With inputs from:
Syed Munir Khasru
|Tariq H. Cheema
Founder, World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists
Associate, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG)
Director, Public Health Program, Open Society Foundations, New York
From policy-centric to network governance: A closer look into COVID-19 response governance in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan
The COVID-19 pandemic required both preventive and prescriptive health directives, whereby the state and its various agencies imposed strict behavioral restrictions on citizens without leaving much room for public disapproval or resistance
based on the science. Enforcement of lockdowns, hygiene directives, hospital isolation, quarantining, and the quick procurement of health and hygiene materials and distribution of nationwide relief support required top-down interventions, ideally from a central or group of central authorities. The need for collective action by various stakeholders with multiple motivations and ideologies required interventions from strong authorities, institutions or figures holding massive powers to build consensus or enforce directives.
Under such circumstances, governance was expected by many to be vertical and top down. But as has been seen during the pandemic, in our ever-complex world with multiple stakeholders, institutions, governing bodies, cultures and conflicts, no single state has the capacity to take a completely vertical approach to emergency governance, particularly when the emergency is a global pandemic affecting the lives of billions. In our piece, we assess how a networked governance has helped governments tackle the pandemic, both nationally and transnationally, taking South Asia as a case study. We then assess if there is room for improvements within the network governance structure to handle a non-political emergency, such as a health or environmental emergency, of global proportions and the way forward for such arrangements.
Governance traditions and practices all over the world have been shifting from a ‘top down’ to a ‘bottom up’ approach for quite some time, abetted largely by the complex nature of our politics and societies today. Governments working across multiple actors to enact and implement public policies have become normal in almost all modern nation states (Lim, 2011). Network governance is often justified by the fact that modern society with its complexities and web of actors cannot be served by a single, central governance mechanism (Torfing 2007). However, even within a networked governance, it is important to recognize one entity as having the central political role that can override competing decision-making and maintain a chain of command (Jessop, 2002). Emergencies that require prolonged, collective action from large portions of the population need policy interventions from strong, central authoritative governments. Network governance facilitates pooling of resources and expertise. But such governance, according to many, may also create trust deficits and resource drainage due to time wasted on bargaining, reaching consensus, and the low capacity of partners (Lim, 2011).
Even countries like Germany with resourceful central governments have enabled a network governance structure to manage the pandemic. Municipalities in Germany carry the right to local selfgovernance, and states are independent from the federal government with regard to disaster management (Hattke & Martin, 2020). Taiwan’s successful management of the pandemic can also be attributed to a network governance approach among the local government, community institutions and traditional state-centric responses (Schwartz & Yen, 2017). Overly vertical management of health services during COVID-19, on the other hand, has proven to be less than efficient, particularly in states with limited capacity and resources, likethat of Nigeria (Ilesanmi & Afolabi, 2020). In countries like Brazil and South Africa, where leaders failed to effectively respond to the crisis and dismissed the pandemic’s impact, community actors often took matters in hand. Grassroots organizations in Brazil and South Africa organized to mobilize resources, dispel disinformation, communicate hygiene guidelines, enforce health measures and address racism in health action.
» Governance traditions and practices all over the world have been shifting from a ›top down‹ to a ›bottom up‹approach.«
In the US, which also suffered from a leader downplaying the seriousness of the virus, civil society groups stepped up to disseminate correct information on the virus and counter misinformation and rumors. (Cohen, 2020). President Joe Biden’s National Strategy for the pandemic response also reiterates how the pandemic cannot be tackled by the federal government alone, and hence engagement from state and local leaders, the private sector, unions
and community volunteers is required for both policy formation and implementation (White House, 2021). Network governance is also highly important for Global South countries where non-government entities like NGOs, INGOs and community groups intrinsically assist the local and state governments in carrying out their activities, particularly those pertaining to disaster management.
In the beginning, given the novelty of the virus and the nationwide application of directives to citizens’ behavior, the pandemic was managed completely by central governments in most countries in association with the World Health Organization (WHO). Over time however, central governments, particularly of developing nations, were no longer able maintain lockdowns and compensate for lost livelihoods, and they gradually moved from a central to an integrated governance approach. In addition to local government structures, there is a vast array of actors in the complex
web of network governance. This web is comprised of NGOs, international organizations, international regulatory organizations, media, scientific and other specialized bodies, rights-based outfits, charity organizations, religious institutions and the private sector. These organizations often have competing interests and opposing ideological viewpoints among each other and with the state government, making coordination and collaboration difficult.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, states scrambled to meet ever-increasing demands for health action while simultaneously maintaining and enforcing strict public orders on social distancing and lockdowns. While Northern governments, many with higher infection rates, somehow coped by comparison, poorer Southern nations and their governments, with limited resources and capacity, struggled to keep their citizens safe and their economies afloat. Even countries more prone to following top-down, strict enforcement measures and oversight, like China, had to rely on local governments and communities to confront the pandemic. Pandemic measures in China were local in nature, enacted differently by different provinces and cities. One-size-fits-all policies were not undertaken for all its provinces (Philipp Renninger, 2020) proving that even in countries with highly tiered and controlled governance structures and robust top-down frameworks, local level intervention is essential.
In South Asia, labor force participation in the economy is highly informal, with 80% of the region’s workers engaging in informal activities. Informal workers in the region were hardest and most immediately hit, with millions losing their livelihoods a month into the lockdown (Bussolo et al., 2020). The poor in South Asia were forced to choose between buying masks or food. Social distancing became an issue of affordability. Not everyone could afford the price of social distancing.
