'It's very, very different': COVID-19 forces new era of development cooperation

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Development and humanitarian organizations are working faster and more effectively together as they respond to the global pandemic. Photo by: Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

WASHINGTON — The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic is breaking down some long-standing communication and bureaucratic hurdles.

The unprecedented nature of responding to an emergency situation in every country around the world at the same time is straining the development and humanitarian system. But NGOs say the situation has also provided an opportunity to increase cooperation and streamline their work. The pandemic has driven implementers and donors to drop superficial requirements and highlighted the need to get money out the door and supplies on the ground as quickly as possible as the developing world braces for the full impact of COVID-19.

“I’ve really noticed a sort of swinging in — from the CEO all the way down — of cooperation. Everybody formed up really quickly, particularly to engage with government,” said Selena Victor, senior director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps. “We’ve now got this really quite structured setup engaging with [the Department of International Development], and similar things are happening in other European capitals.”

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While Victor said she’s used to working together with other organizations on European development policy, the nature of the pandemic has NGOs communicating more frequently. Before, typical inter-organizational meetings took place every two to three months, and NGOs weren’t readily sharing all details of their operations with competitors.

“Anybody gets a snippet of information about anything, they share it. Almost without thought,” Victor said. “We are meeting more frequently. We are speaking more frequently. We are also just being more transparent. … We’re sharing information about our internal finances that we just wouldn’t normally do with a sister agency.”

Part of the reason for the increased meetings are travel restrictions that prevent people from being out in the field, Victor said. Because nearly everyone is working from home, it’s easier to find a time for people to connect. The situation is also changing rapidly, requiring more frequent consultation between organizations.

Annie Theriault, chief investment officer at Grand Challenges Canada, said her Canadian government-funded impact investing organization has seen an uptick in meetings and communication around its grant proposals. Money has been raised to support investees much quicker than usual, sometimes in as little as two or three weeks.  

The impact investment industry typically has one, two, or four investment committee processes each year. Theriault said Grand Challenges Canada has four.

“Everyone is noticing that we can do things quite efficiently when we coordinate and support each other.”

— Annie Theriault, chief investment officer, Grand Challenges Canada

“But what I’m seeing now is an ability from everyone to have weekly, biweekly, monthly processes which you never, ever have seen in the past from anyone,” Theriault said. “It’s very, very different from the way things were done six months ago.”

She said the often cumbersome reporting requirements that come with getting an impact investing grant have been slightly relaxing as grantors work to support cash-strapped recipient organizations rushing to respond to the pandemic. This allows the awards process to move faster, she said, and prioritizes quick action over paperwork.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we can move to that urgency model,” Theriault said. “Everyone is noticing that we can do things quite efficiently when we coordinate and support each other, and I think there will be good success stories at the end of this that hopefully will inspire people to collaborate more effectively in the future.”

Cooperation goes local

NGO consortiums such as InterAction and Bond have long coordinated development and humanitarian organizations around advocacy campaigns. Groups are now working even more closely to leverage their collective influence to help guide how coronavirus aid is being allocated, programmed, and spent. Over 400 civil society organizations, including both international and national, organized around a “day of solidarity” while submitting a 12-point plan to the United Nations secretary-general to encourage a unified pandemic response from the U.N., country governments, and donors.

The plan includes an emphasis on the importance of providing funding to local civil society organizations, recognizing that in a time of global travel restrictions they can be best placed to assess community needs and respond rapidly.

Executive Director of India’s Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion Annie Namala, who is participating in the global initiative, said the Indian government has made many recent attempts to restrict local and national civil society space. COVID-19 has given more urgency to the work these smaller organizations have experience with, Namala said, and shows the importance of collaboration across organizations of all sizes.

“This kind of a global solidarity strengthens the local and the national organizations, too,” Namala said. “There’s been a lot of effort from civil society to address the immediate requirements of the vulnerable populations.”

Technology has been key to effective mobilization around the response in India, Namala said, allowing groups that typically didn’t work on the same issues to coordinate while mobility restrictions remain in place.

Before, organizations were much more inclined to keep their work to one sector, like health, nutrition, human rights, or water and sanitation. But the scale of the vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic, which Namala said threaten to send India’s development progress back decades, will require cooperation into the future if vulnerabilities are to be truly addressed.

Victor said she expects that current collaboration mechanisms — such as intensive meeting schedules — are unlikely to carry on the same way once things return to normal. But she said she hopes the spirit of cooperation remains as NGOs continue pandemic response even after high-income countries moves on.

“We’re going to see needs like we’ve never seen before in more places. It’s not just the size of the need, but everywhere. And there’s not going to be more money. And there’s not going to be more capacity,” Victor said.

“We’re going to have to cooperate, unify behind some key outcomes, which is essentially help people stave off the worst of the immediate crisis and not fall into terrifying poverty traps. ...  I think we’ll all have to shift behind those priorities and find new ways to cooperate.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.