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Opinion

Mediating between the state and its poor and marginalised during Covid-19

Published on 17 June 2020

Many countries have announced support programmes for their poor and marginalised citizens to deal with the effects of Covid-19. We know little, however, about whether and how they are reaching them. Listening to those who mediate between poor disenfranchised citizens and the state throws an interesting light on what happens on the ground. In this blog, researchers working on the Governance at the Margins project share observations on how such “intermediaries” are responding to Covid-19 and  their government’s actions in one of the project’s country cases.

A stop sign hangs on a makeshift barrier that closes a road leading into the quarantine area near the town of Kenema, eastern Sierra Leone.
A stop sign hangs on a makeshift barrier that closes a road leading into the quarantine area near the town of Kenema, eastern Sierra Leone (during 2014 Ebola pandemic). Credit: Samuel Aranda, Panos

In the Governance at the Margins project, part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme, we are studying the role that intermediaries play in mediating state-citizen relations and helping people to solve their problems in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings in Africa and Asia.

As intermediaries are the first port of call in the governance chain for the poor and marginalised to access the state, we are examining their roles, strategies and practices when dealing with different governance issues.

Types of Intermediaries
Movement/ party worker Traditional leader Influential Religious authority Local council/ committee member State actor NGO worker

Our research during Covid-19 highlights three observations across rural and urban settlements in both conflict and non-conflict settings:

  • intermediaries are actively complementing and substituting the state
  • they are doing it through a diverse range of activities
  • they are instrumental in the inclusion and exclusion of poor and marginalised citizens in states’ efforts.

Conspicuous by their absence? Fragile states and Covid-19

Not only do intermediaries complement state’s actions, but they’re often a substitute. In conflict and/or fragile settings, the state is silent in intermediaries’ stories: no one wears masks or gloves; there’s no testing happening here.

We spoke to a doctor who volunteers with an NGO, and was a former political candidate in the local elections, who said:

I think the government has mishandled the whole situation. I’m not saying that it is not dangerous or that viruses don’t exist, but it should be handled in a proper way. Police humiliates people. There are poor people out there. What are they going to do? They have to feed their families. They have to come out of their homes.

Since the pandemic reached his country, he’s been busy not only through his medical practice, but also coordinating his NGO’s fumigation campaign and using his political networks to get ‘his’ people on the list of beneficiaries for emergency assistance. He is one of several intermediaries we follow using the Governance Diaries approach.

When we ask where the state is, they say they only see roadblocks; when probed deeper some say, “the only thing we usually get for free are police beatings” and that hasn’t changed much.

In fact, one of the reasons intermediaries in conflict settings are setting up relief committees themselves is because of the state’s near-absence, aside from law enforcement agencies, which is linked to the confrontational nature of state-citizen relations and is embedded in a historical mistrust of the state. As one of our intermediaries said, “if not us, then who will?”

As well as substituting or complementing the state, intermediaries also play a critical role mediating households’ access to the state and vice-versa.

Traditional leaders, council members, and party workers regularly connect with local administration creating a symbiotic relationship. This allows them to better navigate the different branches of the state – trying to get the most for ‘their’ households – while simultaneously allowing the state to further extend its reach through them.

For instance, it’s much harder to enforce social distancing in rural areas than in urban centres. Despite government’s awareness campaigns most people there either do not believe Covid-19 exists or that they won’t get it (many think it’s a foreign virus and they haven’t been abroad) and therefore don’t believe in social distancing, using the initial lockdown to socialise and visit relatives.

Given this, one intermediary we spoke to gave up on persuading people to stay home and, instead, uses his police contacts to call them whenever there is too much movement in his village: since rural areas have poor or non-existing health facilities he believes the only solution to containing the potential spread of the virus is a curfew.

In villages the scene is totally different, people don’t listen and they are not aware of this threat. There were around 300 people who attended a funeral today; the government and police can’t go everywhere to stop people from attending public gatherings you see.” Traditional leader

Intermediaries are stepping into the state’s shoes: emergency food packages, beneficiary distribution lists and manifestos

Intermediaries are involved in a range of activities directly related to Covid-19 or indirectly helping people survive lockdowns and loss of livelihoods. In our research, we saw examples of intermediaries in political movements and humanitarian NGOs participate in their organisations’ fumigation and awareness campaigns. But the bulk of all intermediaries’ work is around supporting poor households to survive lockdown, mostly by creating emergency food packages: from collecting money and goods, to bulk purchasing basic items, to making the packages, to distributing them around their neighbourhoods and villages. Some use package delivery to urge people not to come out and help reduce the spread.

Along with making emergency packages, intermediaries also compile and constantly update beneficiary lists. Local committees, charities and NGOs, political parties, indeed all manner of intermediaries choose who to target, and, indirectly who not to target. Many play a key role as mediators, assisting local governments with official beneficiary lists and having a say on who’s eligible for relief assistance, while also helping households register for the different government relief programmes.

Finally, intermediaries aligned to political movements actively and constantly pressure the government to rethink the way it engages and redistributes wealth among its citizens. Through manifestos and videoconferences they advocate for a universal basic income, while keeping tabs on the quality and targeting of the government’s emergency cash transfers. Simultaneously, they push poorer citizens to use this crisis to question the nature of the relationship between them and the state; as one of them said, poor people “shouldn’t beg, we should claim.

Enhancing networks… including some, excluding others

People were already suffering here, but after the hit of Coronavirus the situation has only worsened [their situation]. The government announced a relief package for poor households but some families in these settlements do not have enough resources and knowledge to even access that and soon that fund will get finished before even reaching these families.” NGO worker

Intermediaries maximise as much as possible their networks; not only the existing networks they have been cultivating over years, but also rekindling older lost ones, particularly from outside their neighbourhoods and villages.

Some have upped their game, making use of Facebook and WhatsApp status features to communicate the needs of ‘their’ neighbourhoods and villages, as well as accountability tools to show benefactors where their aid is being spent. At times they cooperate amongst them: for instance, some party workers have joined forces locally and created informal cross-party alliances of political brokers in the hope of bringing in more resources to their locations. Often though, they compete: these days with the exponential increase of demand for their assistance, there are more conflicts between intermediaries to access finite resources.

Intermediaries also diversify beneficiaries. While most tend to target poorer households, some are targeting day labourers, and others lower middle class white collar workers saying that no one is thinking of this group. Especially with the latter group, intermediaries are discreet, using indirect messaging and ways of distributing aid, such as distributing emergency packages in the middle of the night, to minimise shame across beneficiaries. Yet, despite their claims in terms of their reach, we can see that living under Covid-19 has affected their operations: if before they had good connections and coordination across neighbourhoods and villages, now their attention is primarily towards their own village or neighbourhood.

Ultimately, intermediaries are key in the inclusion and exclusion of poor and marginalised in state’s efforts. At the local level they are the best at identifying who should be entitled to access government relief programmes – and the state knows it. As one of them told us, “I’ve lived here all my life; I know who earns what.” But one thing is identifying, another is putting names on beneficiary lists. With more people in the need of assistance intermediaries prioritise ‘their’ people, the ones that can hold them accountable; and these are not always one and the same.

The authors of this blog cannot be named for reasons of personal safety. 

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