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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

RVI and COVID-19: Making local knowledge work

Four months have now passed since the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a global pandemic. While many parts of Asia, Europe and the US may have come through the worst of the outbreak—or at least its first peak—the spread of the virus is less advanced in Africa. People in East and Central Africa, where RVI operates, may be hit particularly hard by the pandemic’s social, economic and political impacts, which are likely to disproportionately affect poverty-stricken populations, including refugees and other displaced groups.

Crises are not exceptional in these regions. The coronavirus is spreading in countries that are very different to the global north, countries with long histories of protracted disasters, and fragile public services. This will influence the way in which people will respond. In this context, RVI’s mission to advance relevant knowledge of the region and its communities, and to elevate local voices through collaborative research, public information and dialogues, remains crucial. The Institute has, over the past few months, worked to reorient and adapt its operations into a new world of lockdowns, travel restrictions and widespread economic disruption.

RVI researcher, Machot Amuom, and chiefs speaking on the radio in Yirol.


How we are working

During the pandemic, RVI’s first priority has been the health, safety and wellbeing of its staff, consultants and other partners. Working across several countries in Africa, RVI also has a responsibility to support international efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To this end, we have halted international travel, cancelled our Forums (previously planned to take place in Nairobi) and postponed RVI’s Annual Field Courses. Staff in Kenya and the UK transitioned to working from home in line with guidelines by governments. Our office in Juba in South Sudan has remained open throughout but with stringent hygiene and social distancing measures in place, and several staff and researchers have chosen to travel to their home locations.

Public Information

RVI has been well-placed to respond to the pandemic through its research, publications and convening. In some cases—for example, through the X-Border Local Research Network—this has meant adapting existing research projects to focus on the impact of COVID-19. In others, we have specifically organized new activities; for example, an experts’ online roundtable meeting on COVID-19 in Somalia.  Rift Valley Forum events have restarted online via video conferencing platforms. Since April, RVI hosted a series of webinars on the impact of COVID-19 on mobility, movement and migration in eastern and central Africa; its impact on peace and security in the region; and policing the pandemic and alternative frameworks for managing COVID-19. We also organized online forums examining the social, economic, and political impact of the health crisis in Somalia including on planned elections. Through the diaspora-humanitarianism project we also contributed to briefings assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the remittance economy (here, here and here). The education team are adapting versions of our courses for delivery online.

Research and ethics

In South Sudan, RVI is redefining its priorities in response to the crisis. RVI Fellow Edward Thomas used  research on South Sudan’s food production system to produce the briefing, ‘South Sudan’s Food Imports in the time of COVID-19’. This was the first in a series of publications that will look at the wider economic, social and political consequences of the pandemic on the region. The briefing drew heavily on the work Edward has been doing with researchers from the Catholic University of South Sudan, which also form the basis of a new report written by Edward along with Deng Kuol, Elizabeth Nyibol, Jimmy Pitya, Jovensia Uchalla, Loes Lijnders, Luga Aquila and Steven Amosa, ‘South Sudan’s Changing Tastes: Conflict, displacement and food imports’. In a similar style, Joseph Diing Majok and Nicki Kindersley drew on existing research in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal under the X-border project to produce, ‘COVID-19 in South Sudan’s Borderlands: A view from Northern Bahr el-Ghazal’.

Several of our researchers in South Sudan returned to their home communities where they are engaging with the network of customary authorities—whom we have worked with for over half a decade—to raise awareness around COVID-19. To support this, RVI has worked with the Health Pooled Fund and WHO in South Sudan to secure relevant information about the disease to pass on to communities. This has been translated to local languages, which some of our researchers have helped with.

The researchers are coordinating with other local actors to ensure complementarity of the work. This has taken various forms: radio shows with chiefs and local medical professionals; disseminating messages through chiefs’ courts, market women and boda boda riders; and establishing hand washing stations. Through blogs, the researchers are reporting on the diversity of challenges in different locations, including villages and cattle camps. Some of the lessons learned from the experiences of the researchers can be read in our briefing, ‘Responding to COVID-19 in South Sudan’. We will also be producing a study on epidemics and borders in South Sudan drawing on research in the South Sudan National Archives. Also as part of our work in the Archives, RVI Project Officer, Alex Miskin, wrote a blog based on interviews with Catholic University of South Sudan graduates about the impact of the pandemic on young people’s wellbeing.

Two other recent blogs explored the challenges of COVID-19 on livelihoods in Juba, part of a new project on Youth, Violence and Livelihoods in South Sudan, and the impact of the COVID-19 response on aid delivery to mobile populations.

Also, as part of the X-Border Local Research Network, we published a briefing paper, ‘Khat and COVID-19: Somalia’s cross-border economy in the time of coronavirus’, which uses the khat trade as a lens through which to examine the challenges that the pandemic will cause for Somalia’s economy and the livelihoods of some of the region’s poorest people. This piece was adapted by researcher Sahra Ahmed Koshin from existing work she conducted with RVI on the khat trade in Somalia.

The risks associated with the health crisis to researchers has required us to adapt ethical research guidelines and we are preparing a paper on the ethics of research during pandemics. Our researchers are also developing alternative remote research methods, including the use of mobile phones, online focus group discussions and greater use and analysis of social media.

New projects

As well as adapting, or repositioning existing work to address the pandemic, RVI has also begun two new studies that focus on COVID-19 in the region.

  • A study that builds on and expands findings from rapid response research carried out in April with RVI researchers and customary authorities in South Sudan. The aim of the project is to increase information on COVID-19 in remote locations in South Sudan through two-way conversations in an effort to amplify local experiences that will inform culturally sensitive and timely responses.

  • A study that aims to create a better understanding of how communities control and manage viruses and infectious diseases in South Sudan, and make decisions around this, both now and in the past, in order to develop more locally tailored responses to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In a recent paper, academic, activist and RVI Fellow Alex de Waal, argued that an ‘emergency epidemic response can only work if it is designed and implemented in consultation with the affected communities’. In this moment, as we are just beginning to comprehend the impact of COVID-19 in Africa, RVI is committed to continue to make local knowledge work for the benefit of the people in eastern and central Africa.

  • Recent Publications