A health worker stands outside a COVID-19 quarantine center in Ethiopia. Photo by: NahomTesfaye / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

GLASGOW, Scotland/BRUSSELS — Two-thirds of development professionals say donors are not doing enough to respond to the coronavirus.

Devex’s weekly Trends Tracker survey questions hundreds of professionals around the world to understand how the pandemic is impacting the global development sector.

The results from week two show that development professionals in Latin America and the Caribbean are most frustrated with donors’ response — 88% of respondents based there feel donors are not doing enough, followed by 79% in North America. 

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Even among professionals working for donor agencies or government departments, the majority — 68% — feel that donors should be doing more, while 67% of those working for NGOs shared this view.

Despite donors announcing billions of dollars as part of the global COVID-19 response, much of that comes from existing funds, and many professionals are worried that the economic turmoil in donor countries will ultimately see aid budgets fall. Almost half of respondents said they anticipate a reduction in foreign aid in the long term.

And even if funds for COVID-19 programming are flowing, there are also concerns about a lack of core or operational support for NGOs struggling to ride out the impact of the crisis. According to the survey — which was conducted from April 27-May 3 and questioned more than 500 global development professionals based in 118 countries — 41% work for an organization that has lost funding as a result of the pandemic, and more than 50% are worried that their organization may not survive.

Oxfam recently called for the 30 donors of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee to contribute nearly $300 billion — of the $500 billion the United Nations ask — to address the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries. Meanwhile, Mario Pezzini, director of OECD’s Development Centre, told Devex that more needs to be done to coordinate with players such as China, who are currently not part of DAC, as well as to address debt relief.

But aside from more money, development experts say there are a number of other steps donors should be taking.

1. Simplify funding mechanisms for a faster response

The bureaucracy of multilaterals and some country pooled funds means that much of the money ring-fenced for delivery partners has yet to reach them, organizations told Devex. There are, however, mechanisms that could help simplify this process, said Selena Victor, senior director of policy and advocacy for Mercy Corps Europe.

NGO consortiums are one way to move money quickly to where it’s needed, she suggested. “There is a lot of sense in the big consortiums of NGOs working together and we're cooperating like I've never seen,” Victor said. The Start Network, a multidonor-pooled fund managed by NGOs, or similar models that already have the mechanisms in place could offer solutions, Victor added.

Jamie Jones, vice president for program development at Relief International, said that funding from The Start Network, even if not a lot, allowed the organization and a handful of partners to get money to local NGOs in Lebanon early on in the COVID-19 response. By the time institutional funding from bilateral donors was released, conversations were already advancing around what the needs were, activities had started and pilot programs were being adapted, he explained.

When it comes to direct service provisions, waiting for money to come down through multilaterals and country pooled funds is not the best use of donor funding, he said. “There should be more of that for NGOs because otherwise there’s just too many layers that it goes through which decreases efficiency.”

2. Clarity and transparency on decisions

According to Jones, donors have generally been flexible in adapting programs and proactive in issuing guidance on how existing grants can be used. However, the messaging tends to be broad, which can lead to challenges in interpreting exactly what it means. He urged donors to continue to be transparent and explicit in their communications.

Victor said more central clarity from donors would make life easier. While it makes sense for some decisions to be made locally, since lockdown measures vary, there needs to be more clarity from donors such as the U.K., where discussions are currently done on a grant-by-grant basis with the local offices, she explained. “We would really appreciate a central decision to say here’s what can be allowable, here’s what going to be problematic.”

One consultant in south-east Asia, who requested anonymity, told Devex that they are in negotiations with donors over how to fit COVID-19 priorities into an existing program on economic empowerment, which was close to approval prior to the crisis.

That’s proving challenging, “especially when we don’t really know what it is actually that the [donor] governments want,” the consultant said. “They are just giving broad guidance, like ‘we want to focus in the health sector’ … but then how, and how will that fit into the bigger plan and so on, is not really clear.”

“The unit of our [the development sector’s] planning mechanisms is projects,” said Pezzini from OECD. “But there is no doubt that in certain situations, like this one, we also need a broader view — what I would call a program. What are we going to do? And what are the general objectives in a country or in a region? Before splitting them up in projects, we need to have an idea of what are the broader objectives, instead of atomizing the different interventions.”

3. Look beyond the immediate needs

Experts also called for donors to think about the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 and what preparation is needed now to respond to those. “If it's going to be three months before that money gets to anybody who can actually do anything, what kind of needs will we be seeing by that point?” Victor said.

Relief International is already preparing and responding to the outbreak in health facilities in a number of countries but Jones said the organization is also greatly concerned about the secondary and tertiary impacts of COVID-19. “[In relation to funding] what we'd really like to see is a focus beyond the immediate health aspect,” he explained. “Absolutely the health response is critically important … but the permutations of this crisis are far beyond what any of us had ever expected.”

Would you like to find out more about how global development organizations are responding to COVID-19? Get in touch with surveys@devex.com to explore a partnership.

Janez Lenarčič, the European Union’s commissioner for crisis management, told Devex last week that nobody was expecting a crisis of such “planetary dimensions” and, in his view, multilateral bodies and donors have reacted in a “fairly coordinated manner” overall.

However, “I would of course desire a stronger role for the United States in the multilateral response to this crisis,” Lenarčič said, adding that it was a “complete illusion” to think any country could deal with the pandemic alone.

Do you work in global development? Has your job or livelihood been affected? Please join the discussion and comment below to share your experience during the pandemic.

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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.