COVID-19 disrupts aid, DFID's morale problem, and Germany's new strategy: This week in development

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at a coronavirus news briefing in Washington. Photo by: REUTERS / Pool / ABACA

COVID-19 overwhelms global priorities, DFID has a morale problem, and Germany plans an aid overhaul. This week in development:

The coronavirus pandemic is the “greatest test” since the formation of the United Nations after World War II, according to a “call to action” issued Wednesday by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. As the total number of reported cases approaches 1 million, and with nearly 50,000 deaths from COVID-19 so far, the pandemic continues to send shock waves around the planet, shuttering entire economies and plunging global health, development, and humanitarian organizations into a prolonged and worldwide crisis. The pandemic has begun to displace other global priorities. Also on Wednesday, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change announced that international climate talks planned for November in Glasgow, Scotland, would be postponed until 2021. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has recommended suspending polio vaccination campaigns to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, a potentially tragic necessity that experts say could allow polio to return to areas currently free of the disease. “We are caught between two terrible situations,” GPEI head Michel Zaffran told Science. Aid groups assisting refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, have faced similarly difficult choices, forced to withdraw staff who were providing critical services out of concern they might spread the coronavirus or add to the local health burden.

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The COVID-19 outbreak has already outstripped the supply of crucial medical equipment in some wealthy countries such as the U.S., and as the coronavirus spreads in low-income countries, concerns are mounting that it could force a global competition for personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other essential items. The U.S. Agency for International Development issued an “urgent request” to its implementing partners Monday for information about equipment they might have on hand. The request came at the direction of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and USAID would not confirm whether the equipment would be used in foreign countries where the agency operates or inside the U.S. This week, the White House’s coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, reportedly ordered a review of international aid for COVID-19 to compare the assistance USAID is offering abroad with domestic needs for equipment and supplies.

The U.K. Department for International Development has a morale problem. The latest “Civil Service People Survey” showed that just 45% of DFID staff members hope to still be working for the department in three years — down from 51% last year — while 12% want to leave in the next 12 months and 7% “as soon as possible.” The results appear unusually bad for a department that has historically been characterized by loyalty and commitment, according to a former longtime staffer, who blamed ongoing “political uncertainty around DFID's autonomy” and persistent issues with working conditions for the decline. “There’s only so much you put up with,” the former staffer said. Current and former employees emphasized senior management’s lack of responsiveness to workers’ concerns — including previous feedback from staff surveys — and the recent, dramatic turnover at the highest levels of political leadership at DFID, which has seen six secretaries of state in the last five years. More than a third of respondents said they felt anxious the day before providing their answers to the survey, 15% said they had been bullied or harassed at work in the last year, and 16% reported experiencing discrimination. “We are constantly looking at ways we can improve our culture and we have strong mechanisms in place to make sure that appropriate action is taken if employees experience an issue at work,” a DFID spokesperson said.

Germany is planning a major overhaul of its foreign aid strategy. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, also known as BMZ, is formulating a new strategy — called BMZ 2030 — aimed at taking a more results-focused approach to global development engagement. The plan, which has not yet been released, will include a shift of funding away from 25 countries — including ending eight bilateral country programs — and rerouting most health and early education funding through multilateral agencies, Devex has learned. While some civil society organizations are worried about the implications of those changes for low-income countries that will see less funding, others have welcomed an effort to establish clearer goals and ways of measuring progress. “For the first time, it seems to be a real willingness, at the BMZ political leadership level, to prioritize and also take into consideration the consequences,” said Raimund Zühr, project manager at SEEK Development, a Berlin-based consulting group. The overall amount of Germany’s foreign aid is expected to remain the same, but the total number of countries receiving funding will be reduced to 60. Those decisions will be based on a variety of criteria, including need, governance standards, and strategic issues.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.