Exclusive: Coronavirus hits development pros' livelihoods

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BRUSSELS/GLASGOW, Scotland — A majority of development professionals believe the coronavirus poses an existential threat to their careers and organizations, according to an exclusive Devex survey.

In the first installment of a regular survey tracking how the pandemic is impacting the development sector, we asked hundreds of aid practitioners around the world about their experiences so far. A majority — 55% — said they were concerned their organization would not financially survive the pandemic. At a personal level, 57% were concerned they would lose their job, 63% said their activities had been reduced, and 24% reported a loss of employment or income.

Will Holden, who has been an emergency management consultant in Erbil, Iraq, for the past two years, told Devex he was trying to “turn on a dime” to find work as part of the humanitarian logistics response to COVID-19.

“One INGO said that they are cutting back on all international recruitment now,” Holden said in March. “And if it’s one, it’s all of them.”

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Almost half of the development professionals surveyed by Devex said the organization they primarily work with had lost funding. A senior staffer with an international humanitarian organization, who did not wish to be identified, told Devex that “we have been planning and sort of doing contingency plans to try to prepare for the worst.

“But at a certain point it does get to be very concerning that if the money isn't flowing and we aren't able to implement the programs, then it gets to be a scary place.”

Percentage of global development professionals concerned they may lose their job due to the pandemic.

Small and medium-sized NGOs have previously said they are at risk of having to conduct mass layoffs if things don’t pick up, with fundraising events canceled and donations dropping.

One senior aid agency staffer based in East Africa predicted in a message to Devex that “this will hit smaller or niche INGOs harder — they don’t have the financial reserves to weather a financial downturn. Donors are going to be under immense pressure to pay the ‘cheques’ they have been writing to mitigate the economic hardship at home. This will mean less money for development.

“I also suspect ... that donations/sponsorship money has completely dried up — people who are worried about their jobs, paying the rent or putting food on the table are not inclined to donate to support development or humanitarian action,” they said.

The Devex COVID-19 Trends Tracker survey, conducted from April 20-26, questioned more than 500 global development professionals based in 119 countries.

Two-thirds of survey respondents said donors are not doing enough to respond to the pandemic. Independent consultants and staff working on development issues for corporations, foundations, and NGOs were largely in agreement on this.

Bill O’Keefe, head of advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, criticized the speed of some donors’ response. “The U.N. has been very slow in adapting, adjusting, and responding,” he said. “We’re concerned about that.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development has demonstrated flexibility and willingness to adapt ongoing programming and approve cost modifications, O’Keefe said. However, he added that the agency should move quicker now that the initial adjustment period is over.

“If having to know exactly what is going to happen is the standard for donors to step up at scale, we’re going to be too late,” he said. “We need donors to take some risks here in terms of getting ahead of the problem and thinking a step or two beyond the immediate.”

The senior humanitarian staffer also expressed frustration with the speed at which money is trickling down from the U.S. Congress. In addition to bureaucratic challenges, there has been a lack of clarity on whether awards can include personal protective equipment and confusion over who needs to approve what.

Percentage of global development professionals concerned that their organization may not financially survive the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the U.K.’s Department for International Development provided just £20 million ($25 million) for the response by NGOs. But implementers have the capacity and are ready to ramp up the response now — they just need fast and flexible funding to start doing so, the senior humanitarian staffer said.

Holden told Devex that for smaller operations such as his, donors rushing out more calls for proposals to help consultancies keep working would be of little use. Instead, he argued that donors would need to ring-fence offers for small-scale operators.

“There is a lot of work I could do here if I could get funding. I was advising the Kurdish government in December on improving their medical supply chain. They have no money to pay me to follow up on it,” he said.

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 coronavirus pandemic.

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About the authors

  • 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.
  • 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.