The prevailing lockdowns and travel bans of the COVID-19 pandemic offer a critical lesson in international development: investing in local institutions is crucial to building resilience to crises. When international aid organizations evacuated their staff at the beginning of the pandemic, local organizations were left to fill in the gaps. In fact, a survey of nearly 600 development professionals found that 51% of aid workers cited increased reliance on local actors to carry out their projects, a dependence that grew over the course of March, April and May.

Many grassroots organizations, including those focused on climate change, stepped in to respond to the pandemic. Through working firsthand at the intersection of so many issues, they know that vulnerability to one threat means vulnerability to all threats. For example, organizations with experience combatting climate change — as well as the overlapping issues of food insecurity, education, health, water and more — have resourcefulness and flexibility that they can use in responding to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At any time, we can be called upon to do anything — not just what we have always focused on in the past,” said Agnes Leina, Director of Il’laramatak Community Concerns in Kajiado, Kenya. “The pandemic has taught us that with very little, we can do something huge.”

The local nature of community climate organizations brings even more strength to the table. Local knowledge, long-standing relationships built on trust and increased uptake of interventions can equip communities to respond to global challenges in a way that is calibrated to a community’s priorities and strengths, building resilience to multiple issues at once.

The Global Commission on Adaptation is drawing attention to locally led adaptation; working to overcome the barriers local actors and institutions face in accessing funding; and advocating for greater decision-making power for local leaders to prioritize, design, implement, monitor and evaluate adaptation actions. Despite minimal resources and maximum pandemic restrictions, the Commission’s grassroots partners are deftly taking on the virus. Their actions in addressing COVID-19 illustrate the need for local leadership in longer term crises like climate change.

Here are three local climate leaders in East Africa on the frontlines of two crises, who are leveraging the trust and expertise from years of community leadership to safeguard their communities:

Agnes Leina, Il’laramatak Community Concerns

Agnes Leina’s organization, Il’laramatak Community Concerns, helps over 350 Maasai pastoralist households in Kenya become more climate resilient and informed on social issues, particularly gender and health. As COVID-19 shutters the markets where these pastoralists used to buy and sell their goods, their households increasingly need more assistance.

“They have become the first victims,” Leina said. “The reasons being inequality, inaccessibility [and] illiteracy.”

Shortly after the pandemic hit, Leina and her 11-member organization sprang into action. They distributed soap, food, jerricans for collecting water and thousands of masks for free; showed people how to wash their hands to avoid spread of the disease; ran public service announcements in newspapers, on TV and in vernacular radio stations; handed out radios to rural households for important advisories; and provided mobile phones to schoolchildren to keep up with their virtual classes.

“Being based here is the best thing that could ever happen to us because we are reachable,” Leina said. “With COVID-19, everyone else is locked out; we are available.”


Ministers commemorated Il'laramatak's pandemic response with various gifts, including this milk storage unit. Photo by Agnes Leina
Ministers commemorated Il'laramatak's pandemic response with various gifts, including this milk storage unit. Photo by Agnes Leina

Because Nairobi was locked down this summer, national leaders attended Il’laramatak’s International Day of the African Child celebration in recognition of their COVID-19 response. Ministers brought food, trees to plant and materials to build milk storage units. These gifts commemorated the organization’s pandemic work and will ultimately help pave the way toward Il’laramatak’s climate resilience after the pandemic. The community planted the trees around the school, creating a newly forested area that will prevent erosion and cool the area. This will help better safeguard the school against heavy rains and soaring temperatures.

Additionally, Il’laramatak’s pandemic interventions strengthened their institutional capacity for holding educational trainings and feeding hundreds of people in times of crisis. The phones and radios they distributed can also connect locals to disaster early warning systems and climate-informed agricultural practices.

Comfort Mukasa, Uganda Women’s Water Initiative

When Uganda’s Gomba District went into lockdown, Hajra “Comfort” Mukasa surveyed the paradox before her: The new disease-prevention measures made it impossible for her organization, Uganda Women’s Water Initiative (UWWI), to hold technical trainings on disease prevention.

“It was two weeks of fear and not knowing what to do,” said Mukasa, Director of UWWI.

UWWI is a locally-led environmental group that teaches women climate-resilient skills, such as how to make rainwater-harvesting systems and biosand water filters. As climate change increases the risk of droughts and unpredictable rainfall patterns, there is a growing need for communities to capture, manage and conserve water. Most participants are widowed, elderly or young unmarried women, and the trainings make them a respected source of knowledge in their communities. Shortly after the lockdowns began, group members thought of a way they could address the pandemic.

“The women started talking and coordinating,” said Mukasa. “We started coming up with ideas, like making soap.”

Being a local community group was key to successfully making and distributing soap. The stores selling soap ingredients closed indefinitely, but the organization already knew every shopkeeper and where they stored their products. Mukasa and her volunteers — who needed money to finance the project — reached out to a local politician, who informed them of a seed grant. Most importantly, neighboring communities already trusted the volunteers, ensuring the adoption of handwashing and sanitation practices once they distributed the soap.

“Without trust, whatever it is that you’re trying to introduce will remain your idea, and the moment you turn your back, it’s over,” Mukasa said. “[Locals trust UWWI because] we don’t come from outside; we are part of the problem, and we are part of the solution. I have lived in Gomba, so I have seen the climate affect people since I was young. I have carried water on my head. All those things you’ve read in books — I’m part of it.”

