Volunteers from Association ˝Duga˝ inform and educate Roma communities and vulnerable groups about Covid-19 measures. Photo: Association "Duga"

Closed borders, grounded planes, insufficient hospital beds, empty supermarket shelves, police officers and army patrolling the streets: this is the everyday reality in many countries around the world, following the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Here in Serbia, the number of people infected with COVID-19 is rising. Schools have been closed since 16 March, people above the age of 65 years are forbidden to leave their homes, a curfew is in place for the entire population 12 hours per day, public transport has stopped, and borders have closed. While the immediate concern is for the population’s health and safety, businesses also suffer, incomes fall, and people, many of whom rely on the informal economy, no longer have work. 

Yet, this crisis also brings with it an opportunity for a fundamental change.

The last few weeks we have witnessed many inspiring acts of solidarity in response to COVID-19. Here are three trends that we believe can offer transformative solutions for development beyond the crisis.

1.     BUILDING TRUST BETWEEN PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES

Instead of withdrawal and self-interest, all over the world, we see an outpouring of support and solidarity. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that in spite of the physical distancing required by the disease, people are finding creative ways to connect and help one other, reaching out to the most vulnerable members of the community.

In Serbia too, examples of solidarity are all around. People are posting notices in public spaces and on social media, offering to buy groceries and walk pets for elderly neighbours under curfew. Local convenience shops and pharmacies are delivering groceries and medication to the doorstep of elderly customers, while local restaurants are providing free meals. A social media campaign launched by UNDP entitled #ZajednoRazdvojeni (transl. TogetherApart) has been overwhelmed with examples of volunteering, acts of kindness and donations, generating greater trust between people.


To amplify this trend, we developed a new government platform Be a volunteer, in partnership with the Office for IT and eGovernment. Individuals who wish to assist their local communities can register through this platform. Within the first three days of its launch, over 1,600 volunteers were approved and ready to serve. Today, there are over 7,000 thousand of them. Local administrations and emergency councils are now matching them with existing calls for assistance from the elderly through the government’s dedicated phone number. A unique Call Centre responds to all citizen COVID19-related enquiries and is linked to the volunteer platform.

This use of technology to engage citizens in the response to COVID-19 offers solutions for broader community challenges in the future. At the same time, the link between the digital platform and the analogue call centre can help reduce the digital divide in Serbia, since it includes rural communities and marginalized groups, such as Roma and the elderly.

2.     INCREASING BUSINESS COMPETITIVENESS AND TRUST IN INSTITUTIONS

Just as important as the horizontal networks of mutual aid and support we see in society, are the vertical ties between people and institutions. The pandemic is an opportunity to strengthen that trust through openness and regular interaction. UNDP helped the Government of Serbia to consolidate over 90 tools and services on a platform called Digital solidarity. This platform offers entertainment, educational materials, plays, exhibitions and concerts free online from companies and cultural institutions.

Serbian entrepreneurs and businesses are also stepping up. In response to the shortage of face masks, many small clothes manufacturers have shifted their production to sew masks for hospital staff. Women joined the effort, taking out their sewing machines for the first time since the socialist era and using patterns made available online, to donate masks from their available fabric. UNDP and WHO are partnering to build on these examples of entrepreneurial spirit by issuing a Challenge call, encouraging individuals, businesses and civil society organisations to come up with local solutions to address the shortages of urgent medical supplies.

It’s been heartening to also see the thriving tech sector engaging with the crisis. Serbian Visionaries is a 3D printing community that gathered small private companies to 3D-print medical face shields, which are donated to hospitals. They now receive funding from the Government’s Innovation Fund to scale their solutions quickly.

Other small businesses have turned to online channels and digital tools to reach their clients, isolated at home. To help preserve physical and mental wellbeing, fitness trainers and psychologists, many of them women, are offering their skills online, free of charge. These examples of businesses moving online offer the opportunity for expansion into new markets and increased competitiveness during and after the crisis.

3.     CONNECTING TO THE DIASPORA

Serbia’s sizeable global diaspora offers untapped potential, especially now. Serbians living abroad are posting on social networks and speaking to the Serbian media, giving advice on protection, sharing examples of successful strategies that other countries have taken and warning against irresponsible behaviour.

Serbia has been losing its population to wealthier countries for decades, with the young and educated leaving in largest numbers. This depopulation, caused by out-migration and falling fertility rates, has become one of the biggest development challenges facing the country.

Yet, in a 20-day period in March, 318,000 Serbian citizens returned from abroad. These returning diaspora and migrants bring with them skills, networks and experience that can help Serbia recover from this crisis. How they are received now in Serbia will influence whether they decide to stay or leave once the crisis is over.

“Tačka povratka“ (Transl. Returning Point) is an organisation established earlier this year to connect Serbia with its diaspora. With this pandemic, it began receiving many inquiries from Serbian medical doctors and nurses abroad who wanted to help fight COVID-19 at home.

UNDP partnered with Tačka povratka to make a public call to all available medical staff from Serbia residing abroad, who are available to help on voluntary basis. Over 300 applications were received in the first three days. This additional volunteer medical capacity could make all the difference to a stretched health system.

Kids offering to go shopping for elderly neighbours. Photo: FB/Pomoć sugrađanima u karantinu Srbija
P.S. Fashion Company started sewing masks from day 1. Photo: @PSfashion
A local Belgrade restaurant offers free meals to senior citizens 2km around them. Photo: @restoran_lebondzem


Social capital for all

These examples give us hope in dark times. They remind us that the social capital, connections and trust between people are just as important as the physical assets and human capital in keeping people safe and helping society overcome crisis.  Daniel Aldrich has compellingly shown through his research on how Japan coped with natural disasters that communities with stronger social connections and trust are more resilient to shocks and have fewer victims.

There is no doubt that medical facilities, respirators, personal protective equipment and skilled professionals are urgently needed to fight the COVID-19. But the solidarity, networks, social capital and transparency that bind people together and build trust in institutions is the glue keeping people safe and ensuring resilience in the long run. We need to identify those examples of social capital that can accelerate the country’s response and ensure stronger recovery.

We also should be mindful of two points about social capital in building resilience. The first is that networks can exclude as well as include. The second is that social ties can have a negative impact. For example, the work and time women have to devote to maintaining support networks, including elderly dependents, can hinder other opportunities.

So as we go about exploring how to harness the solidarity and social capital that we witness in response to the crisis, let’s also ask about the types of networks being promoted, who participates in them and how. And let’s look for ways to diversify access to the resources and opportunities networks bring and ensure they benefit society as a whole, especially the marginalised.

UNDP is working across the region to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Find out more about our work.

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