Interactive: The bilaterals funding the COVID-19 response in Southeast Asia and Pacific

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An Asian Development Bank-sponsored COVID-19 laboratory in Pampanga, Philippines. Photo: Eric Sales / ADB / CC BY-NC-ND

Marked by close proximity to and — to varying degrees — dependency on neighboring China, the low- and middle-income nations of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific have experienced a range of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic from bilateral donors in line with their different political and geopolitical objectives.

Interactive: Who's funding the COVID-19 response and what are the priorities?

As funding activities in support of the COVID-19 response transition from words into action, our analysis of funding data is transitioning with it. Here's the latest.

As of May 28, there are a total of 315,452 COVID-19 cases among the LMICs of this region, excluding China. According to World Health Organization data, there are 51,541 COVID-19 cases in LMICs in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, including 24,538 in Indonesia, and 263,911 cases in South Asia, with 158,333 cases in India alone.

In this article, Devex is exploring the support and investments the most influential bilateral agencies in the region are providing. Since January, Devex has tracked over 70 country-specific bilateral funding announcements — excluding domestic resource mobilization efforts but including south-south cooperation initiatives — worth over $2.1 billion.

The bilateral funds directed to multi-country efforts are an additional $174 million. Read up the details on how 23% of it comes from one single Chinese intervention or how the French aid agency, Agence Française de Développement, is announcing loans to the region via twitter.

What are the most influential bilateral agencies doing?

With COVID-19 largely contained within its own borders, the Chinese government is switching gears to provide assistance abroad, with Southeast Asia a particular focus.

Despite some criticism, Southeast Asian governments have welcomed China’s medical assistance, which typically consists of surgical masks, medical supplies and equipment, technical experts, and low-interest loans — such as a $500 million concessionary loan to Sri Lanka made through the China Development Bank, which constitutes 23% of loans to the region.

In March 2020, Deng Boqing, vice-chairman of the China International Development Cooperation Agency, underscored in a press briefing that China's anti-virus external assistance is the most intensive and wide-ranging emergency humanitarian operation since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It remains to be seen whether China’s so-called “face-mask diplomacy” will be an effective soft power tactic in the region, or whether its efforts will be offset by the skepticism of China’s geopolitical intentions.

Typically the largest donor in the region, the United States has ramped up support — in part an effort to counter growing Chinese influence. The State Department and U.S. Agency for international Development have committed $1 billion to the global response, and according to Devex data, 15.8% ($157.95 million) of this has gone to country-specific funding in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, according to the latest figures.

This assistance funds the training of medical professionals, increases screening capabilities, and strengthens national health systems.

The Philippines is a top regional recipient of U.S. assistance after Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Philippines is receiving more than $15.5 million in total COVID-19 assistance for health needs, economic support, and humanitarian aid. On April 19, Presidents Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte discussed cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines to combat the pandemic. Through USAID’s global health emergency fund and the International Disaster Assistance account, the U.S. government is channeling 61% ($9.3 million) of the Philippines’ funds to laboratory and transport systems, case-finding and surveillance, and technical expertise for response and preparedness.

In South Asia, Bangladesh is the top recipient of U.S. COVID-related support with $25.7 million in health and humanitarian assistance, followed by Pakistan with $18 million in cash aid support as well as health and humanitarian assistance. U.S. aid to India at $5.9 million was wholly for health, while U.S. assistance to smaller South Asian states — Bhutan at $1 million; Nepal at $7.3 million; and Sri Lanka at $5.8 million — were a mix of health and economic support. The Maldives received $2 million — all in economic support funding.

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What about the European bilaterals?

Meanwhile, European bilateral donors are stepping up to the plate. The French aid agency AFD selected the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in the Philippines as a recipient of $2.17 million in funding through the ECOMORE II project, which aims to support frontline laboratories in the fight against COVID-19 in the Philippines as well as the Mekong subregion countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

On May 7, the French ambassador to India announced on Twitter an AFD loan of 200 million euros ($217.12 million) to boost social welfare systems and protect vulnerable populations in India amid the COVID-19 pandemic. More recently, AFD also approved a loan of $150 million to Indonesia to finance sustainable infrastructures in response to both the climate and COVID-19 crises. In both these cases, we hope official announcements will confirm and provide more details on the funding instruments and its conditions.

