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Fellows Respond to COVID-19 Pandemic

Ashoka Arab World Fellows are pivoting their work to adjust amidst a staggering global health crisis and building innovative approaches to deal with the challenges unfolding from the pandemic.
Fellows Respond to COVID-19 Pandemic

Social Leaders Activating Change Across the Arab Region in Response to COVID-19

“There are a lot of uncertainties in the future, but we try to see them as opportunities, because uncertainty always motivates people to innovate,” says Ashoka Fellow Tamer Taha. “As long as there is innovative thinking, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Tamer’s perspective is not uncommon among Ashoka Arab World’s cohort of social change leaders, many of whom have been quick to identify alternative ways to create impact in the midst of economic instability and social distancing as well as leverage their existing models of impact to directly address social issues unfolding from the health crisis.

The outbreak has made global communities increasingly aware of the rapidly changing world we live in, underlining societal challenges and socio-economic inequalities that so often go overlooked by governments and individuals alike. While social entrepreneurs are not immune to the obstacles arising from the pandemic, in this climate of tension and uncertainty these change leaders are demonstrating the power of entrepreneurial energy, social innovation, and systems-changing models of impact.

  Co-Building Solutions

In Egypt, the founder of Yomken.com – a crowdsolving platform that connects innovators with solution-seekers to overcome today’s industrial, environmental, and societal challenges – Tamer Taha is reaching out to citizen sector organizations across the country to collaborate on sourcing ideas to tackle new challenges that have emerged with the onset of COVID-19.

Just as restrictions began to take hold of Egypt, Yomken.com partnered with StartEgypt, powered by Flat6Labs, and the Egyptian Red Crescent to host a hackathon, seeking solutions to three coronavirus-related challenges.  Innovators were able to submit ideas addressing safe public transport, day-laborer challenges, and safe money exchange. “The whole process took us just two weeks from the kickoff of preparation to the winners’ announcement,” said Tamer. “We couldn’t have done the hackathon without other partners that were also very well branded.”

Recognizing the importance of leveraging his platform to support problem-solving during the COVID-19 crisis, Tamer hosted the hackathon free of charge and sparked the submission of 240 solutions, a record number for Yomken.com. After a virtual pitch session for the top six innovators, three were selected as winners, with total rewards of 20,000 EGP to help launch their initiatives. “It’s our social responsibility to be a part of something like this,” reflected Tamer. “We didn’t expect this number of people, but it was very successful and everyone wanted to take part in the solution.”

From this experience, Tamer has observed a genuine urge to serve the community across the Egyptian ecosystem. “What we have felt from the +7,000 innovators on our side is that they really want to give. They feel like they have nothing to do at home and want to feel they are part of the solution. They see Yomken.com as a source of motivation which would trigger them to think, innovate, and respond to the crisis.”

Like many other organizations, Yomken.com has been adjusting internally to remote work, but it has been able to maintain energy and drive among its team members. “Internally, since we are used to using a good CRM and ERP system, this really helped us a lot now. Some countries are struggling with how to keep employees motivated while working at home. I believe this tool was essential to keep up the rhythm,” explained Tamer.

Tamer himself has observed a great deal of positive changes associated with many of the shifts his team has had to make and is curious to see how the market continues to react to the increased use of innovative tools like Zoom.

In light of the success of the March hackathon, Tamer and his team are now exploring options to launch a similar challenge in the near future as well as co-build online dialogues around COVID-19-related challenges. “In the next challenge, we want to focus on challenges that economic entities are facing and also challenges related to the post-coronavirus phase,” notes Tamer. “This would also be in parallel with other free-of-charge campaigns for social enterprises and NGOs. We know that it’s not easy for them to work. Everyone is trying to cut costs, but it’s a good time to invest in innovation.”

Any entity may submit the challenges they face here.

Mobilizing Community Members

Ashoka Fellow Daniel Louis is also taking steps to adjust to the current crisis and lead positive change through his organization Shamseya –  a social enterprise aimed at supporting and empowering communities through the creation of innovative, sustainable, and community-run healthcare systems. “As our primary field of work is healthcare, we had to prioritize projects to address the current crisis over other topics that had our attention before,” said Daniel. “So, for sure, we have witnessed a shift of focus in our work. Through our shift to projects tackling the crisis, we have made sure to still fulfill the goals of our ongoing, active projects.”

Shamseya concentrates on diluting biases in the evaluation of health service provisions in Egypt by promoting active citizenship and community monitoring in the sector. After rigorous field research, his team developed patient-centered performance appraisal indicators to assess health services based on international standards. Since the organization’s founding, the team has built a powerful network of cross-sector stakeholders committed to enhancing the healthcare system, including care institutions, government entities, individuals, and other citizen sector organizations.

“In Shamseya, we work through a very participatory approach within the healthcare systems we serve,” said Daniel. “We have a diverse set of stakeholders, including decision-makers, service providers, patients, and development agencies.” In response to the crisis, Shamseya has tapped into this network to raise awareness of the health implications of the crisis and source innovative ideas to tackle associate challenges.

