COVID-19 experiment finds promising government strategies for community engagement

By Senta Scarborough | Emory Report | March 25, 2021

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Barangay representatives meet with the Philippines National Police and others to highlight local development priorities in Sorsogon, Philippines, in 2019. Relationships built through these types of community conversations have led to better COVID-19 relief in remote villages. Photo by Grace Labalan.

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Consistent government engagement with community leaders builds trust and changes behavior in neglected rural conflict zones, finds a study co-authored by an Emory political scientist — even during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the first social science experiments on COVID-19 relating to conflict areas in a developing country, the findings were published by the American Political Science Review. The Philippine program that was studied serves as a promising model for future natural disasters and global health emergencies. 

“In only six months, [the program] provoked change in places most difficult that were skeptical about government’s ability to deliver,” says Renard Sexton, political science assistant professor. “In these conflict areas, if you put good faith effort and opportunities out there, you can reach these folks and build collaboration with them.” 

Sexton, University of California San Diego assistant professor Nico Ravanilla and Florida State University assistant professor Dotan Haim designed the project and co-authored the paper.

Since the 1960s, the Philippines Bicol Region has been home to violent armed conflicts with insurgent rebels. It’s also a hotspot for natural disasters with an active volcano, annual typhoons and earthquakes, making the area an “ideal laboratory” to learn how to deliver services in conflict areas.

Sexton says that Philippines National Police (PNP) Colonel Ronaldo Cabral, who had been working with Ravanilla and Haim on a community policing program, wanted to try a new approach in Bicol because combatting rebels with police crackdowns had not worked.

The program appealed to Sexton, who specializes in global conflict zones where foreign aid often doesn’t help. His research suggests that aid programs should be based on long-term investment administered by local authorities who address local needs, coordinate between agencies and connect to high levels of the political process.

Cabral suggested rebuilding trust and cooperation through regular conversations with village leaders to hear frustrations and needs and bringing in government agencies to provide assistance. He wanted to partner with university researchers to ensure a rigorous scientific process and promote confidence in what he hoped would be a credible alternative, eventually implementing the program nationwide. 

In October 2019 they randomly selected 200 villages to test using the Usap Tayo (Let’s Talk) meetings. “It wasn’t a blanket program across the region. It wasn’t one-size-fits-all,” Ravanilla says.

For example, struggling farmers in one village needed seeds, so the Department of Agriculture came to the meetings to provide help, Ravanilla says. 

In March 2020, the country was ordered into pandemic lockdown. All in-person meetings went remote. The crisis offered a test of the program when the Philippines government requested rapid assessments of risk exposure factors for villages nationwide, including those in the study.

Most village leaders weren’t willing to share information with the researchers, but those in the program were 10% more likely to report the COVID-19 risk assessment information. Even more encouraging, response rates from rebel-sympathetic treated villages were 30% higher than rebel-sympathetic control villages.

The improved relationships led to better COVID-19 relief. During the remote meetings, some village leaders shared that they had not received the government COVID-19 relief. The researchers were able to get those villages the much-needed resources.

Community meetings also helped youth council leaders who were often frustrated by government and vulnerable to recruitment by rebels. The researchers identified unemployment as one contributor to that vulnerability; the issue was addressed by partnering with an underutilized government youth training program to recruit, train and hire several dozen youth as security guards.

“The hunger was there for opportunity. It’s super hot there and you work in a big mall with air conditioning. It’s a secure job with regular salary,” Sexton says of the recruitment. “Some were able to send money back to their villages. Suddenly, these areas had tangible things the government had done for them. It opened the door to all kinds of conversations in places that had super-high levels of favoring the rebels.” 

The research team will eventually return to Manila to present findings at PNP national headquarters in hopes of changing national policy and expanding the program. 

“Unfortunately, a pandemic had to happen to realize that this works. The hope is the government pays attention to this. Laying the groundwork before anything happens really pays off in the long run,” Ravanilla says. “You don’t have to wait for a disaster to strike or a conflict to escalate for the government to do something that really helps.”