Who leads the response against COVID-19 in aid organizations?

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Indian nationals, who were stranded in Singapore due to the COVID-19 outbreak, are screened by medics wearing personal protective equipment at the airport upon their arrival in New Delhi, India. Photo by: Anushree Fadnavis / Reuters

MANILA — The coronavirus has disrupted the aid industry. Donors and aid organizations are finding ways to effectively respond to the crisis, which has now affected over 200 countries and territories, with over 4.5 million confirmed cases and over 300,000 deaths globally.

Aid organizations have adopted different structures and set-ups in response to the pandemic. In some organizations, a task force has been set up to focus on the pandemic, often including leaders already involved in organizations’ strategy, coordination, and response. In others, one senior official has been given the task.

Head over to our visual story to see who’s leading the COVID-19 response in some of the biggest organizations.

African Development Bank

President Akinwumi Adesina leads the AfDB’s overall response and has tasked some of his senior officials to take charge on several fronts. Vice President for Finance Bajabulile Tshabalala is the bank’s resource mobilization lead, and Khaled Sherif, vice president on regional development, integration, and business delivery, is in charge of coronavirus-related operations.

The bank has launched a number of initiatives to help member countries and businesses in the continent affected by the pandemic. This included the launch in April of the $10 billion COVID-19 rapid response facility, which Sherif described as a “stimulus” meant to ensure governments have access to the resources they need to pay debt, pensions, and government salaries, and for the private sector to remain afloat in the midst of the global crisis. The bank also launched a $3 billion Fight COVID-19 Social Bond, and approved a $2 million emergency assistance for the World Health Organization’s work in the continent.

Agence Française de Développement

As with most agencies, CEO Rémy Rioux leads the French development agency’s overall COVID-19 response, but with assistance from two of the agency’s senior officials. Jean Pierre Marcelli is leading on operations, while Christophe Paquet is technical lead on the agency’s projects related to health and sanitation, which covers a large portion of the bilateral donor agency’s response to the pandemic.

In April, AFD launched the Health in Common initiative in response to the crisis. The initiative, which has an overall commitment of €1.15 billion ($1.3 billion), represents approximately 10% of AFD’s 2020 commitments. It includes €150 million in grants, and €1 billion in concessional loans — and has a huge focus on African countries. Some of the projects include additional support for epidemiological surveillance networks, which the agency has been supporting for years, and building the capacity of hospitals for COVID-19. The initiative also targets building countries’ diagnostic capacity.

Other areas of AFD’s response include deferment of debt repayments for requesting countries, budget support for countries in Asia and Latin America aiming to mitigate the social and economic consequences of the pandemic, and support to civil society organizations whose projects address inclusion, human rights, food security, and climate change adaptation.

More reading: Loans for social protection could be a 'game-changer' for France's COVID-19 aid

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

Joachim von Amsberg leads the bank’s investment strategy and programming as vice president for policy and strategy. In the midst of the pandemic, he chairs the AIIB steering committee overseeing the bank’s coronavirus response, and joins AIIB President Jin Liqun to work with the heads of other multilateral development banks.

AIIB, headquartered in Beijing, announced a scale-up of public health infrastructure financing in the wake of the pandemic in March. In April, it launched a Crisis Recovery Facility to respond to the urgent economic, financial, and public health pressures. The facility initially offered $5 billion in financing, but the bank has since raised this to $10 billion due to high demand.

Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

DFAT has incorporated temporary COVID-19 task forces in its organizational structure, but has the following people leading on COVID-19-related foreign assistance: Elizabeth Peak and Jamie Isbister are in charge of DFAT’s coronavirus development policy. Peak is DFAT’s first assistant secretary of the human development and governance division, while Isbister is DFAT’s first assistant secretary of the economic growth and sustainability division.

James Gilling continues to lead the department’s humanitarian, NGOs, and partnerships division, while Robin Davies remains in charge of the department’s health response for the Indo-Pacific.

It’s unclear how much DFAT has provided to the response. What is known, is that Australia has responded to requests for support in the areas of laboratory diagnosis, provision of personal protective equipment, and support for surveillance and risk communication in the Pacific region. DFAT is using a combination of its emergency fund and existing ODA allocations. The Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security, headed by Davies, has also deployed specialists to work with WHO in the Pacific, and several Pacific island governments’ health ministries, including through its partnerships with Australian medical research institutions.


Pia Engstrand heads the task force coordinating the aid agency’s contributions to the COVID-19 response. The task force gathers analysis on the effects of COVID-19 and how multilateral organizations and bilateral donors are responding to the crisis to understand how best to use Sida’s resources.

In April, Åsa Andersson, Sida’s current lead policy specialist on health and sexual and reproductive health and rights, highlighted the organization’s long-term support for health systems and current efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, including ensuring at-risk groups are not being left behind. Its funding has gone to hand-washing campaigns and health funds aimed at ensuring access to health care, including for vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, people living with HIV, and LGBTQ people.

