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How COVID-19 Is Changing Development

Coronavirus close-up
Oct 12, 2021

When dealing with COVID-19, development and humanitarian organizations are no different from individuals and families—their only choice is to adapt. During this pandemic, organizations have been called on to help in ways that depart from usual operations. In addition, the virus has intensified some routine challenges.

One of the most obvious challenges is funding. The United Nations (UN) humanitarian response system is seeking a record-setting $35.1 billion in 2021 to reach more than 235 million people, which calculates to 1 in 33 people globally who require lifesaving assistance. This extreme need, which the UN’s emergency relief chief attributes “almost entirely to COVID-19,” puts additional pressure on agencies. And even though some funding specifically addresses virus-related needs, it is often not enough.

In some cases, funding exists, but not for pandemic-related purposes. In Vietnam, funds originally identified for assistance to populations that are marginalized have been diverted to pandemic needs, causing further distress. In a November 2020 press release, UN Women said that although virus-incited gender-based violence is expected to affect an additional 15 million women for every three months of lockdowns, gender-based violence has not been widely included in pandemic responses.

COVID-19 has exacerbated other existing problems, such as flaws in government policy and humanitarian services. In Ethiopia, heightened virus-related tensions led to increased violence and raids of government food stores. Some regions are experiencing strained relationships between governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and it is clear that those relationships will need to evolve beyond the pandemic.

One unexpected challenge is the backlash—and, sometimes, violence—against staff in international humanitarian organizations because they are perceived as carriers of the virus.

And even well-intentioned assistance measures can create unintended problems for nonprofits and NGOs. For example, Indo-Pacific regional trade agreements that included a reduction in corporate tariffs were pushed through in spite of COVID-19. The benefit for businesses meant less income for government social programs, including life-sustaining services such as vaccinations for children and security for workers.

Despite the difficulties, nonprofits and NGOs are finding positive ways to modify their operations to aid virus mitigation. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reports that thousands of new volunteers have joined as a result of COVID-19—and it plans to keep them working after the pandemic.

In October, Vani Catanasiga, executive director of the Fiji Council of Social Services, told a regional development conference that thinly stretched funding has forced a new focus on localization. Local activities can help organizations respond faster and can better target the delivery of assistance. “In one instance with COVID,” she said, “I saw just how … replaceable international NGOs, and some local NGOs, became. Unpaid volunteers … replicated much of the work of humanitarian NGOs across the country in a matter of weeks.” 

Unlikely partnerships are forming as diverse organizations come together to meet overwhelming virus-related needs. Interfaith coalitions, for example, pool many different types of expertise and resources. A multifaith effort in the Philippines brought thousands of pounds of food, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant to people in need.

Other development and humanitarian efforts that have been adapted to deal with the virus include using digital IDs and other digital tools in new ways for distribution and delivery, applying lessons learned during Ebola outbreaks, repurposing research projects, and reallocating resources to pandemic-related needs.

As development and humanitarian organizations urgently take on issues raised by the pandemic, UN Women offers this reminder: all of the positive action doesn’t mean that old problems, such as the “shadow pandemic” of violence against women, have gone away. As the virus continues to spread, livelihoods will continue to be lost, fragile health systems will be further weakened, and food insecurity is likely to worsen. The challenge now is to ensure that all of these “shadow pandemics” are addressed along with COVID-19.