Communities responding to COVID-19 in complex shock environments: AVSI experience at the South Sudan Learning Forum

Date 15.04.2021

This year the South Sudan Annual Learning Forum organized on 14 and 15 April 2021 by the South Sudan Partnership for Recovery and Resilience (PfRR) focusses on the theme "Communities responding to COVID-19 in complex shock environments”.

On the second day (at 14.30 CET) Luca Scarpa, Technical Advisor for AVSI in South Sudan presented AVSI approach to designing and coordinating resilience projects during the panel "Identifying Convergent Points for 2021 around four corners of the community"

Remarks by Luca Scarpa


When I was a kid I used to say that my favourite animal was the rat because they are resilient, and I have always been obsessed by the idea of finding strategies to cope with shocks. So my last seven years working in a complex shock environment like what I found in South Sudan was, as strange as it sounds, the dream of my life. Being here, sharing my experience on working with people in coping with shocks, it’s a huge honour and pleasure.

In these days we talked a lot about convergence, how nice is in theory and how hard to reach is in practice. When I hear the stories from the colleagues that talked earlier and when I look back at my recent experience around Torit, I have the feeling, not the feeling, the certainty that even if we have a long way to go, we already reached far.

Few words on shocks and praise to South Sudanese resilience capacity to introduce

I arrived in South Sudan right after the clashes of 2013, as soon as things started to cool down, we had a quite impressive cholera outbreak, then floods, draughts, some other outbreaks of measles, meningitis and cholera here and there, new clashes, famine, fall army warm, locusts, new floods and now a global pandemic. All of these shocks brought additional issues with them that there is no need to mention in this forum.

When I hear the stories of our colleagues from Yambio, Torit, Aweil, Wau and I think about what happened in the past few years in these places I would summarize it the process with one very simple diagram: shocks > resilience > stories just heard

Ideas an perspectives of resilience particularly from the community and key “resilience levels”

What is in that box is what we are looking into in these days and it’s like a positive black hole. Because there is the capacity of responding to all of this by the individuals in their household, that is amazing. The capacity of responding as a community: the strongest safety nets I encountered in South Sudan were in the most isolated communities, who share half of their surplus with neighbours, foreseeing that they will receive the same help, when they’ll need it. Refusing our cash interventions, aware that that cash will lose value before they’ll be able to reach the market. Or requesting for cash, if the produce was good enough in that season, or if they are close enough to the market. With local institutions, that manage to retain a lot of good people even with during big political changes. Some positive and influential leaders might change position and role and eventually move of some km, but in my about 5 years working in Torit PA we steadily found support from key elements of the local leadership that helped us a lot to understand their community and processes.

I believe that these key levels of players, that often we consider disjointly and that we the PfRR we are finally linking, is what helps to move toward convergence: resilience of individuals, resilience of the community, actors that help us, external, read using the right lens.

A quick significant example

A project of resilience in food security, that AVSI implemented with FAO, funded by European Union. A project well designed, shared timely with the community, adjusted and re-adjusted as we learnt new lessons and approaches that worked in that specific areas more than others. When we looked at some indicators it seemed that the project wasn’t a great success. The target group income didn’t change much, same for the number of meals. Yet the land cultivated (tripled) and the production (multiplied 6 times… ‘couse yileds doubled) was greater. What happened, and we needed the help of the community members to understand that well, was that we were looking at our perspective of success (individual success), and not on the one of the community. What our “beneficiaries” did was to “help us in our humanitarian work”: they didn’t sell and didn’t eat much more because they land food or seeds to other community members and increased the number of people they fed in their household. So the project did not help to increase directly the beneficiaries resilience, but helped the beneficiaries to increase the resilience and the food security of their community.

Where do we see the convergence

If we look at some single projects level is already happening, and I think in some sectors much more than in others. If I think about the stories we just heard about Aweil and Torit, we have seen good bases for convergence. And I think that the issue more about where focusing the limited resources, rather than simply converging. Some needs are so basic here, that there is no doubt that we all want to go in the same direction to reduce the vulnerability related to them.

Limits on integrating new priorities

And this, prioritization, is the challenge that is ahead of us. Sometimes I wonder: are we, as international community, flexible enough to re-set priorities if discussing with the communities we realize that weneed to make adjustments and adapt to the context? What does it take to change? Because I usually call for longer programs that give enough time to put in place sustainable mechanisms that are strong enough also in case of new shocks. Yet when there is a long program there is sometimes the tendency to “wait too much” before really checking if the program is working. But if we are good and we check and monitor properly, and we realize that there is something wrong, then again it is difficult to variate something “so big”. There is a chain of explanation and justification that needs to be given that can be tedious, frustrating, and sometimes bring to big misunderstandings.

How do we overcome these issues

What we are doing now with the PfRR helps greatly to reduce many of the issues related to convergence that we mentioned earlier. Players at different level talks more often and have chances to have a dialogue where the programs are implemented. Feel the interaction between individuals and not just between elements of a system. In these days we heard and we have seen several stories of resilience the pivotal role is always played by persons that have the will to bring positive change and that manage to pass it around.

If we all talk together, as we are doing now and we did in the PfRR areas, it is easier to see the opportunities and the challenges from the different perspective and that leads to a successful convergence.

How the community is involved and what is the role

In my experience in South Sudan, the intervention that I had the greater success was the one mentioned earlier where the community took responsibility and ownership for the change. All the stories we heard earlier had the same fil rouge: community commitment. When the communities started using the help received proactively instead of waiting for it, the seed for the resilience tree germinated.

But how the PfRR can help this process? In my experience with AVSI, the game changer was having people on the ground with the community. We can have the best technologies, monitoring systems, data set and policies in place, but without people on the ground to “translate” these tools in a way that can be used by the communities, it is very hard to expect that the communities can take responsibility and ownership.

About PfRR

The Partnership for Recovery and Resilience is a collective of donors, UN Agencies and NGOs working together to increase resilience and reduce the vulnerability of the South Sudanese people and the institutions who represent them. It facilitates bottom-up solutions at the individual, household and community levels while also working closely with local authorities and institutions. Formally established in March 2018, the Partnership champions local ownership and integrates conflict sensitivity and flexibility in all aspects of its work. This allows it to develop new, inclusive ways of doing business to better help communities adapt and cope with the multiple shocks they face. AVSI is an active member of the partnership.

South Sudan Annual Learning Forum

Every year, the PfRR aspires to have a Learning Forum that can help us pause and reflect on the past year and prepare for our activities for the new year to come. However, 2020 comes with a twist as it presents us with the global shock of Covid-19.

This year’s Forum is therefore a virtual conference that will address the theme “Communities responding to COVID-19 in complex shock environments.” The event will take place on 14 and 15 April 2021 as a virtual conference.

Annual Learning Forum