This is the final section of our three-part series sharing our organizational response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We leaned heavily on our values during this uncertain time, an approach that has given us new perspectives on how to best support locally-led African organizations as we look to the coming years of continued learning and growth.
Convening has always been one of the ways SFF creates spaces to connect local African visionaries with funders and other stakeholders who are committed to supporting African communities to develop and prosper on their own terms. COVID-19 gave us an opportunity to experiment boldly with the power of virtual convening and networking. In 2020 and 2021, we collaborated with Robert Bosch Stiftung and the BMW Foundation to convene The Future Summit. This virtual networking and community building event enabled us to bring together a plethora of African changemakers to discuss and explore how we could leverage on the lessons from COVID-19 to support a future vision for Africa that is locally-driven and globally relevant. Moreover, it proved to be a valuable opportunity to test virtual site visits, which our grantee partners embraced as a powerful way to overcome the hurdles caused by global travel restrictions and share their work with their remote supporters.
The pandemic also brought with it unprecedented opportunities to join forces with other funders to maximize the impact of our response and to collectively envision the future we wanted for Africa in the aftermath of COVID-19. Of special note was a partnership with an anonymous peer funder with whom a bold rapid-response partnership injected an additional much-needed $1.17 million into our COVID response at the height of the Delta variant surge. This partnership enabled us to substantially expand our efforts to provide life-saving equipment to public and not-for-profit health facilities that were serving high volumes of COVID-19 cases. Together, we positively impacted over 89 health facilities across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, boosting their capacity to provide medical oxygen therapy to hundreds of patients during this critical time. The equipment that was donated through this partnership continues to be used in ICUs, neonatal, and high-dependency units to treat childhood pneumonia and other respiratory conditions that affect thousands every year.
Additionally, through a partnership with the Conrad Hilton Foundation and GiveDirectly, 17 community-based organizations in our Malawi portfolio secured $738,000 in additional funding. These monies went towards direct household cash transfers, as well as health access and food security interventions to mitigate the negative effects of the COVID pandemic on livelihoods and health access among their constituents. This partnership leveraged the strengths of the partner community organizations (their local context and connections), directly supporting nearly 70,000 individuals in the high density, peri-urban areas of central and southern Malawi.
There is still a great deal of work to be done even as the world transitions beyond the acute phase of the pandemic. Millions in lower-income countries are still waiting for COVID-19 vaccines, a wait that is unacceptable. Since late 2021, we have awarded COVID-19 vaccine access grants to support our community health partners in promoting vaccine access, confidence, and uptake in their communities. Community health partners continue to be key in the fight against the pandemic as they use a range of approaches to integrate COVID-19 considerations into maternal and primary care provision, to deliver vaccines to underserved last-mile communities, and to counter still-widespread myths and misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines.
The pandemic’s effects on economies and societal systems will be felt for decades to come. It highlighted, in many ways, that inequity is the core problem in global development. This is an issue that SFF has been committed to addressing since our founding. For instance, as schools face the daunting task of supporting students in covering lost ground, learners from disadvantaged backgrounds who had to work to support their families during the pandemic are less likely to return to school compared to their peers from better-off homes. Similarly, the rise in inflation and cost of living in the post-COVID recovery period poses particular risks for the most vulnerable, including millions of unemployed/underemployed youth whose livelihoods were rendered even more precarious by shrinkage in job markets during the pandemic. SFF’s Vision 2030 (our 10-year growth compass) affirms our commitment to supporting efforts to advance equity and inclusion in education, as well as creating dignified work/economic opportunities for Africa’s youth.
Given the diverse spectrum of approaches that our COVID-19 response took across different countries and phases of the pandemic, we still have unanswered questions regarding the aggregate reach and impact of the efforts that we supported. The combination of less burdensome reporting and flexible, unrestricted grants (the pillars of our trust-based approach) can mean lower visibility into the day-to-day work of our grantee partners and the outcomes of their work over time. As funders, we are still grappling with how to navigate these waters: how do we hold ourselves accountable as funders as we support a diverse range of partners, approaches, and outcomes — particularly in times of crisis? How do we support and embrace learning and adaptation over time, alongside our partners, with trust but without burden?
One thing we nevertheless remain certain about is the importance of investing in local leaders and organizations who are closest to both the problems and solutions, as affirmed by how we saw our partners respond to COVID-19. Future pandemics may be inevitable, but we can help to build self-reliance and preparedness by resourcing local leaders and changemakers appropriately. Providing the flexible, long-term support needed to build critical infrastructure and develop resilient health and education delivery systems will enable economies that will continue to work perennially. Now, more than ever, SFF is committed to supporting local African visionaries for years to come.
Third in a series, this article is excerpted from the report “Leaning on Our Values in Uncertain Times: Our Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”