Community Engagement, Co-Production or Citizen Action? Lessons from COVID-19 Responses in India and Bangladesh’s Informal Urban Settlements
Government COVID-19 disease control efforts in many contexts have been critiqued as simultaneously inadequate and authoritarian, causing widespread suffering. “Top-down,” bio-security focused approaches aimed at achieving behavioral change through information dissemination and legal measures have often been ineffective in informal urban settlements, for a range of reasons related to the nature of citizen-state relationships. Community engagement, participation, “co-production,” and citizen- and civil-society-led efforts have variously been identified as important to pandemic responses.
However, to date, there have been few examinations of the ways in which social, political, and economic environments shape community actions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the extent to which these have reached the most marginalized. Drawing on data and experiences of collaborative research and action from four cities in Bangladesh and India, we argue that citizen and community responses in informal settlements have often emerged from the necessity to survive in the absence of effective state interventions and support to guarantee the basic rights of citizens. They therefore represent neither engagement of the state with citizens nor genuine “co-production.”
Community action emerging from inadequacies in state responses merely pushes the responsibilities of the state to poor and marginalized communities, many of which are fractured by axes of disadvantage such as length of residence, class, caste, religion, and gender. Effective community engagement or co-production requires the willingness of the state to recognize the rights of informal urban residents as urban citizens, trusting relationships within systems and structures built over time prior to a crisis, and the willingness of the state to share resources and cede power over decision making.
Multi-sectoral, multi-scalar and multi-stakeholder collaborations that balance “top-down” public health policy implementation with community organization, through communication and accountability channels that privilege the perspectives of the marginalized, are required. Community engagement and co-production cannot be a standardized intervention but require ongoing processes of political, social, economic, and cultural negotiation and will play out in varied ways across different contexts.
Rao V, Saligram P, Rashid SF, Tolhurst R, Steege R, Murthy S, Nakkeeran B, MacGregor M, Patel S, Theobald S, Dean L, Garimella S (2021) Community Engagement, Co-Production or Citizen Action? Lessons from COVID-19 Responses in India and Bangladesh’s Informal Urban Settlements. Journal of International Affairs, in press.