Isolated, anxious development pros embrace new methods under lockdown

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Social distancing markings at an airport in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo by: Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

BARCELONA/BRUSSELS — The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of those working in the aid industry, sometimes in unexpected ways.

In April, Devex began asking development professionals around the world how the pandemic is affecting them. Our latest COVID-19 Trends Tracker, conducted between June 29 and July 13, reflected little change from the effects people were seeing three months ago. Of the roughly 500 respondents from 110 countries, 71% cited reduced or eliminated travel as an immediate effect of the pandemic. Thirty-one percent had lost employment or income, and 24% said all their operations have been completely halted.

Beyond the figures, however, respondents also shared insights into their daily lives.

Counting the cost

“Working as an expat and living alone abroad, the pandemic kept me away from my working team,” wrote one civil servant based in the Middle East. “The lack of human interaction for approx 3 [months] was extremely hard to cope with. That affected my mood and work performance.”

Another development practitioner working in Africa described “demoralized staff” with rising anxiety “close to paralysis.”

In our first survey in April, 36% of respondents said they or someone they knew had lost their job due to the pandemic. That figure has now risen to 50% in the two most recent polls. One worker at a development consulting firm in Asia reported that their work hours had been reduced by 80% between April and August. An independent consultant in Asia reported a 70% drop in monthly revenue.

For those still working, however, there is more to do than ever. One NGO employee in Europe cited the burden of “moving everything [online] and endless risk assessment prep.” Another in North America wrote that “it's a really busy period, between providing feedback to donors and working with countries to adjust programs to the new situation.”

“Unlike a 'regular' emergency there is an increased [workload] without the increase in Human Resources,” said another contributor in Asia.

Silver linings

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Yet among the hardship, some have found upsides.

One development consulting firm in Asia has seen “improved internal cooperation and communication, [the] forced introduction of new online tools [and] increased networking (internal and external),” according to one staffer.

“I got more time to explore assignments, got some 5 solid offers,” said someone at a development consulting firm in Africa, while acknowledging that not all sectors are affected equally.

Others welcomed the incentive to think about how to transform their work in the digital world. Though, as one NGO worker in Africa pointed out, the high cost of internet access in some areas remains an obstacle.

An NGO staffer in Latin America said 2020 has been “an opportunity to develop better remote training methods, focus on efficiency in the delivery of one-on-one services and promote alternative income generation activities for smallholder farmers.”

Another respondent from a development consulting firm in Australia called the inability to travel a “great blessing … We have discovered how much we can do without it, and will plan to travel only when necessary and make the most of the trip. Likewise with remote working.”

What now?

At Devex we intend to keep reporting on the ramifications of this crisis, regularly returning to our COVID-19 Trends Tracker to see how aid workers are faring, as well as the areas around the globe where they operate, as the impacts continue to deepen.

“We face situations in countries where development gains of 10, 20, 30 years are almost wiped out overnight,” the United Nations Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner told the European Parliament’s development committee this week, evoking the plight of tourism-dependent island nations left without visitors.

As one employee from a foundation in Asia wrote: “The communities we serve have been definitely more affected than us.”

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.