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Taking a Cue from the Front Lines in Senegal

How to channel effective leadership in times of pandemic

· Africa

Media reports continuously raise the specter of death and dying across Africa as the continent braces to be the next epicenter of the outbreak. There is ongoing speculation about the environment, the weather and less urbanization as factors for the slow spread of the virus in Africa while emphasizing weak public healthcare systems and widespread poverty and lack of access to basic services. Effective leadership plays a critical role in avoiding the worst. Senegal provides a different answer to why there are fewer cases of COVID-19.

The underlying unexpressed question is whether, because they have extensive informal economies and have what in the West are generally considered “backwards” cultural practices, African countries have the capacity to take appropriate steps to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Yet no one has put the spotlight on how the extraordinary work of community leaders, in conjunction with medical practitioners and government leaders, are becoming key agents of change in the front lines of this fight.

The City of Thiès, in Senegal, provides a model for how inspired leadership at community level is effective and why it can serve as a guide for others around the world to play their part in safeguarding the future and the world at large. The 10th District of Thiès has launched PANHACEA, an initiative that provides a working model for how a partnership between formal and informal institutions can provide an effective force for activating individual agency in benefit of the common good.

The PANHACEA initiative in Thiès

Senegal is a country in West Africa is bordered by the North Atlantic Ocean in the west, Mauritania in the north, Mali to the east, Guinea to the southeast, Guinea-Bissau to the southwest, and with Gambia bounded inside of the country except for a narrow Atlantic coastline. Senegal has a population of about 15 million people, of which an estimated 95% are Muslim. With a predominantly rural population, nearly half of this small country’s population is considered poor by international standards.

In the midst of today’s world health pandemic, this small West African country is demonstrating what leadership and citizens can advance when they work responsibly and collaboratively together. As of March 27, 2020, there are 119 cases of coronavirus, of which 8 have been cured and 111 are in treatment and evolve favorably. There have been no deaths.

The city of Thiès provides a model of how an economy of affection can be put into action during a health pandemic. The third largest city in Senegal and with a population of more than 400,000 people, Thiès lies 72 km (45 mi) east of Dakar and is a major industrial city. Many consider this seemingly rather “sleepy” town with a beehive of politics a political gateway to Dakar, the nation’s capital. But right now it is providing an example of how power and agency can work together to effectively deal with a health crisis through an intelligent articulation of informal (self-organized grassroots organizations) and formal institutions (Red Cross, City Hall and Ministry of Health).

The 10th District of Thiès is deploying what can, in English, be called PANHACEA: the Proactive Neighborhood Health Action and Communication Energy for All team. The objectives of PANHACEA are to:

  • provide actionable information,
  • educate the general public on preventive measures,
  • garner support from local businesses (some of which are already providing hygiene products)
  • fight against insecurity, and
  • pressure the formal administrative and political authorities to keep up and increase their efforts to stem the contagion.

The initiative is guided by the six societal values that underlie the Senegalese economy of affection:

  • Jom: courage, dignity, respect and commitment to the social moral code when working or carrying out any type of action.
  • Kersa: respect for others with modesty and politeness
  • Ngor: loyalty and gratitude.
  • Mandou: to limit oneself to what one knows with humility, accepting one’s weaknesses while protecting others.
  • Yarou: politeness and civility.
  • Tabé: generosity with what one has in order to help others.

Organized by the Imam, Moussa Ndao, and the City Hall’s delegate for the district, PANHACEA is an ongoing self-help community program developed and deployed by an initial core team of neighborhood leaders. Its aim is to address the needs of the district’s population of 11,487 inhabitants and 2,325 households during the coronavirus crisis and stem contagion.

Upboost LLC is proud to recognize the participation of Mr. Mame Seingou Diop in the core PANHACEA leadership team. Mr. Diop is a tireless and relentless community leader, educator and networker and has been an essential member of the Upboost team in Senegal for over ten years.

Day 1: Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

The Imam and the 10th District Delegate called a meeting with the 8 neighborhood leaders invited to join together to form the PANHACEA leadership team. This team was charged with recruiting a total of 100 volunteers to relay information and basic training on hygiene measures to prevent coronavirus infection.

This initial meeting was an information and training session. It focused on relaying data-based information about the Coronavirus and the position of Islam in the face of the virus. Islam recommends that when there is an epidemic, everyone should stay home except health workers tending to the sick. The Church has upheld the same discourse.

The Secretary General of the Regional Red Cross provided training on hygiene and other required measures, and the district representative from City Hall announced that he could take charge of coordinating logistics. The same day, the core team of neighborhood leaders reached out to representatives of high-risk professional bodies, women’s groups, youth associations and the media to recruit them into the initiative.

One of the Posters used by PANHACEA team members and volunteers to raise awareness and inform  citizens in the 10th District of the City of Thies, Senegal.

They worked together to prepare general information materials: flyers, for mass information and education, stickers, latter to identify the households visited, and educational materials to educate youths on how to communicate and present the information politely and courteously, based on Senegalese social values.

