Photo: Seamos Uno / www.seamosuno.com.ar

Note: This blog is part of Lustig, N. & Tommasi, M. (2020). El COVID-19 y la protección social de los grupos pobres y vulnerables. UNDP. (Forthcoming)

 

The COVID-19 pandemic in Argentina took governments and organizations at all levels by surprise and exposed the difficulties of coordinating responses in an emergency situation when state support is needed most.

The COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world rapidly, leaving governments little time to react. From its appearance in China to its spread to Europe, and then on to Latin America, governments at all levels had no more than seven weeks to prepare for what the pandemic might bring. On January 23rd, the Chinese government imposed a lockdown on the city of Wuhan, alerting the rest of the world to the risk of the novel coronavirus for the first time. Six weeks later, on March 9th, Italy declared a country-wide lockdown. Five days before that, on March 3rd, the virus had officially reached Argentina, with the first case detected in a patient that had arrived from Europe. On March 8th, the country recorded its first death from the novel coronavirus.

In addition to the rapid spread of the virus, government responses were limited for two reasons: underestimation of the potential for the virus to spread in Latin America, and the speed at which mitigation measures needed to be implemented. In the same week Argentina's first case was confirmed, Ginés Gonzales García, the country's Health Minister, said that dengue was a greater concern for public health than the novel coronavirus. At the same time, scientists across the world suggested that the southern hemisphere's warmer climate might slow the spread of the virus. However, only 12 days after the first case had been confirmed[1], President Alberto Fernández began imposing containment measures that culminated in a national lockdown being imposed on March 20th, 2020.

The rapid spread of the virus and the sudden application of lockdown measures by the Argentinian government led to an immediate halt of social and economic activity in the country. The impact was immediate, especially for local governments and vulnerable neighborhoods across the nation. It is estimated that 30 days into lockdown, the flow of people in transport hubs in Argentina was down 60% compared to normal levels[2]. Local administrations saw their revenue fall substantially[3], further limiting their already restricted ability to maneuver in an emergency. Movement restrictions also reduced the availability of informal jobs (called changas) in vulnerable neighborhoods, exacerbating financial difficulties pre-existing family, educational and health issues, among other things. Toward the start of April, the demand for food in comedores (soup kitchens) was estimated to have increased by around 40%, with the number of people accessing these services rising from 8 million to more than 11 million.

In response to this situation, civil society and business organizations created Seamos Uno (we are one), a centralized campaign to respond to urgent food needs in vulnerable neighborhoods.

The Seamos Uno campaign was launched in Argentina at the end of March to respond to urgent food needs in vulnerable neighborhoods across the country, with religious organizations joining forces with some of the country's main business associations. The campaign came about as a result of the link between a Jesuit priest and one of the main business associations in the country. At least five religious organizations from across the country were placed in charge of coordinating the campaign[4]. One of them is ACIERA (Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches in Argentina), which has gained increasing influence in vulnerable neighborhoods in Argentina[5]. Organizations traditionally known for their charity work, such as the catholic federation Cáritas, also took part. The campaign also has the support of public figures like the President of Argentina and Pope Francis, as well as social sector organizations working alongside private sector actors. In terms of businesses, the main chambers of commerce are also involved, including local chambers such as the Institute for Business Development in Argentina (IDEA) and international chambers such as the Argentine-American Chamber of Commerce.

The objective of the campaign is to raise money to buy food that can be distributed in the form of food parcels to families in the countries’ most deprived neighborhoods. The process began by taking donations from individuals and businesses, deposited into accounts audited by the big four global audit firms. From there, food parcels were prepared with items selected for their nutritional value. After the parcels had been prepared at two logistics centers in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, they were distributed to families referred through local comedores, churches and NGOs. According to the organization, each parcel cost between 1,000 and 1,500 pesos, a lower price than buying those items through wholesale food sellers.

