left low-income kids without access to education and added stresses have led to an increase in violence at home. 

The numbers are staggering. Since the pandemic began, an additional 150 million children have been driven into poverty, according to a report from UNICEF and Save the Children. An April survey conducted by Magic Bus, a nonprofit in India and a Global Fund for Children (GFC) partner, found that 55% of the households interviewed had received no income during India’s nationwide lockdown. The community-based organisations we partner with at GFC have reported higher rates of child exploitation and violence – including child labour, domestic abuse and early marriage – at a time when they are struggling to maintain their programming. In a global survey of GFC partners on the impacts of COVID-19, 60% reported a “significant disruption” in services.

Read Combatting COVID-19’s effect on children on our COVID-19 Hub

Peter Ouko from Youth Safety Awareness Initiative and Iryn Were from Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) model social distancing for children in Nairobi’s Mathare informal settlement, next to a mobile hand-washing station. 

Credit: Youth Safety Awareness Initiative

Without targeted responses, the pandemic could have devastating, long-lasting economic and social impacts on already marginalised children and youth.

Amid the adversity, however, grassroots organisations have emerged as unsung heroes. As governments struggle to respond to a rapidly evolving situation, these community-based groups have stepped in to fill the gaps. They are on the frontlines, keeping children safe in the most difficult circumstances and providing families with food and other necessities.

In March, as the virus spread worldwide, GFC’s local partners quickly mobilised to assist their communities. From Bangladesh to Kenya, grassroots groups helped families without running water obtain hygiene kits, girls at risk of abuse find safe shelter and students without reliable internet connections attend virtual classes. 

More on the Forum Network: Resilience and Strength Shine Brightest: COVID-19 recovery offers the chance to create a more just, compassionate and sustainable economy for history’s largest generation of youth by Jayathma Wickramanayake, Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, United Nations

As the crisis continues, these locally led organisations are uniquely positioned to protect children and youth. They are trusted in their communities, making them valuable messengers of public health information, and they are nimble, able to pivot quickly and provide essential services while continuing their core work. 

Yet even in the best of times, grassroots groups are often among the least likely to receive monetary support. Now, amid the global economic downturn, many have seen funding sources dry up. Nearly 40% of GFC’s local partners reported that they have experienced a significant reduction in funding since the outbreak began. 

As governments, development organisations and other funders grapple with how to support children during and after the pandemic, it is imperative that they provide grassroots groups with the necessary resources to continue their vital work.

In March, GFC launched an Emergency Response Fund to issue immediate cash grants to local organisations serving children. We sent our first emergency grant that month, enabling Ashanti Peru – an Afro-Peruvian youth organisation combating systemic racism – to distribute hand sanitizer and soap to hundreds of families. By early November, we had approved USD 570,000 in emergency grants for 130 local organisations based in 37 countries.

What is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on immigrants and their children? Read this and more OECD policy responses on our COVID-19 Hub

In Guatemala, team members from Sololatecas por los Derechos de las Mujeres Jóvenes Indígenas (SPDMJI) demonstrate hygiene techniques to young children while teaching them about the coronavirus in March.

Credit: SPDMJI

In keeping with our model, we made the emergency grants flexible, trusting local organisations to determine the best use of resources so they could more easily adapt to a rapidly changing situation. We also provided other types of support, including sharing best practices and connecting local groups virtually so they could learn from each other. And we listened to the grassroots groups on the ground, continually asking what we could do better to support them. 

GFC is part of a growing movement that embraces trust-based philanthropy and flexible funding and works to shift power to local organisations. As the pandemic drags on, we believe governments and donors should keep these principles front and centre.

Responses to the pandemic should also prioritise young people who were already at a disadvantage before the crisis. Migrant children living in overcrowded camps are at a higher risk of contracting the virus. Girls are at a greater risk of gender-based violence during public health crises, as we saw during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak. And COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minority groups, deepening inequalities.

Caption: Centro Integral de Atención a las Mujeres (CIAM) team members pack up food and sanitation supplies for children and families in low-income neighbourhoods of Cancun, Mexico. 

Credit: CIAM Cancun

GFC has joined over 700 organisations in calling for gender equality to be at the centre of the coronavirus response. We have also partnered with The National Lottery Community Fund and organisations across England led by people from communities that have experienced systemic racism to prioritise racial justice at this critical time. Around the world, from Guatemala to Serbia, we have awarded emergency grants to local groups that serve migrant children.

It is in circumstances like these that truly local leadership shines. Local organisations have a critical role to play during and after the pandemic, with unique relationships and access to young people in some of the most vulnerable circumstances. Ensuring that these organisations can continue to operate and work toward long-term systemic change is critical to the lives of children and youth everywhere. 

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John Hecklinger

President and CEO, Global Fund for Children

John Hecklinger leads Global Fund for Children’s work to help children and youth worldwide reach their full potential and advance their rights. John joined GFC in 2017 after more than two decades of experience in global philanthropy and the private sector. Prior to joining GFC, John served in a series of roles at GlobalGiving, driving the growth of the world’s first crowdfunding marketplace for global causes. Long ago, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching at the University of Bangui, Central African Republic.

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