According to Daniel, among the initiatives Shamseya is currently rolling out are:

  • “Solutions to help flatten the curve of new cases,” including:
    • Salametna.com, an online platform that helps the public monitor infection control measures provided in public spaces
    • A social media campaign targeting populations affected by COVID-19.
    • A WhatsApp healthcare system navigation service that guides people as to where and how they can receive healthcare services
  • “Solutions preparing for the worst, which is the failure of efforts to flatten the curve,” including:
    • Adaption of platforms with regional partners to provide rapid response to the emergency, intensive care services, and the resuscitation services of regional hospitals in Tunisia
    • Collaborative efforts with governmental and private sector entities to equip private sector organizations, NGOs, and public hospital to deal with COVID-19

  And as the global climate veers in various new directions every day, Daniel and his team are making sure to keep up the pace. “Given the rapidly changing nature of this phase, we have been very responsive and agile in our responses to the different developments,” he shared. “That means we adapt our solutions around the clock and roll out more.”

In parallel to these efforts, Shamseya is also carving out spaces for further innovation in support of the health crisis. “As the challenge is massive, it is important to crowd-think for innovative grassroots solutions,” explained Daniel. In partnership with Robusta and additional technical partners, Shamseya has launched two rounds of a hackathon focused on COVID-19, engaging entrepreneurs, students, youth, and experts to design innovative solutions.

Most recently Shamseya has launched a set of studies to track the performance of their network of stakeholders. The goal is to source learnings from the community and ultimately propose a series of interventions and improvements that could strengthen the healthcare system post-COVID-19.

Internally, Shamseya’s flat hierarchical structure had already prepared the organization to shift to a remote framework. “With the flat hierarchy, we have established a very stable accountability chain where every team member sets his own set of deliverables and mutually reports to his team. The situation has made us take many steps towards being very adaptive and resilient, but focused at the same time,” reflected Daniel. “Tough moments are the best learning experiences.”

Implementing a Comprehensive Approach

In Tunisia, Ashoka Fellow Achraf Aouadi noted that he and his team are also accustomed to shifting gears in times of crisis or immense change. “When there were fires in Tunisia, we had to shift our focus,” shared Achraf. “This time it was easier because we have a bigger infrastructure. We have a partner in every province; that helped us.”

Achraf is the founder of iWatch, an organization focused on preserving the victories of the Tunisian revolution by battling corruption and mobilizing youth around the ideals of transparency and good governance to create an entirely new national and regional framework with a powerful citizen sector at its core. As part of its strategy, iWatch has developed a comprehensive database of citizen sector organizations and implemented a number of digital platforms aimed at engaging citizens and publishing the findings of investigations into corruption in economic, business, political, and media spaces.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Achraf and his team have begun to explore ways to leverage its resources to create targeted change.  “When the crisis started, we said our focus would be doing a lot of work via technology, so we created a lot of platforms,” said Achraf. The platforms have a range of uses, including:

  • Fact checking, making sure fake news about the outbreak is easily identified and responded to (iCheck)
  • Creating a crowd-sourcing space for Tunisian citizens to report violations of quarantine restrictions or illegal increases in food prices
  • Guiding individuals in identifying whether they are exhibiting coronavirus symptoms or not
  • E-learning services for the Ministry of Health
  • Connecting teachers with children at home to facilitate educational services (Madrasaty)
  • Documenting the work of various organizations offering support during the crisis (initiative.in)

In addition to these digital services, iWatch is engaging in critical field work, gathering donations of medical equipment for distribution to doctors and dedicating a team to disinfect public spaces. The team was even able to organize a large-scale fundraiser, bringing together celebrities for a 12-hour, live online event that reached 150,000 people and gathered donations of around 7,000 USD. “Our size as an organization – number of volunteers, number of resources –  allows us to be very present, so our approach is comprehensive,” said Achraf. “A lot of people trust us, so many people are coming to us with donations as well.”

In terms of iWatch’s typical work, Achraft notes that he and his team are focusing now on doing desk research to prepare for the future. “We’ve been investing in e-learning, and we do most of our work in the e-learning space, so it won’t be very complicated. In the long run, we are going to need to see how we’ll do our job.”

One of the major challenges Achraf has observed in his efforts to offer as much support as possible to his community is ensuring that individuals respect social distancing and quarantine restrictions. “It doesn’t matter what we do if people don’t stay home,” he asserted. “For now, one issue is how people can stay home when they need to go out and make money to afford food. It’s going to be a problem. We’re going to look at how we can ensure that people who need food can at least get access in order to stay home.”

He emphasizes, however, that data collection is key. “We want to make sure of who needs food, medicine, and equipment. This is not a crisis that ends in a few weeks, so we want to make sure we have a strategy. It’s going to take time.” Achraf urges others interested in helping to do their research before intervening. “You want to make sure you have the stamina, energy, and resources to carry on, not only for a few weeks. I hope people take the time.”

