For the global development community, COVID-19 poses big questions

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Disinfectant spraying activity at an internally displaced persons camp in Azaz, Syria, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo by: REUTERS / Khalil Ashawi

A new term has gained immediate currency during the COVID-19 crisis: “contactless delivery.” It’s the idea that food and supply deliveries can be left at your door without interacting with a delivery person and risking viral spread.

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One development organization is trying to capitalize on this new thinking with “contactless aid delivery.” This Turkey-based nonprofit group, NeedsMap, has developed an interactive map where those in need can request support and donors can send supplies and money — all online and without any physical interaction.

This idea — an adaptation of a model that the group has been running successfully for several years to support Syrian refugees in Turkey — is a sign of the times. Global development professionals are scrambling to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic will change — in ways small and large, transient and permanent — how they do their work.

Based on conversations with aid workers, development professionals, and global leaders, here are some of the big questions they’re asking.

Could development professionals lose their jobs?

In many ways, the global development industry — including global health, humanitarian, and sustainability work — is shielded from the immediate economic impact of the pandemic. Ours is not the restaurant or tourism industries. But there will be secondary effects.

Nonprofits may see additional fundraising around their COVID-19 response but diminished annual giving. Foreign aid budgets could slip. Some implementing organizations could grow, but others might shrink.

Those who have felt the immediate impact include Peace Corps volunteers who were returned home and fired. So too the many consultants who populate this industry and are seeing projects cut short, delayed, or canceled. Global development is in some ways a kind of gig economy, with expert consultants hopping from assignment to assignment. That makes a high proportion of this industry’s professionals susceptible to a downturn.

How can an industry so based around travel function?

For better or worse, global development work is synonymous with travel. There are field visits, missions, official delegations, conferences, and short- and long-term overseas consultancies. “Where have you been recently?” is a common question during small talk in the hallways of international organizations.

Those days have come to an abrupt halt for all but the most essential front-line humanitarians. It’s not clear when travel — especially international travel — might become an option again. It could be months, and some say even longer, before travel habits return to normal. And they may never; reduced travel, especially with climate pressures and financial challenges in the wake of the pandemic, could become the new normal for aid work.

There’s an enormous opportunity here. Perhaps the long-standing trend toward localization will be sped up inexorably. Perhaps the recent move to humanitarian cash transfers and direct aid will be stepped up. Perhaps virtual events and meetings will finally catch on as a true alternative to the innumerable convenings that get scheduled each year — although inclusion issues could be exacerbated for those without high-bandwidth connections.

For now, international organizations are scrambling to employ local professionals and secure local partners. Chiefs of party and project team leaders may, for example, end up running their projects remotely, directing a team on the ground. Down the road, travel — already a marker of value and social status — may become a scarcer commodity, rarely approved. As a consequence, the global development conference circuit may never be the same. For a community of professionals who see travel as essential to their work but who are also sensitive to the elitist and neocolonial undertones to all the shuttling around, this would be a mixed bag and a major cultural and operational shift.

Will this lead to winners and losers among NGOs and implementers?

A major disruptive event like COVID-19 can shake up business in ways that are hard to predict. But some contours are already coming into focus. And the bottom line is that large incumbents seem best positioned to weather this storm.

Major international NGOs have the financial cushion, donor base, global scale, and network of local professionals and partners to be in the pole position. While they will certainly face operational challenges, big INGOs can get to work on the COVID-19 response quickly, raise funds for that work, and help institutional funders hit the ground running.

The same goes for the big for-profit implementing partners. Their scale and infrastructure is an attractive asset to bilateral and multilateral donors who have no time to waste.

Leading national NGOs and implementing partners in the global south are also well positioned. They have the relationships and credibility to be hot commodities at a time when travel is so heavily restricted.

So who might lose out? Other than highly specialized niche players, essentially everyone else. Midsize international NGOs and contractors, along with small businesses, will have a hard time. There are set-asides meant to help them compete in many cases, but not in a crisis. Start-ups and social innovators have been a hot ticket of late, but they don’t have what institutional donors are looking for right now.

According to two well-placed sources, project work not related to COVID-19 is likely to be extended — in the case of USAID, under emergency orders — again benefitting the largest organizations that hold these contracts and grants. This is not to say large international players won’t face hardships. But in this crisis, it seems better to be big than small.

Can vertical programs survive?

The tension between vertical programs and holistic approaches has been around for two decades. It’s likely to be heightened in the wake of this pandemic.

Vertical programs exist in part because of political imperatives. Constituencies with political muscle build around issues — HIV, malaria — and cause funding to flow. Depending on how destabilizing and sustained the crisis, it’s possible those political imperatives could shift and publics could begin prioritizing systemic change instead.