In Western nations and highly resourceful Eastern nations like China or Singapore, the cost of social distancing was borne in part by governments through relief and stimulus packages. South Asian governments, with their poor revenue infrastructure, were unable to even remotely bear the costs of prolonged lockdown, as they could not reach most of their unbanked citizens living in remote areas and under the jurisdictions of local governments. By June 2020, most South Asian states were relaxing lockdowns. This indicated a serious lack of government capacity in South Asia to singlehandedly respond to the pandemic through a vertical approach. While in the beginning, only central governments in South Asia and around the globe took the control of the situation without much involvement of the private sector or the NGO community, low hospital and testing capacity and the reduced ability to reach remote regions eventually induced governments to bring non-governmental actors into the emergency response (Hatch, 2020). Small-scale, often student-run foundations undertook massive efforts to provide food relief and improve hygiene conditions. However these were seen only in the major cities and could not be scaled up (Bakhtiar, 2020).
» The poor in South Asia were forced to choose between buying masks or food.«
In South Asia, the role of central/state governments in managing low-income, rural and urban communities has been mixed. Both top-down and community governance was seen at work in the slums. Slums in South Asian cities are congested, informal settlements housing migrant workers whoe come from rural areas to work in big cities. Their work is almost entirely informal and does not fall under essential services. Most of the slum dwellers are street vendors and are involved in trade that serves commuters and cannot be conducted in a lockdown. In India, both topdown and community governance was activated to contain COVID-19 spread in one of its biggest slums. In Dharavi, Mumbai, one of India’s biggest slums, with a population of about a million, the municipality in association with community workers worked deftly to stem the spread. Immediately after the first case, the municipal corporation barricaded the entrances, carried out disinfection, undertook door-to-door screening and surveillance. These activities were carried out with private doctors and local NGOs. As per WHO, the Dharavi model of swift government action in association with NGOs and the private sector stands out as a role model of COVID-19 management (Golechha, 2020).
Where governments could not extend their services, a strong community governance to contain COVID-19 emerged. The example of the Korail slum in Dhaka shows the importance of community governance during emergencies. Slum workers almost immediately lost their jobs but found mechanisms to cope in their own ways. The health safety of the slum population was ensured through community level response, where through the leadership and initiative of community groups, food relief from both public and private sources was evenly distributed. The community groups in the slums organized virus-prevention activities and made arrangements to provide basic hygiene services like hand-washing and wearing of masks. Community leaders, using their local knowledge, helped create lists of the most vulnerable residents for government relief. Community leaders helped government officials distribute important health messages, maintain lockdowns, and educate about hand-washing and wearing face masks and setting up hand-washing stations (Taylor, 2020). It has been observed that such efforts are also applicable to economically marginalized communities in even the wealthiest countries (Cohen, 2020).
In Pakistan, the federal-provincial health services were supported by the private sector and NGOs. In Pakistan’s Sindh province, which recorded the highest number of cases in the beginning, the pandemic spurred inclusive relationships with the private sector through federal and Sindh-based task forces for joint operations response. Digitalized data-sharing of cases and hospital capacity across private and public providers guided evidencebased procurement of medical supplies by the federal and provincial governments. Private laboratories took on 50% of testing. A provincial COVID-19 relief fund in Sindh, jointly managed by government and private philanthropies, pooled privatepublic funding and procured medical supplies (Zaidi, 2020). But in some places, like in Kerala, where a strong state-centric health infrastructure already existed, a centralized, top-down approach worked. State run active surveillance, districtwise control rooms, risk communication, and a competent health force were key to the state’s success in curbing COVID-19 infection and death rates (WHO, 2020).
Early preparedness and the ability to scale helped the government of Kerala manage spread effectively, proving that centralized approaches, when done right, are able to manage disasters quickly, at scale and in a planned manner. The network governance approach has proven its irreplaceability by its use in most countries during the pandemic – a nationwide emergency that traditionally has been expected to be managed entirely by a central system, given the strict implementation of nationwide public health directives. The network governance approach and implementation for emergency response and preparedness could be further strengthened if central governments and other state and non-state structures would take specific actions.
The functioning of an efficient network governance requires the building of trust among actors within the network. Effective collaboration and cooperation cannot exist when there is trust deficit, as that undermines efficient and complete communication, which is required for effective cooperation. Transparency and accountability mechanisms between actors are also valuable resources, and time can be lost if the processes for collaboration and cooperation are not transparent. Transparency in collaborative activities also helps in building trust among actors, which eventually creates effective cooperation strategies. Improving public trust in government institutions is paramount, as central governments are still expected to hold the most power and make the urgent decisions within the network. In addition to trust, the state government must be capable of activating an integrated governance during an emergency. This would require state governments to establish functioning modes of communication, developing coordinated policymaking, and adopting multi-level planning.
COVID-19 has demonstrated to us that citizens in a state, in addition to being service recipients, are also active actors and service providers. The pandemic has demonstrated that collective action is required, even in the most individualistic of societies, if a community and state is to ward off certain disasters. A network approach to governance is essentially a means
» Social distancing became an issue of affordability. Not everyone could afford distancing as it entailed a price to be borne.«
for citizens (by forming groups and organizations) to work with central governments to enact and implement policies. As there is no alternative to integrated governance in today’s world, it is imperative for central governments to find innovative means to assimilate multiple actors in a society, which could be further abetted through use of digitization.
Scaling up of small, local innovations that have been activated during the COVID- 19 pandemic management, such as the community governance seen in the slums of South Asian nations, could be seriously considered by local and state governments. COVID-19 has demonstrated the role local communities could take in emergency preparedness. The role of communities during emergency response is indispensable. For effective horizontal management and community participation, governments should find platforms for these community actors and organizations to become a part of emergency governance. Governments can find better ways to quickly source nongovernment assistance during emergency. The means of collaboration could be strengthened through more mutual sharing, further digitization and the building of digital information sharing platforms between state and non-state actors.
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