Opinion: How to ensure that your COVID-19 remote management strategy empowers local partners

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A woman and her son visit a health care worker in Chittagong, Bangladesh. A network of clinics, supported by DFID and USAID, promotes community participation and local ownership of service delivery. Photo by: Morgana Wingard / USAID / CC BY-NC

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased humanitarian need around the world, while limiting organizations’ ability to operate. Broken supply chains and loss of employment during economic shutdowns will hurt vulnerable populations. The outbreak provides opportunities for violent nonstate actors to vie for power and justification for authoritarian governments’ discrimination, repression, and violence. Overcrowded living conditions and limited access to sanitation infrastructure and health systems make refugees and displaced people particularly vulnerable.

Meanwhile, restrictions on group gatherings and movement pose serious access and operational difficulties. As humanitarian organizations and donors scramble to adapt to this new reality, it is essential that we partner with local civil society organizations and informal community groups to continue reaching the most vulnerable communities.

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As remote management plans are designed and implemented over the coming months, there will be a temptation to view partnership as a short-term response that can be replaced with direct implementation once restrictions on movement and operations are lifted. However, a growing body of evidence from some of the world’s most complex crises reveals that genuinely empowering local partners in remote operations can be an opportunity to simultaneously respond to immediate needs while building resilience to future crises.

Here are four key lessons about developing partnerships with local actors while operating remotely:

1. Allow real co-design and co-ownership of projects

Organizations forced to move from direct programming to remote operations should shift from a mentality of remote management, in which local partners implement programs designed by donors and international nongovernmental organizations, to one of remote collaboration, drawing on partners’ local knowledge, relationships, and creativity.

INGOs should recognize that local actors are well positioned to serve their communities during crises such as COVID-19 and support them. They are best-placed to understand how the pandemic and public health responses are impacting the most vulnerable and what interventions are needed.

For example, the Ebola Community Action Platform in Liberia, launched in 2014, saw promising outcomes after granting 77 local civil society organizations substantial autonomy over designing and adapting mobilization activities to respond to local norms and information needs. The response to a 2018 earthquake on the island of Lombok in Indonesia directly and inclusively mobilized communities to identify and design water and sanitation projects that repaired damaged infrastructure.

This allowed projects to be adapted to different needs of people in each community, such as by adding handles and ramps to latrine designs to accomodate people with disabilities. During this pandemic, we must trust that local organizations know what their communities need.

2. Integrate partner-driven capacity strengthening with project delivery

Local organizations may be the actors best equipped to act quickly in crises such as COVID-19 — and they may also be the only ones. INGOs often evacuate expatriate staff during crises. But without the luxury of evacuating, an INGO's national staff and local partners often assume the risks of continuing to deliver aid, so it is vital that they have the capacity to do so.

Working with local partners to jointly map risk transfer can build their capacity to make informed decisions about how to adapt their activities and operations. Supporting the development of local partner capacity improves implementation fidelity, adherence to humanitarian principles, and the safety and security of partners.

During the coronavirus crisis, training in how to protect organization members and communities from infection is particularly pressing. Training has the best chance of leading to durable changes in operations when it is targeted to learning needs identified by organizations themselves and is delivered over the course of a project cycle to allow for reinforcement, feedback, and “learning by doing.”

For example, the Investing in Syrian Humanitarian Action — or ISHA — program that ran from 2016-19 identified partners through open calls for applications. To compete, local civil society organizations submitted designs and proposals for humanitarian aid projects.

The project’s capacity-strengthening program was integrated into each step of the subproject work plan via training sessions, coaching, and extensive feedback on project deliverables for all organization members. The end-of-project evaluation demonstrated the model’s success at building partners’ capacities and commitment to continue operating in a challenging environment.

3. Build on existing trusted relationships and forge new ones

INGOS should select partner organizations with deep networks and trusted relationships within their communities, rather than organizations with heavy presence in district headquarters but limited reach in targeted localities. Widespread local trust is particularly important for the types of public health activities that are being implemented as part of the pandemic response, which will entail information dissemination, community mobilization, and behavior change.

For example, the Pamoja program, which was started in 2019 for the Ebola response in Congo, established 40 information centers managed by local civil society organizations. Communities’ trust in local organizations as sources of information allowed partners to proactively address rumors and promote behavior change.

With restricted access to partners, international actors need to establish two-way trust with partners through open and responsive communications and an emphasis on building the interpersonal skills of the team members who are regularly interacting with partners. Without trust, international actors may be reluctant to delegate decision-making or resources to local partners, and local partners may be reluctant to ask for help when situations change.

Mutual trust will be important during and after the coronavirus pandemic, as rapid developments require collaboratively and creatively adapting program and delivery models.

4. Respond to immediate needs but build long-term relationships

Even when access for international actors is restored, continuing to partner with local organizations while shifting from emergency response to development activities builds local resilience to future shocks.

As multiple countries exploit public health measures for fighting COVID-19 as a rationale for restricting civic space, partnerships in the crisis’s aftermath must buttress civil society. Striving toward this aim, the ISHA program in Syria planned “light touch” ongoing advice and mentorship to graduates, along with connections to other donors and international actors.

Similarly, the Supporting Effective Advocacy in Liberia program, which is due to continue until 2023, focuses on building advocacy and networking skills among civil society and community-based organizations, supporting the transition from Ebola response to ensuring responsive and accountable governance.

By following these four lessons, humanitarian organizations can ensure that the operations we develop when responding to COVID-19 also empower communities for years to come.

About the authors

  • Ryan Sheely

    Ryan Sheely is the director of research in conflict and governance at Mercy Corps. Prior to joining Mercy Corps, he spent a decade teaching at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and evaluating civil society programs in sub-Saharan Africa. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University.
  • Hannah Kazis-Taylor

    Hannah Kazis-Taylor is a postgraduate fellow of the Parker Huang Fellowship at Yale University and a former Mercy Corps research intern. Her research focuses on armed nonstate actors in the Middle East and North Africa region and on development aid in conflict zones.