Building A Sense of Belonging

Citizens in Lebanon had just been reeling from a very different crisis when the COVID-19 epidemic hit the country. “Technically, in Lebanon, we cannot talk about COVID without taking about the crisis that happened right before the outbreak,” shared Ashoka Fellow Yorgui Teyrouz. “We were in the middle of a revolution. The country and economy was already collapsing. People were on the street. More than 50% are jobless; people are losing their jobs or getting 20% of their salaries. The country was already going through a tough phase and everyone was aware of it.”

Toward the end of 2019, protests had erupted across Lebanon in response to growing unemployment, an unstable economy, and political corruption. Yorgui’s organization, Donner Sang Compter – a nation-wide citizen-based movement to mobilize citizens to donate blood to meet the demands of the healthcare system – was facing a troubling economic environment, trying to identify ways to continue work as donors pulled funds out of the country.

“We were already starting to restructure our organization because we were realizing that things were pretty bad and we needed to find a better way to fulfil blood demands and replicate our services with very little money,” remembered Yorgui. “There were many lessons that we learned during the revolution. Localism is a crucial element.”

Prior to the start of the protests, Yorgui’s organization followed a centralized approach, with a core management team organizing blood drives across the country. When the economic crisis hit, the team was forced to let full-time employees go and seek out alternative ways to encourage donations. “We implemented a system of decentralized volunteers, and they became in charge of handling what the staff used to do,” he explained. “So, the 15 teams of volunteers are replicating what we used to do centrally, but now they are replicating in their own districts. Instead of having one person in charge of contacting all hospitals in the country, every districts contacts their own hospitals and schedules blood drives with them.”

Initially a way of mitigating the risk posed by economic obstacles, this volunteer system began to stand out as a revolutionary model for mobilizing the community and scaling Donner Sang Compter’s impact. “Now, we’re able to have every district organize two to three drives every month – 40 to 45 drives total per month. Previously, centrally, we used to organize only 20 to 25,” said Yorgui.

To manage the organization’s new base of over 1,000 volunteers, Yorgui adopted a new software called Volunteer Hub, which enables him and his team to view a calendar for every volunteer and document the hours and number of events for each volunteer. In creating this community of volunteers across the country, Yorgui soon found himself sparking a shift in their mindsets, instigating a movement of young individuals self-identifying as change agents. “We were really surprised by the fast adaption of the volunteers to the new technology,” said Yorgui. “It’s all a matter of incentives, and especially in this kind of age range – we’re talking about 16 to 30 – I was impressed by the collective behavioral change that we witnessed and how even one volunteer would affect the other. They would all have a beautiful awakening regarding their society, their impact, and how they can influence those around them.”

This new framework has equipped Yorgui’s organization with a powerful force to tackle necessary shifts in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. While blood drives have been put on hold for the time being due to government restrictions on public gatherings, Yorgui has been able to partner with a local call center so that his volunteers can engage community members to donate blood directly through hospitals. “Today, we’re fully functional from home,” says Yorgui.

While the number of donors has slightly decreased because of public fears of going to hospitals, the difference has not been significant. In February, Yorgui’s team was able to engage 400 donors, while in March, after restrictions were implemented, the number dropped only to 357.  

While the organizational shifts at Donner Sang Compter arose in response to a separate crisis, they have shone light on the unique ability of a social entrepreneur to reframe their organization under difficult and rapidly shifting conditions. “Let me tell you that since last June, I’ve been re-questioning the impact that I’ve been seeing in my organization,” said Yorgui. “The only way to grow our impact is to decentralize. You cannot just duplicate efforts. You have to replicate efforts, and you have to replicate at least 15 times to solve the problem.”

Yorgui is currently proposing alternative solutions to Lebanon’s Ministry of Health to identify ways to safely and effectively organize public blood drives in the middle of the health crisis. He is also beginning to wonder whether this powerful model of impact could be applied to create different forms of change depending on the crisis being faced.

“Next month we celebrate our 10-year anniversary, and I’ve realized that although our mission has always been blood, it’s not only about blood donation,” reflected Yorgui. “We have a bigger purpose of healing the community from within. Blood might be one aspect of it or one channel, but if the need in the country becomes food supply and distribution, then our structure and volunteers have to be ready to adapt. It’s not in our hands.”

The volunteer model has proved effective for Yorgui’s team because of the nation-wide movement it has inspired. Such a movement and sense of community has the power to create truly widespread change, particularly in the current health climate. And if anything is needed most around the world in the face of grim news and social isolation, it’s a feeling of community. “I think that this is what I work on mostly – the belonging to a movement, — the love for the country and love for humans around us,” Yorgui added. “If these values are well transmitted to the volunteers, then the impact will be deeper, exponential, and more meaningful. Hopefully, we’re on the right track.”