For years, UWWI has been teaching women water adaptive strategies as climate change makes water sources — and the people that rely on them — increasingly vulnerable. Rainwater catchment and water filtration systems that can be easily made from low-cost materials reduce that vulnerability.

Now, UWWI wants to use COVID-19 as a springboard to begin training women in other types of resilience as well. The revenue from the soap is giving women more economic stability. The organization is considering holding workshops on creating kitchen gardens to improve the community’s food security. And Mukasa is taking a course on how to flourish despite calamities, whose lessons she will share with her colleagues and their women’s network across Uganda. According to Mukasa, UWWI now considers itself a women’s empowerment group disguised as a water and climate movement.

Kithinji Don, PACJA

In Kenya’s Meru County, local leaders like Kithinji Don see clear links between climate resilience and COVID-19. Currently, the main cash crop and source of livelihood in Don’s constituency is miraa (more commonly known as khat), a chewing leaf and stimulant popular in parts of Africa and the Middle East. When COVID-19 cut off growers from the largest khat market in Somalia, many farmers lost their one source of income.

“If peoples’ resilience to climate change is built, then they would be able to overcome effects of COVID-19,” Don said. “If one has reliable means of livelihood, such as cultivating drought-resilient crops with good linkages to the market, then buying hand sanitizers, face masks, soaps and immunity-boosting foods … would not be [as much of] a problem. But if someone is already impoverished by effects of climate change, COVID-19 is a double tragedy.”

Fortunately, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) is partnering with Don’s community on projects that address both crises. In May, PACJA helped coordinate a successful afforestation effort by local leaders, farmers and NGOs to plant more than 70,000 bamboo seedlings. Bamboo grows quickly and can be harvested frequently, giving farmers the flexibility to adapt their growing and harvesting to changing climactic conditions. Additionally, bamboo withstands the dry season better than other trees and its presence limits depletion of neighboring forests that perform crucial ecosystem-regulating services. It can also be used for livestock feed, erosion control, furniture and much more. The project followed strict COVID-19 prevention guidelines: participants wore masks, maintained social distance and avoided large meetings by coordinating seedling drop-off via radio.

Climate change and COVID-19 threaten to disenfranchise farmers, limiting their ability to stay safe and healthy. PACJA seeks to build resilience to both crises by improving agricultural livelihoods, creating a more dependable source of income that the community can use to fend off future health or climate crises. Don is one of the first farmers in the area to partner with PACJA and Bidco Africa, a Kenya-based consumer goods company.


Promoting sunflower farming is one way that Don and PACJA are building climate resilience in Kenya. Photo by Kithinji Don
Promoting sunflower farming is one way that Don and PACJA are building climate resilience in Kenya. Photo by Kithinji Don

This partnership is also promoting drought-resistant sunflower farming as a COVID-19 stimulus measure, with the goal to transition away from khat monocultures after the pandemic. Crop diversity minimizes economic disaster by creating more market opportunities. It is also a buffer against pests, disease and drought — threats exacerbated by climate change. Bidco will purchase the sunflower harvest and process it into cooking oil, creating a more localized market than khat exports.

The project is named "tujiinue tena," Don said, which is Swahili for “lifting ourselves again.” The title is reflexive for a reason: Local communities enact the world’s collective COVID-19 response, relying on their own leadership and innovation to make scant resources go a long way.

Investing in Effective Local Leadership

Despite widespread consensus about the importance of locally led interventions, less than 3% of international humanitarian finances went to local partners last year, even though major global donors pledged in 2016 to increase direct funding for local and national responders to 25%.

The cause of this funding gap is complex. Small organizations may not be able to meet funders’ fiduciary standards or auditing and reporting requirements, making investments in their organizations seem risky to funders. Most international climate finance flows through large intermediary organizations, which can delay or slow funding at the local level. Funding for adaptation tends to require complex application processes, making it difficult for small organizations to access. Local institutions struggle to find longer-term and more flexible funding that will allow for learning and adjustment, and which accommodates the dynamic and uncertain nature of adaptation.

This year, the Global Commission’s Locally Led Action Track formed a community of practice of over 40 funders, intermediary institutions and organizations composed of local people or those directly accountable to them and their communities. Getting donor and grassroot organizations to sign-on to the Action Track’s Principles for Locally Led Adaptation — developed from over a year’s worth of consultations — is a key output of this work. The goal of this is to spur donors and intermediary institutions to make funding available to local governments, community-based organizations and other local actors, and give local groups greater influence over decision-making.

Central to these Principles is the belief that communities on the frontlines must be seen as partners in development, not beneficiaries of aid. The people directly impacted by a disaster should have agency over the funding directly impacting their communities. Recognizing the role of local expertise in disaster response and promoting grassroots perspectives in building back better — and providing resources accordingly — can lead to innovative, resilient and long-lasting adaptation measures for everyone.

For more stories documenting the innovative, resourceful ways communities are responding to COVID-19, explore the Voices from the Frontline series from our partners at ICCCAD. Also, keep an eye out for a forthcoming paper from the World Resources Institute exploring the power and inclusivity of locally led initiatives.