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How are APC members improving their communities’ lives? In this column we’re highlighting stories of impact and change by our members, supported by APC subgranting. With the global health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities, VOICE works on the ground to deliver critical communications and local support.

In Bangladesh, the rights-based activist organisation Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment – known as VOICE –  has been taking a stand against unjust and undemocratic practices by operating numerous social justice and empowerment programmes. Putting people first, VOICE engages in grassroots advocacy both in Bangladesh and also on a global scale.

VOICE was established in 2001 with a mandate to create bridges between policy makers and civil society, to build partnerships and networks within and between communities. Over the years, it has dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to working on climate change and the environment as well as the strategic use of information and communications technologies (ICTs). 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, VOICE was well positioned to engage in critical communications work at a time when the global health crisis was disproportionately impacting marginalised communities.

Connecting in times of crisis

Between July and October 2020, VOICE was able to use a small grant from APC to quickly convene around a project entitled “The COVID-19 pandemic and the communications crisis in Bangladesh: A rapid research and campaign project”. It was tasked with the objectives of conducting and publishing a comprehensive appraisal of the communication crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, as well as preparing communications materials based on the study for online, offline and radio distribution. To that end, VOICE set out to fight misinformation and raise awareness about the pandemic in support of local communities.

By harnessing the collective power of communities, VOICE developed its project of digital inclusion for the most at-risk populations in Bangladesh, including slum dwellers and garment workers. The target communities were already vulnerable and grappling with digital exclusion prior to the onset of the pandemic. Therefore, finding ways not only to understand the communications crisis but also empower communities through ICTs in order to connect them with valuable resources quickly became the priority. 

Through a comprehensive study leading to an in-depth evaluation and recommendations based on  scientific research methodologies and peer review, VOICE was able to publish a research report that was shared both offline and online. It furthermore produced a number of related materials for distribution in densely populated and impoverished areas, using on-the-ground tactics including direct sharing with garment workers as well as leaving leaflets in public vehicles. Finally, the messages were broadcast in the local dialect on two community radio programmes.

Adapting to local contexts

The effectiveness of this community engagement quickly became apparent. One poignant example involved Jamina, who lives in a slum near the capital city of Dhaka. After leaving school at a young age in order to support her family, Jamina got a job at a nearby garment factory. With the onset of the pandemic, however, she soon found herself without a job as the global crisis took a harsh toll on economies on an unprecedented scale. Those who were already in precarious positions found themselves most at risk.

In Jamina’s community, which was densely populated, impoverished and largely digitally excluded from important updates on the health crisis, many people held onto traditional beliefs regarding the pandemic, seeing it as a punishment by a higher power against wealthier people. They saw their faith and hard work as protection from a virus that in fact did not discriminate between the rich and the poor, and actually targeted the latter disproportionately due to lack of access to health care, information and space for social distancing.

As a direct result of the project implemented by VOICE, Jamina received a leaflet that explained the virus and its transmission, and outlined recommended practices like washing hands and wearing masks. Jamina was able to share this information with her neighbours who, though resistant at first, came to differentiate between socio-religious beliefs around the virus and scientific information and health measures. Eventually, the community came to have a significantly lower rate of infection as people began to follow suggested health recommendations to reduce transmission.

This success story was documented by VOICE and highlighted the importance of having timely and locally relevant communications during a time of crisis in order to offer meaningful support on the ground. As VOICE emphasised early in the pandemic, “The right information at the right moment helps to take appropriate measures not only by the government but also by other stakeholders understanding the gravity of the situation.” This means fighting against misinformation and also working with all sectors of society as keys to meaningful advocacy during a crisis.

Building on knowledge

Although covering a relatively short time span of four months, VOICE was able to implement their project and respond quickly to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to timely access to funds through APC subgranting. It created the necessary infusion of resources to rapidly undertake key research resulting in critical communications for local communities who might otherwise have continued to slip through the cracks of government programmes. As VOICE indicated, “The best part of the project is the development of an effective report representing the real scenario and providing the much needed information on the COVID situation, spread of misinformation and crisis of communication.”

Looking to the future and building on what they have learned through this project, VOICE is considering various options and alterations, including broadcasting content via television as opposed to radio, so that the programmes can be recorded and shared. They continue their grassroots advocacy and activism, recently organising a two-day capacity building workshop on countering hate speech and the spread of misinformation. They also continue to share important information to the COVID-19 pandemic via social media.

This piece is a version of the information provided by VOICE as part of the project "The COVID-19 Pandemic and Communications Crisis in Bangladesh: A Rapid Research and Campaign Project", adapted for the Seeding Change column, which presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through its core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects.

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