As early as March, Germany pledged $1.62 million to support Cambodia's COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan. The funds are earmarked for the country's only laboratory test center, the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge, to develop more testing capacity within the country. In April, Germany announced grants worth €20 million ($21.71 million) to support India’s efforts to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19. A quarter of the funds will be implemented through the German cooperation agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit for the training of nursing staff and infrastructure, while the remaining amount will be processed by German state-owned development bank KfW for the procurement of urgently needed medical equipment that will be implemented with UNICEF.

Switzerland, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation contributed $104.95 million from its existing budgets to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes $5.15 million in Nepal to support local government efforts to mitigate the economic and social impact of the pandemic, particularly focusing on the orderly and safe return of labor migrants and $2.97 million in Bangladesh for immediate COVID-19 response activities, implemented through local and international partner organizations. SDC further allocated $36,000 for food and hygiene products in Mongolia.

For its part, the U.K., through the Department for International Development, has so far focused on two countries in the region: Pakistan and Bangladesh. The two countries are among the 15 vulnerable countries DFID has identified as priorities for COVID-19-related aid. The U.K. government said it will provide  £2.67 million ($3.3 million) to Pakistan for vital health support in a first of a series of measures amid the pandemic. On the other hand, London has pledged £21 million in support of Bangladesh’s efforts against COVID-19.

Interactive: An analysis of COVID-19 funding in West and Central Africa

Devex has tracked and analyzed how much COVID-19 funding goes to a region facing the biggest health emergency since the Ebola outbreak.

It appears that traditional bilateral donors to South Asia like the U.S. and the U.K. have given priority to funding at-risk countries in the region, particularly Pakistan and Bangladesh. Apart from having underfunded and fragile public health infrastructures, both countries are especially densely populated — almost 40% of Pakistanis live in cities, whereas Bangladesh has a population density of 1,252 people per square kilometer. Bangladesh also hosts around 860,000 Rohingya refugees in just 26 square kms of land in Cox’s Bazar.

What about other Asian donors?

Japan has channeled funds through different organizations to aid several Asian countries. In Pakistan, Japan has given $1 million to the UN Refugee Agency to help Afghan refugees and host Pakistanis amid the COVID-19 pandemic. To support Pakistan’s efforts against COVID-19, Tokyo provided $2.16 million through UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In the Maldives, Japan granted $1.9 million through UNDP, UNICEF, and the Maldives Red Crescent, according to UNDP and Devex data. Sri Lanka received $1.2 million in Japanese aid through UNICEF, IOM, and IFRC, while Bhutan received $450,000 through UNICEF. Japan also contributed additional emergency support of $150 million through the Asian Development Bank’s Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction and the Asia Pacific Disaster Response Fund to help low- and middle-income member countries strengthen their capacity to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In Bangladesh, Tokyo has given $282,000 through three Bangladeshi NGOs — the Thengamara Mohila Sabuj Sangha, Prism Bangladesh Foundation, and Trust for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed. One media channel reported that Japan, though the Japan International Cooperation Agency, has provided budget support to Dhaka worth $1 billion to meet growing expenditure needs amid the pandemic.  

Under a multidonor fund comprising the U.K., EU, Australia, Switzerland, U.S., Canada, and Ireland called Livelihoods and Food Security Fund, or LIFT, $15.8 million has been allocated for Myanmar’s COVID-19 preparedness and response. Established in 2009, LIFT aims to strengthen the resilience and sustainable livelihoods of poor households in Myanmar, and the recent allocation is meant to finance programs on migrants, social protection, civil society, communication, and the country’s troubled Rakhine state.

A strategic actor in the Pacific region, Australia is a key donor to its neighboring small islands states. Through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia announced  $9.6 million funding for the  COVID-19 response in Papua New Guinea to support surveillance, clinical management, and infection prevention and control. On May 14, Australia and Fiji signed their first direct funding agreement worth $8 million to manage the emerging health, economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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About the authors

  • Joel Buan

    Joel Buan is a Development Analyst at Devex's Survey and Advisory Services team.
  • Patricia Sarmenta

    Patricia Sarmenta is a Manager at Devex’ Surveys and Advisory Services team. She leads and designs custom research projects and surveys commissioned by leading companies and development institutions. Patricia has previously worked with human rights NGOs and holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of the Philippines.