Day 2: Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

The core team participated in an information session with the community representatives to explain PANHACEA and ensure their backing and participation to reinforce the social safety network. The District Medical Doctor made an educational exposé to the team about the virus and how to best implement recommended preventive measures. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Thiès composed a “battle” song in Wolof and French to galvanize young people behind the initiative and encourage their participation in the search for and implementation of effective solutions to managing the health crisis safely and effectively. More than 100 volunteers were recruited in 2 days.

Day 3: Thursday, March 19, 2020.

The communication and education strategy was fully deployed. Neighborhood councils were recruited to boost the initiative and help the citizens of the District voice their particular challenges and propose solutions to overcome them to the District Delegate from City Hall. Small businesses are brought on board. Young rappers launch a song specially composed as a public service information piece to reach out to the average Senegalese citizen, particularly young people (60%+ of the population).

Day 4-7: March 20-23, 2020

Active deployment of PANHACEA strategy throughout the 10th District of Thiès. Given the big of number of people willing to volunteer in the initiative, the PANHACEA volunteer team was limited to 100 people charged with relaying critical health and safety information. Flyers were delivered to all households and telephone calls and messages were used to explain the information on the flyers and continue raising awareness. Concurrently, all national television stations and national and local radio stations have voluntarily relinquished their contracts to air sales ads in order to provide free information on the pandemic.

Day 8: March 24, 2020

Coordination Meeting with the Departmental Management Commission of Thiès (one of three departments in the Region of Thiès) to combat the spread of the virus. This meeting included the mayors of the three district communes, city hall delegates, religious leaders, health and hygiene service leaders, and the badiénous gokh, or women who have experience as health assistants and have traditionally done the work of providing health and safety information at grassroots level to women and children.

The badiénous gokh are trusted members of community life in Senegal. They provide prenatal visits and assistance during birth, information on vaccination programs and child nutrition, and alert on domestic violence. They represent a particularly African agent of change highly praised by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Lessons to be learned from PANHACEA

Lesson 1: When there is widespread insecurity and fear, informal institutions are more effective in motivating the public and more influential in determining human behavior and choice than formal ones.

Power relations are what hold any society together and is effected through institutions, both formal and informal. While formal institutions are founded on the formal rules that bound rationality and function through politics, informal institutions - such as self-help groups, neighborhood watch groups, or communities of practice - are predominantly personal and function through the informality of social relations.

In times of crisis, the rationality of power and its use becomes socially embedded in an individualized sense of personal interdependence. Formal institutions help overcome market failures, but they also constrain individual choice. Consequently, there is greater individual trust in and reliance on informal institutions, because they don’t require any contractual agreements. They are, in essence, networks of interpersonal relationship created within or outside of formal institutions on the basis of socially shared rules.

Because participation in informal institutions is voluntary, informal institutions, such as PANHACEA, garner the social activation needed by formal institutions to deal with required changes in behavior to overcome a crisis. They are defined by a nation’s heritage of culture, ethics and norms of behavior and enable individuals to interact with each other based on unwritten, socially shared rules enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels.

Lesson 2: Agency is the differential power factor in times of crisis.

What links power to action is agency. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make one’s own free choices with regards to making plans and informed and voluntary decisions and then carrying out the actions required to implement them.

In the face of a perceived life-and-death crisis, agency turns power into social activation. Informal institutions convert that power into a force for good, through innovation, safety, redistribution of resources, and social value creation. The more informal power accumulates in the social relations network, the greater the ability of communities, families and individuals to develop resilience, or the ability to cope with crisis and a subsequent capacity to recover quickly from the difficulties and setbacks experienced.

In an economy of affection, such as the one presently put into action throughout Africa, agency structures power in a virtuous loop through personal investments in reciprocal relationships with other individuals. Collaborative reciprocity in a crisis situation is a means of achieving goals that are seen as otherwise impossible to attain individually. It also shapes the exercise of power by activating and reinforcing the role of informal institutions.

Lesson 3: Informal institutions are the foundation for resilience.

In Africa, power relations are predominantly personal. In spite of culturally ignorant efforts by the United States and European governments to invest only in formal structures of power (i.e. formal institutions), under the mantle of “good governance”, while at the same time demonizing informal institutions, it is precisely the strong functionality of informal power relations and institutions that becomes the foundation for building resilience in the face of a global pandemic.

The strong desire of American and European-based democracies to standardize Africa in their image has led to an inclination to look at how formal institutions can be reformed in order to grow democracy. The disrespect for Africa’s own cultural idioms coupled with a one-sided understanding of development as a benevolent top-down exercise has consistently ignored that people constitute the principal force for development.

The main lesson to be drawn: People must be given the right incentives and opportunities not only in the economic arena, but also in the political arena (in the sense of regarding citizens or matters of state), through the creation and/or reinforcement of institutions that respond to the needs and priorities of citizens. In Africa, informal institutions have been at the root of development, through the exercise of power balanced with agency. Today, in the midst of a world pandemic, these informal institutions are what is making a difference for the good of the nation.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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