An inclusive response to COVID-19 for Africa’s informal workers


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Across the world, lockdown measures have helped contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Yet they have exacted a high economic cost, especially for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. For many, staying indoors is a luxury they simply cannot afford. This is especially true in many African countries, where 80-90% of people work in the informal economy, often relying on the sale of simple goods and services, such as fruits, vegetables, and household supplies to make a living.

For the region, the pandemic threatens to reverse decades of economic progress and poverty alleviation. In fact, new estimates show that Sub-Saharan African countries could lose up to $79 billion in output in 2020.

The stress caused by the economic impact on people in Africa will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, including poverty, fragility, and social exclusion. Many will lose jobs and income, which in turn will expose millions of people to extreme poverty and food insecurity. Most informal workers were barely making enough money to feed themselves and their families. In a recent protest in Malawi, informal vendors chanted, “we’d rather die of corona than hunger.”

In most African countries, people employed in the informal economy are already at risk of being excluded from basic services. Large segments of the populations here have limited access to water and sanitation, and high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. Approximately 238 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa reside in crowded urban slums that risk being COVID-19 hotspots. Infection risks are compounded by the high incidence rates of HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis (TB), especially in Southern Africa. And lockdowns further threaten to disrupt supply chains for HIV and TB medications.

The COVID-19 crisis in Africa also presents challenges for women, who constitute a significant part of the informal economy. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, women make up 3 out of 4 workers in the informal economy, excluding agricultural jobs. If restrictions on movement or isolation measures are prolonged, instances of gender-based violence (GBV) against woman and girls will likely surge. According to the UN, many countries are already reporting a rise in cases of domestic and sexual violence, as well as violence against children. Special measures are needed to help protect these women and girls, and support for restoring their livelihoods will be critical to restoring the region’s economy.

At the World Bank Group, we are taking broad, fast action to help developing countries respond to the pandemic. We will provide up to $160 billion in financing over 15 months to address the health, economic and social shocks countries are facing. Of this amount, $55 billion will be for Africa, to help countries protect their poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.

As part of this rapid response to the crisis, the World Bank’s social development programs are playing a critical role in supporting poorest and most vulnerable in multiple ways, including through the Environmental and Social Framework (ESF), community-driven development (CDD) programs, high frequency data collection, and new techniques for citizen engagement.

In a health, social, and economic crisis of this scale, no single intervention is enough, and African countries need a “whole of society” approach. CDD platforms, which put citizens at the center of designing their own solutions, are a critical part of the World Bank’s response, by tapping into productive partnerships between community groups, civil society, private sector and governments. These partnerships operate on the principles of subsidiarity, participation, accountability, and sustainability.

Where they are in place, CDD programs provide a rapid and flexible means of delivering cash and basic services to the poorest and most vulnerable. This is especially critical in Africa, where the majority of the population is not included in social registries or safety nets, and such systems take months if not years to put in place.  CDD programs are also a valuable tool in areas where the community’s trust in government is low. As we saw during the recent Ebola crisis, trusted community leaders played a major role in mobilizing communities for behavior change and social assistance. 

In many parts of Africa, CDD programs also stimulate local informal activities such as setting up handwashing facilities or producing masks during the pandemic. For example, in Guinea, the national CDD program and its agency (ANAFIC) worked with the central pharmacy to distribute essential medical kits across 152 health centers within a week after the country’s declaration of emergency. The agency’s network of facilitators across 337 local governments is being mobilized for communication campaigns on prevention and local monitoring of COVID-19 responses using mobile devices.

Our social development programs can also be tailored to mitigate the associated risks of violence against women and girls. Social assistance measures can be paired with community management approaches and embed awareness-raising messages on COVID-19 that integrate information on gender, violence against women and girls, and child exploitation and abuse. This will help mitigate some of the impacts on informal workers resulting from containment and mitigation measures for COVID-19. CDD programs also provide targeted support for the most marginalized groups, including women and unemployed youth.

To sustain measures that will alleviate the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 in Africa, we need a concerted push and substantial financial support from the international community. The choice and design of interventions need to be tailored to individual countries and situations. Most importantly, they need to respond to citizen’s needs, adapt to local dynamics, and protect the most vulnerable.



Kudakwashe Dube

Social Development Specialist

KOUAME Epse KOUAKOU Anick Barbara
September 11, 2020

Je partage le contenu cette publication. C'est exactement le cas dans mon pays la Côte d'Ivoire où notre économie dominée par le secteur informel et les emplois précaires, doit faire face aux impacts de la COVID 19. Cette crise au-délà de son aspect sanitaire, revêt finalement un caractère social qui s'il n'est pas rapidement pris en charge risque de bouleverser nos modes de vie.

Nalini Raman
July 28, 2020

Excellently written...

Habimana Jonas
July 28, 2020

Dear Dube and Christine hi. You hacecdone a great report . Thanks. As a national NGO,we are targeting vulnérable women to develop their resilience during civid-19. How do you think local actors will benefit from the Fund given by World Bank ?

Lizelle Coombs
July 28, 2020

Rural Development is at the heart of what we do and have been doing for 15 years in South Africa. Thank you for sharing a very informative article.

Dolapo Adejumo
July 28, 2020

This is very essential. The interplay of current situations really demands a reinforcement of the bottom-up approach to community development. There is increasing evidence that development agendas need to listen to the marginalized in the society and tailor the agendas such that they benefit the most.
Great write-up!!

Fatima Jummai Mohammed
July 28, 2020

Something need to be done because the rate at which the lockdown is affecting people economically is beyond expectation.

July 28, 2020

my response is to increase the youth capacities of project planning and the ability of opportunities finding through my project #IYUBAKE!

July 28, 2020

I'm a final year student of economics in Kaduna State University, Nigeria. I'm preparing for my final project thesis and I intend to make a research on the economic exclusion of the informal sector and its economic impact. I need guidance for my research. I was hoping you could help me out with some generalised questions for my research questionnaire in order to grasp the dynamics of the informal sector and its economic impact in Africa's largest economy. In the future I intend to bounce back my progress in the research development.
I will be expecting a reply and hopefully getting the opportunity to tap into your experience. Thank you for your time.
Bye for now,

Deusdedit Bwalya
March 16, 2021

Christine and Kudakwashe, a detailed analysis of the effects of COVID 19 and totally agree with your findings. I am coming from an organisation in Zambia called Association of Vendors and Marketeers in Zambia ( AVEMA - Zambia ) and it's a voice for the voiceless informal economy workers in all vending spaces throughout the country. I attest that the impact is already being felt amoung our membership.
What would be required to part of this fight at organisational level? How ever we are doing the sensitisation and distribution of masks and other related accessories to improve adherence but this isn't sustainable due to limited resources.