The aim of bringing together religious organizations and business associations is to leverage the competitive advantages of each of those spheres to set up and run the initiative. The involvement of religious actors brings community-based organizations in deprived neighborhoods that can provide spaces (such as churches and comedores) as well as human resources (like priests and other community leaders). These resources allow needs to be identified and food to be distributed quicker. This interaction leverages the existing knowledge that community leaders have of social networks in vulnerable neighborhoods while also streamlining distribution processes by using church spaces as distribution points and delivering to people who already frequented these spaces before the pandemic. The role of business associations focuses on helping the initiative raise more money[6] and contributing know-how and human resources to optimize fund-raising and logistics processes.

Seamos Uno is an example of high-level coordination with grassroots organizations through technology, and can serve as a case study to strengthen these types of policies from the public sector.

The most distinctive feature of Seamos Uno is the involvement of high-level business and religious organizations with physical spaces and human resources in deprived neighborhoods without intermediaries. The involvement of provincial and national governments has been primarily limited to prioritizing which neighborhoods resources will be distributed to. Beyond the symbolic weight of these organizations’ joint involvement, it was surprising to see just how fast the initiative came together. It took just 4-5 weeks from launch to begin distributing food parcels in the greater Buenos Aires area, following a call from the president for a quick response to food demands. Perhaps this speedy response was the result of the right combination of enough base elements—supplied by religious organizations—and the operational and logistical know-how of the corporate world.

As well as bringing together the right stakeholders, the Seamos Uno campaign successfully leveraged digital tools to ensure deliveries were correctly traced and arrived as planned. For example, a private sector technology company built a customer relationship management (CRM) tool that tracked delivery points with geolocation, contact details and the number of families signed up. An application was also developed to allow confirmation of delivery to the final delivery point with images uploaded by community leaders. This use of digital technology reduced physical contact between delivery coordinators and organizations to a minimum. These types of tools also allow delivery statuses to be monitored more closely, future deliveries to be planned, and demand to be tracked.

This experience of centralized coordination working directly with stakeholders on the ground joins a series of government initiatives with similar methods. For example, RENABAP (the national government's National Register of Vulnerable Neighborhoods conducted during the previous administration) had a central coordination unit that worked directly with grassroots organizations. The census used to create the register was conducted by leveraging human resources from social organizations and using mobile technology to collect data. The coordination between the state and grassroots organizations allowed the creation, for the first time, of a complete map of vulnerable neighborhoods throughout the country, as well as the first full census of vulnerable neighborhoods. Provisional certificados de vivienda familiar (certificates given to each home that took part in the census) were delivered to thousands of families with the same tools. The question is whether this policy would have turned out the same had additional layers of coordination been added. Similarly, the Social and Urban Integration Agency of the Province of Buenos Aires (OPISU) organized its interventions in the field through its own facilities located in the district's most vulnerable neighborhoods

Based on the experience of Seamos Uno, RENABAP and OPISU, the question now is, what is the best way of coordinating in times of emergency (and in those vulnerable context in which the emergency is a permanent state)?[7]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] On March 15th, President Alberto Fernández announced that the country's borders would close for 14 days. This measure was then extended and is still in place at the time this was written (April 26th, 2020).

[2] Reports based on mobile apps show a 61% reduction in people transiting through transport hubs even 30 days into lockdown, indicating a sustained reduction in mobility.

[3]Revenue in the wealthiest municipalities of Buenos Aires Province (San Isidro and Vicente Lopez) are estimated to have fallen by more than 60%.

[4] Including Catholic, Jewish and Evangelical organizations, and others. The full list is available on the Seamos Uno website: https://www.seamosuno.com.ar.

[5] Among persons lacking formal education 26.2% identify with evangelical churches versus 15.3% in the general population, according to the National Survey on Religious Attitudes and Beliefs in Argentina.

[6] Argentinian banks have announced donations to the campaign in the amount of 20-50 ARS each (approximately USD 200,000 to 500,000 at the parallel exchange rate). 

[7] Note of translation: the Spanish version uses the image “Villas de Emergencia” which used to be the term for slums in Argentina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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