Opinion: Aid in the time of COVID-19 — 3 things donors can do now

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IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva and World Bank President David Malpass announce a program for COVID-19 relief at a press conference in Washington. Photo by: REUTERS / Liu Jie / Xinhua / Latin America News Agency

COVID-19 has created unprecedented uncertainty for us all. But as with Ebola and SARS, we can be certain that the poorest countries and most vulnerable people will suffer the most during this crisis.

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While there are many lessons from the 2014-15 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, COVID-19 is an entirely new challenge for the international donor community. Fearing recession, many OECD countries are struggling with consequences at home. The response to the new coronavirus is putting huge pressure on public finances, and publicly funded development agencies are not immune. Nevertheless, it is in everyone’s interest that this vital work continues throughout the crisis.

Poor countries will be hardest hit

At the time of publication, there have already been over 27,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 2,000 deaths in the world’s most fragile countries. Given the strain that the pandemic is putting on some of the best health systems in the world, it’s not hard to imagine how crippling it is for poor countries with much weaker health systems.

High population densities exacerbate infection rates, as do the impossibility of self-isolation in overcrowded slums, a lack of running water to wash hands, shortages of equipment for testing or treating the sick, insufficient numbers of health care workers, and limited government capacity to impose the kind of measures that many of us are living with to curb the crisis. Peacekeeping missions have entered into force-protection mode, which could lead to a spike in violence in conflict-affected countries.

Poor countries also face huge additional economic challenges. As demand for exports dries up, the poorest people lose jobs and incomes and have no reserves to fall back on — there are too few public safety nets to support them. The combination of supply shocks and large-scale demand upsets global value chains. This compounds already fragile financial positions in low-income countries, where debt burdens have risen fast in recent years. The financial panic manifested in the global decline of stock and bond markets will exacerbate instability.

A global response is in everyone’s interest

On March 16, G-7 leaders issued a statement calling for a “strong global response” via “closer cooperation and enhanced coordination” for G-7 and G-20 countries, in recognition that a coordinated international response is in everyone’s interest.

The unprecedented global reach of COVID-19 will require donors to make tough choices as they struggle to maintain existing support. But despite this, members of the Development Assistance Committee and other donors can make a real difference to help contain the spread of the disease and limit the human and economic costs of the crisis, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.

Here are three actions that donors can take now:

1. Protect existing ODA commitments, targeting support to health systems and vulnerable people in developing countries.

Official development assistance for health systems is already thinly spread. Annual concessional finance for health from all donors averaged $26 billion per year between 2016 and 2018. Aid for infectious diseases was $4.4 billion in 2018. This resource is playing an essential role in helping poor countries improve their capacity to respond to health crises.

It must be protected. Recent announcements by the World Bank of a $12 billion response package and by the International Monetary Fund to activate $50 billion through its rapid-disbursing emergency financing facilities are very welcome.

The pandemic puts women and girls at particular risk as front-line caregivers. While more men are dying from the virus, the majority of health and social care workers are women — accounting for 70% of these professions in 104 countries analyzed by the World Health Organization — increasing their likelihood of exposure to infection.

Women will continue to give birth at the same rate, and developing country governments and donors need to avoid diverting funding away from maternal and reproductive health.

2. Ensure coordination of humanitarian and development aid and support good governance.

Donors should learn from the Ebola crisis and introduce strategic funding plans across development and humanitarian aid. The so-called Ebola effect — spikes in funding due to the outbreak — ended abruptly in 2015. According to OECD, in 2018, humanitarian funding fell by 77% in affected countries and hasn’t been replaced by development funding. COVID-19 affects many more countries that are fragile.

Development and humanitarian actors need to work together with national and local governments to strengthen health care systems that have been chronically underfunded, lack capacity, and are already under strain from the Ebola virus, malaria, HIV, and malnutrition.

To track the COVID-19 situation in fragile contexts, OECD has launched updates of key statistics and resources related to donor responses in the 58 fragile contexts included in the OECD fragility framework.

3. Think and work internationally.

COVID-19 is a stark and frightening wake-up call to the world that pandemics show no respect for national boundaries. If we are going to beat this crisis and recover from its consequences, international cooperation is more important than ever. Last week, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria called for “a modern, global effort akin to the last century’s Marshall Plan and New Deal – combined.” He also stressed that “multilateral action will make their [governments’] initiatives far more effective than if countries continue to act alone.”

Several OECD DAC countries have already contributed to multilateral funds, including those from the World Bank and IMF and a response fund from WHO. More will certainly be needed, and multilateral funds are efficient and effective ways of disbursing funding fast to places where it is most needed.

As we join forces to respond to the coronavirus crisis, we must not lose sight of our commitment to help developing countries achieve their Sustainable Development Goals. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has rightly argued that “we have a responsibility to ‘recover better’” than we did after the 2008 financial crisis.

Once the human tragedy of this pandemic eases, we need to redouble our efforts to build prosperity, climate security, and better lives for all.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Jorge Moreira da Silva

    Jorge Moreira da Silva is director of the Development Co-operation Directorate at the OECD, overseeing the organization’s work measuring progress in development cooperation, analyzing global and regional trends, and helping to design development policies that meet recipient countries’ needs. His role also supports the work of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee.
  • Susanna Moorehead

    Susanna Moorehead is chair of the OECD DAC. She has previously served as British ambassador to Ethiopia, Djibouti, and the African Union, and as an executive director at the World Bank.