From social infrastructure to pandemic resilience?: Learning from and with low-income urban communities

Blog 26th January 2024

In this guest post Dr Melanie Lombard, Dr Fiona Anciano and Dr Carlos Tobar write about their collaborative research on the role of commmunity-based organisations in local pandemic response. Their work was supported with a USF Pandemics and Cities grant.

This project emerged during the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the project team had undertaken individual and collaborative research on pandemic effects and responses in cities, such as Lombard and Tobar’s co-authored blog on the pandemic and national strike in Colombia (Tobar et al 2021), and Anciano’s Lockdown Diaries project with 70 diverse participants from low-income neighbourhoods across Cape Town, where participants shared regular WhatsApp diaries describing their experiences of lockdown and its impact on their communities. These experiences gave rise to the project, supported by our research team’s previous collaborations, including the AHRC ‘Designing Publics’ network in 2021.

These existing relationships and previous research activities supported the creation of a new interdisciplinary partnership for this USF project, with our three main investigators coming from Urban Studies (Lombard), Political Science (Anciano) and Communication Studies (Tobar). We were supported by research assistants Boitumelo Papane and Babongile Bidla at the University of Western Cape, and Lina Rendon at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Cali.

Food provision via Olla Comunitaria (community kitchen) in Aguablanca, Cali, 2022
Food provision via Olla Comunitaria (community kitchen) in Aguablanca, Cali, 2022 (source: Digital diary, Son de mi Gente)

The project also represented an opportunity to consolidate relationships with community-based organisations (CBOs) in Cali, Colombia, and Cape Town, South Africa, where we carried out research. We drew upon our research networks to consolidate existing partnerships and form new ones with a total of five collaborating CBOs. In Cali, organisations Predhesca, Asomevid, and Son de Mi Gente participated based on existing collaborative links with Tobar. All three operate in the Aguablanca District, a largel, marginalised area with a high proportion of AfroColombian communities. We also received support from a local leader working as a teacher at the Instituto Educativo Nuevo Latir, a ‘mega-college’ constructed as part of a social initiative to integrate Aguablanca District. In Cape Town, Anciano’s existing links in Imizamo Yetho neighbourhood led to a new partnership with the Sakhisizwe Youth Development Project, while previous collaboration with Reclaim the City led to a partnership with residents at Cissie Gool House settlement.

The research project was guided by the question, To what extent can the social infrastructure provided by community-based organisations’ pandemic response support (new understandings of) community resilience in cities?

This was addressed through three objectives:

  1. Documenting experiences of CBOs’ pandemic responses, focusing on new/emerging configurations of social infrastructure in three key areas: food, care and digital inclusion.
  2. Examining the social, material and spatial implications of these practices for communities and their neighbourhoods, and contextual factors shaping this.
  3. Understanding how this contributes to community resilience, exploring how communities and CBOs have been changed in ways that enhance their capacity to deal with future pandemics (or not).
Five pieces of paper with colourful drawings and annotations
Knowledge Exchange workshop in Cape Town, 2022 (source: Melanie Lombard)

Preliminary work (February-April 2022) involved project planning, recruiting research assistants, making contact with potential local partners, and drafting a brief literature review. Data collection (May-October 2022) involved interviews with community leaders, digital diaries with neighbourhood residents, and focus groups. Initial interviews took place with CBO leaders in both cities. In Cali, group interviews with leaders enabled relationship building with the three CBOs, as well as among the leaders themselves.

Digital diaries captured the views of local residents on the core themes of food, care and digital inclusion in their neighbourhood before, during and after the pandemic. In total, 15 residents in Cali and 10 in Cape Town participated. Participants were sent two prompts per week via WhatsApp, to answer by text, audio or video message. Our feedback showed that this method was very engaging and even therapeutic for some participants. Photographs and other materials were gathered as evidence of the pandemic response in support of a living archive.

Interviews were transcribed, and analysis took place in local teams and via regular online team meetings (October-December 2022). Analysis documents were produced for each city, drawing on digital diaries and other sources of data, as the basis for initial outputs. These were presented at the Development Studies Association conference in June 2022, and the final Knowledge Exchange workshop in Cape Town in February 2023.

The Knowledge Exchange workshop in Cape Town (13 February 2023) allowed us to consolidate our analysis into findings and consider final outputs. Additional funding from USF and Sheffield enabled us to expand the project workshop into a one-day public event, with another project team funded by the USF’s Pandemics and Cities grant and local policy makers and community leaders. It also enabled three Colombian community leaders to participate in person and undertake exchange visits with the South African CBOs. The hybrid workshop, hosted by the University of the Western Cape, attracted over 90 attendees either in person or online from the UK, South Africa, Colombia, Nigeria, India, Ghana, Egypt, Hong Kong, Portugal, Turkey, Bangladesh, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Australia. Due to the multilingual nature of the project, professional interpreters assisted, allowing audience members to engage in either English or Spanish.

Three people are in shot: one (in the middle) is standing up and talking, and the other two are sat either side at a large table
Learning exchange between Colombian and South African community leaders, 2022 (source: Melanie Lombard)

One of the most important elements of this workshop was the opportunity for exchange between the participating CBOs. The team undertook exchange visits to Cape Town CBOs Sakhisizwe Youth Development Project and Reclaim the City. These were very successful and enabled peer learning for leaders from both contexts, as well as fostering incipient networks among the leaders from each city.

Based on our research, we found that:

  • CBOs played a critical role in addressing gaps in basic needs provisioning in low-income neighbourhoods, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic and lockdown in the two case study cities, when the state was often relatively slow to react.
  • CBOs’ unique positioning at neighbourhood scale is a benefit and a limitation in crisis response.
  • Socio-spatial embeddedness enabled continued presence and innovation, but also limits scaling up and visibility.
  • CBOs’ social infrastructure in terms of space/social networks supported their mediating role with local governance actors, but this is also dependent on local factors, including political relationships and positioning.
  • Resilience is locally defined as solidarity at the neighbourhood scale (Cali), but also critiqued by vulnerable residents (Cape Town), suggesting we need to take a critical view on whether such practices are able to support improved resilience.

We are now working on project outputs, including four planned journal articles, the first two of which have already been submitted, on the digital diaries methodology and CBOs’ hybrid governance practices in crisis contexts. In October 2022, we submitted a successful bid to the British Academy’s Knowledge Frontiers call with Professor Charlotte Lemanski, on ‘Interrogating urban crisis representation and response in “disorderly” Southern cities’. This project will build upon our above experiences and findings to scale up and out to two more cities in Colombia and South Africa, Buenaventura and Johannesburg. For more information about our USF-funded research, please see the project website and a recent feature about the project on the Royal Town Planning Institute’s website.