COVID-19 job losses accelerate in development sector, survey results say

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A view of almost empty roads after authorities announced a lockdown for two days every week in the West Bengal state, amid the spread COVID-19, in Kolkata, India. Photo by: Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

BARCELONA/BRUSSELS — A majority of development workers now report that they or someone they know has lost their job due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to new data from Devex.

Devex’s latest COVID-19 Trends Tracker surveyed 650 development practitioners in 113 countries this month. Some 59% said they or someone they know had lost their job, up from 36% in April.

More organizations are losing funding, too. In April, 37% of respondents said the organization they primarily work with had lost funding due to the pandemic. Now, 46% say so.

Leading NGOs such as Oxfam have announced job cuts in recent months, as well as furloughing staff, as income flows and programs are disrupted by the pandemic.

“[I] have had to explore other potential earning avenues as consultancies reduce drastically.”

— A respondent to Devex’s COVID-19 Trends Tracker survey

In the latest Devex survey, conducted between Jul. 27 and Aug. 10, 17% of respondents said their organization had cut employee salaries, while 34% said hiring had been halted or reduced.

A particularly high percentage of NGO and foundation staff members — 60% and 63%, respectively — said they had already lost their job or know someone who has.

Asked during the survey what adjustments their organization had made to cope with the challenges of COVID-19, one employee from an NGO in Asia said “not paying salary for the last 5 months.” Another respondent working for a North American donor wrote, “Have been told that I am being let go due to reduction in activities.”

For independent consultants, the picture is similarly bleak, with some saying they have not received any income since April.

“All contracts delayed, I am looking for remote work,” one wrote, while others reported doing more volunteer work, joining policy forums, or doing desk-based research.

Multiple consultants said they were looking for alternative income streams. “[I] have had to explore other potential earning avenues as consultancies reduce drastically. I am a proposal development expert. Donors have withdrawn calls,” one respondent wrote.

Exclusive: Oxfam to lay off 1,450 staff and withdraw from 18 countries

The organization is facing a major restructuring as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic bite.

As a result, many consultants are trying to adapt their expertise to better fit the few opportunities available. One expert based in Asia said they were “Trying to reinvent and innovate.”

In North America, meanwhile, a few consultants — although still the minority — said they felt job opportunities were beginning to rebound.

One respondent there, who was working remotely prior to the pandemic, said that while opportunities for work had been reduced, this appears to have “completely recovered” in the last couple of weeks. Another agreed, writing that “Work collapsed in March, but had roared back by May” and that they were getting hired mainly to write proposals.

But there are ongoing concerns that donors might cut funding as economic hardship bites and that any available funding will be largely diverted to the pandemic response.

“My projects usually ‘live on’ core funding, which has decreased,” one independent consultant in Europe wrote. “Funding from partners and from core are now predominantly going to anything with COVID in the title.”

The U.K., one of the world’s biggest donors, has already announced a cut of £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion) to this year’s aid budget.

About the authors

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.
  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.