Collective action and “social distancing” in COVID-19 responses


by Ruth Meinzen-Dick | June 3, 2020

Much of my research has been on the need for collective action in managing natural resources, and the value of groups to facilitate collective agency for women’s empowerment. Extensive research has shown that coordination among resource users is necessary to distribute rights and responsibilities for both appropriation and provision of common pool resources, such as for water withdrawals and maintenance of irrigation systems (Anderies and Janssen 2013). And we are learning about the mechanisms through which women’s groups contribute to empowerment, whether through collective enterprises (such as through self-help groups in India), access to finance, acquiring social services, or improving women’s bargaining power in their households (Brody et al. 2017).

What happens, then, when people cannot come together in person because of lockdowns to prevent transmission of COVID-19? What happens to the irrigation systems in Nepal and India that need collective labor to repair them? What happens to the women who rely on weekly savings group meetings to build their financial and social capital?

The results can be isolation and depression, as well as economic losses. But as “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, the requirements for physical distancing are also increasing appreciation for the value of coming together, strengthening the impetus to reach out to others. In this sense “social distancing” is a misnomer—physical distancing does not necessarily increase social distance. Read the full piece >>

"...While ICTs and other mechanisms show that social solidarity can transcend physical proximity, the imposition of physical distancing orders—and their eventual lifting—provides an important opportunity for examining the value of different types of interaction for creating social solidarity."

This piece was first published as Rapid Response Opinion in Agriculture and Human Values (May 31, 2020). Research cited in this piece was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Ruth Meinzen-Dick is senior research fellow at IFPRI and co-leader of PIM's work on Governance of Natural Resources.


Meinzen-Dick, R. Collective action and “social distancing” in COVID-19 responses. Agric Hum Values (2020).

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Photo: UNDP (Flickr)


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