Much depends on how the crisis plays out. Will health systems throughout the global south fail? Will critical systemic programs like CEPI and Gavi continue to show their value?

The World Health Organization made 2020 the year of the health care worker, and it was prescient. We are reminded every day of the heroism and criticality of these professionals. Every vertical program relies on them, including community health workers. With this pandemic, that’s becoming ever clearer: The public will experience the health care worker gap in a new, more visible way. Perhaps health care workers will become the first systemic cause that has the political salience of a vertical program.

Will we see reduced political support for foreign aid?

Shortly after the U.S. government’s $2 trillion stimulus bill was passed, Fox News reported on “questionable spending” that had been approved. Referring to a Devex story outlining global development investments that were included, Fox News called this spending “unrelated to the pandemic.” Much mainstream Western media has done little to draw a connection between global investments, for example in health systems, and the situation their readers are facing at home. While those linkages might seem obvious to a global development audience, there remains a possibility that increasing border closures, populism, and authoritarianism could lead to arguments against foreign aid — even at a time when its value is so clear.

Then there’s the real potential of a recession, including a deep and sustained one. Budget pressures already exist in most major donor countries, as their populations age and pension and health care costs mount. A significant recession could further politicize foreign aid and reverse what has been a long-term positive trend over two decades.

Will other key development and health priorities suffer?

The COVID-19 crisis is so severe and pervasive that it has already drowned out all other global development issues. Some leaders are trying to tie their areas of focus to pandemics. Others are trying to wait out the crisis before going back to their advocacy and fundraising.

It seems likely that the pandemic will negatively impact other priorities in at least two ways. Social distancing and infection prevention protocols will likely inhibit certain kinds of aid work, including mass drug distribution, which is key to reducing neglected tropical diseases. And the crisis response will drown out advocacy and fundraising appeals for other global challenges.

How will funders change due to this crisis?

Civil society association CIVICUS is asking funders to be flexible. Help their grantees through this challenging time, they say. The Ford Foundation, among others, has taken that tack.

But flexibility is just one short-term implication of this crisis for funders. Some funders are caught in an uncomfortable feeling of irrelevance as they try to stick to their knitting. Others risk pivoting so hard that their core areas of focus suffer.

One development leader questioned how well some government donors were prepared for any of this. It is “shocking” how behind they are on basics like telework, unable to download video conferencing software to government laptops, for example.

There has long been a tension between the need for nimble, agile funding and government procurement processes and traditional philanthropy cultures. This crisis may bring that tension to a head, raising a new level of accountability for major funders as COVID-19 potentially upends much of the global south. Fingers may get pointed this year in a way they haven’t before. This is especially the case if China rises to the occasion, providing makeshift hospitals and medical equipment while Western donors can only manage suspended debt payments.

How will advocacy efforts change due to the crisis?

There’s a kind of power vacuum in the global development community today. There’s a sense of “leaderlessness and rudderlessness,” as one insider put it. So much attention has been placed on the West so far that it’s not even clear at this point what advocates are calling for when it comes to the poorest countries and most vulnerable people.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has called for a $100 billion relief package for its member states. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared that donors should put up $150 billion. Whatever the figure, it’s striking how little the potential needs of the global south have figured in the debates in London, Brussels, and Washington.

One bright spot, according to a leading advocate, is that organizations are more willing to share their data than ever before. There’s a new ethos around data collaboration that might just stick after this crisis ebbs.

How might models of economic development change?

The COVID-19 crisis might not be just a temporary shock. Already it’s calling into question some of the core ideas that development strategies are based on.

For one thing, much of the developing world relies on the export of natural resources, including oil, minerals, and agricultural products. A steep recession and trade disruptions have dramatically dropped the value of these exports, hitting government tax revenues and economies across the global south.

For another, development strategies often call for low-skilled manufacturing as a pathway to prosperity. But this pandemic is causing rich countries to rethink their manufacturing strategy. Many political leaders are saying they want to onshore manufacturing — for everything from medicines to face masks — to ensure supply chains remain uninterrupted in crises like this one.

Then there’s the role of migration in economic development. With travel bans going up, what will happen to migration patterns and remittances over the mid-to-long term? And if there’s a prolonged economic recession — or worse — in rich countries, that could cause existing remittance payments to decline.

And let’s not forget that for many countries in the global south, travel and tourism are a major source of economic growth. Those elements of their development strategy might need a complete rethink in the wake of this pandemic.

Some see a green lining to this pandemic crisis: Perhaps when it’s over, we can adopt development strategies that better take into account the realities of an overarching climate crisis. Even as this short-term pandemic raises big questions for the global development community, it brings the importance of long-term climate change into stark relief.

Visit our dedicated COVID-19 page for news, job opportunities, and funding insights.

About the author

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.