Development pros brace for more needs, less money post-pandemic

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A health worker on the front line of the COVID-19 response in Madagascar. Photo by: Henitsoa Rafalia / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

GLASGOW, Scotland/BRUSSELS — Development professionals are expecting cuts to foreign aid funding during and following the coronavirus pandemic — just as it is needed most — according to an exclusive Devex poll.

Devex’s weekly COVID-19 Trends Tracker questions hundreds of professionals around the world to understand how the pandemic is impacting the global development sector. Nearly all of those surveyed — 96% — said that the pandemic will have significant and long-term consequences for development.

In the latest round of questions, conducted from May 4-10, more than 560 global development professionals across 156 countries were given a list of potential long-term consequences of the pandemic, with no limit to the number of answers they could choose. “Backsliding on development gains” was picked by 53% of respondents, while 49% predicted reductions to foreign aid.

"The threat of backsliding on hard-won development gains is real,” Jorge Moreira da Silva, director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Co-operation Directorate, told Devex in reaction to the results. “While the virus attacks equally, it has the cruel effect of cleaving down lines between rich and poor and eroding already fragile contexts.”

Concerns varied depending on where survey respondents were based. In North America, 65% thought lost development gains would be one of the biggest consequences of the pandemic, versus 53% in Africa. Practitioners in Oceania were most concerned about reductions in foreign aid, which was chosen by 73%. Meanwhile, 60% of professionals in the Middle East and 52% in Asia expected more funding for primary health systems.

One respondent predicted just a short-term increase in public health funding, followed by cuts “once people again think that the dangers are all behind us.” Another expressed concern over the distribution of funds, suggesting that an “over emphasis on health to the exclusion of other issues could have a big impact on achievements made so far towards the Sustainable Development Goals.”

COVID-19 Trends Tracker.

Reduced foreign aid

“Every country will look after itself first before looking across borders,” one respondent said in the survey, reflecting a common concern over cuts to foreign aid. The Hungarian government announced in April that its Hungary Helps aid program would receive less funding as a result of the pandemic, for instance.

And Peter Eriksson, Swedish minister for international development cooperation, said earlier this month that in the current climate, simply maintaining the country’s goal of spending 1% of gross national income on official development assistance would be satisfactory.

Potential reductions in foreign aid are a huge concern, particularly for local organizations that lack resources, said Delphine Pinault, humanitarian policy advocacy coordinator and United Nations representative at CARE International.

Forty-one percent of COVID-19 Trends Tracker respondents said the organization they work for has lost funding due to the pandemic, up from 37% two weeks ago. Overseas development aid could drop by as much as $25 billion by 2021, according to projections by Development Initiatives, an organization that focuses on data and development. Given the economic recovery that many donor countries are now facing, Pinault said, “the competition to maintain ODA levels with domestic priorities is enormous.”

“While the virus attacks equally, it has the cruel effect of cleaving down lines between rich and poor and eroding already fragile contexts.”

— Jorge Moreira da Silva, director, Development Co-operation Directorate

Ahunna Eziakonwa, assistant administrator and regional director for Africa with the United Nations Development Programme, said she was hopeful that financial commitments around the SDGs and the other development agendas would be maintained. She cautioned against thinking of development aid as “foreign,” noting that it is in every country's self-interest to work in an integrated and collaborative way in this response and beyond.

Moreira da Silva from OECD argued that history indicates aid will not fall. “ODA increased in 2009 and 2010 despite the global financial crisis in 2008,” Moreira da Silva said. “The interconnectedness of the COVID-19 crisis drives home how protecting aid protects global security, and the donor response is an opportunity to mitigate the impact of the next global shock on us all."

Backsliding of development gains

Concerns about development gains mirror the dire predictions in recent studies. According to the United Nations’ “World Economic Situation and Prospects” report, the pandemic will cause an estimated 34.3 million more people to fall below the extreme poverty line this year, with 56% of those in Africa.

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The World Bank predicts a 19.7% drop in remittances to low- and middle-income countries in 2020. And World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last week that the pandemic could curb recent progress in low-income countries on life expectancy and access to services for HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis.

One COVID-19 Trends Tracker respondent predicted that under-diversified economies with weak institutions and poor infrastructure would be particularly exposed. The respondent cited fears of “democratic backsliding due to [the] crisis situation”, as well as the long-term impact of school closures on students.

“Every country will look after itself first before looking across borders.”

— A respondent to the Devex COVID-19 Trends Tracker

Pinault said women and girls’ rights could be set back by “a couple of decades.” The interruption of family planning services could lead to 7 million unintended pregnancies if the lockdown continues for six months, she said, while the lack of emergency obstetric care will put expectant mothers at risk.

Janez Lenarčič, the European Union’s commissioner for crisis management, told Devex this month that given the International Labour Organization’s warning that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy worldwide are at risk of losing their livelihoods, “we expect that the food security situation will worsen considerably.”

Eziakonwa also noted that the threat of food shortages across dozens of countries as a result of COVID-19 could compromise progress in many other areas of development.

“That is a significant setback because we were celebrating the progress made, for instance, in infant mortality and overall children's health, which is often linked to nutrition,” Eziakonwa said.

Gains made around access to education may also be lost. This is hugely concerning, not least because an educated workforce will be key to rebuilding health systems, Eziakonwa added.

Do you work in global development? Has your job or livelihood been affected? Please join the discussion and comment below to share your experience during the pandemic.

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About the authors

  • Emma Smith

    For four years, Emma Smith covered careers and recruitment, among other topics, for Devex. She now freelances for Devex and has a special interest in mental health, immigration, and sexual and reproductive health. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master’s in media and international conflict.
  • 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.