Many of the health funds are being repurposed to meet immediate needs related to COVID-19. In Myanmar, for example, funds are being used for COVID-19 testing and purchases of personal protective equipment.

A spokesperson said: “[Sida’s] work is highly affected by the virus, and many of the contributions are being reprogrammed and adapted to meet the needs in the current situation.”


Christine Knudsen, who joined UN-Habitat in January as director of the external relations, strategy, knowledge and innovation division, was appointed emergencies director in March to coordinate the U.N. program’s overall humanitarian and crisis response amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As lead, Knudsen holds weekly meetings with senior technical staff from across UN-Habitat’s divisions to develop the program’s framework, challenges, and response in the field. Weekly meetings are also held with regional offices and senior leadership to ensure policy alignment and priorities in support of the COVID-19 response.

UN-Habitat launched its COVID-19 response plan in April as the coronavirus affected more cities and posed threats to the health and well-being of people living in densely populated urban settings. The plan focuses UN-Habitat’s response in three areas: supporting local government and community-led solutions, providing urban data evidence-based mapping and knowledge, and helping cities mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19. The program provides online virtual learning platforms to help cities share and exchange innovative solutions in dealing with the crisis.

Head over to our visual story to see who’s leading the COVID-19 response in some of the biggest organizations.

United Nations Foundation

Kate Dodson, vice president for global health at the United Nations Foundation, is also the organization’s COVID-19 lead. She is responsible for driving the organization’s strategic response, partnerships, and stewardship of the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

There's a new fund for COVID-19. Here's what you need to know.

What's the difference between the new COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and WHO's Contingency Fund for Emergencies?

The fund was set up by the United Nations Foundation and the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation in March to help support WHO’s COVID-19 response — which includes funding for some of the health agency’s partners. The fund accepts donations even from individual donors and businesses worldwide.


At the UN Refugee Agency, a crisis management team has been established in response to COVID-19. The team, chaired by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, works with two subgroups: one for support, which is headed by Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements, and another for operations, headed by Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Raouf Mazou. The operations group’s work is to address key elements and operational challenges in the field.

UNHCR has raised concerns over the plight of refugees and people displaced within their own countries amid the pandemic, highlighting issues such as evictions, the loss of livelihoods, and an increase in displacement. In response, it has provided cash assistance and isolation units. In some cases, UNHCR has boosted the capacity of health care facilities, from covering refugees’ COVID-19 tests to the provision of medical supplies and equipment.


UNICEF has a COVID-19 secretariat, with three senior officials leading on coordination, operations, and technical response.

Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF director of emergency programs, is the emergency coordinator for UNICEF’s response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, Grant Leaity, deputy director of UNICEF’s Office of Emergency Programmes, is operational lead. The role includes coordinating with UNICEF’s regional and country offices. And Dr. Carlos Navarro, the program’s principal adviser for public health, is UNICEF’s technical lead for the response.

Globally, UNICEF is engaged in different aspects of the response, such as providing personal protective equipment, medical supplies, and WASH kits; issuing guidance on school meals and other topics; working with governments on social protection policies; and disseminating vital information on COVID-19.

UNICEF leads the nutrition, WASH, and education clusters and child protection area of responsibility under the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Emergency Directors Group and co-leads the risk communication and community engagement pillar under the WHO Incident Management Support Team.

U.S. Agency for International Development

In March, USAID created a COVID-19 Task Force led by Dr. Kenneth Staley, the U.S. global malaria coordinator, to coordinate the agency’s response. The task force has three key objectives: ensure the safety and security of USAID’s workforce, continue USAID’s life-saving work globally, and support partner countries in their response.

The U.S. government has committed close to $800 million in emergency health, and humanitarian, economic, and development assistance for the coronavirus globally, according to its latest update. That includes about $200 million in emergency health assistance from USAID’s Global Health Emergency Reserve Fund for Contagious Infectious-Disease Outbreaks and global health programs account, and about $300 million in humanitarian assistance from its international disaster assistance account.

However, USAID has been caught up in controversy following reports of U.S. government restrictions on agency grant funding and shipments of medical supplies overseas.


As with most organizations, several people and teams are leading COVID-19 responses at the London-based research charity Wellcome.

These include Charlie Weller, head of the charity’s vaccines program; Alex Harris, head of global policy and advocacy; Josie Golding, lead of epidemics research; Lara Clements, COVID-19 communications and campaigns lead; and Nick Cammack, who leads the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator — an initiative aimed at accelerating the identification of therapeutics for COVID-19 — at Wellcome. Jeremy Farrar, the charity’s director, is also providing scientific and public health advice to WHO and the U.K. and German governments.

Wellcome has been supporting research and development of COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines. It also advocates for equitable access to these. In April, it announced COVID-Zero, aimed at raising $8 billion in funding for COVID-19 research and development efforts and WHO’s COVID-19 response. The charity is also part of the trio of institutions that launched the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator.

Head over to our visual story to see who’s leading the COVID-19 response in some of the biggest organizations.

World Bank

Axel van Trotsenburg, World Bank managing director of operations, is leading the bank’s COVID-19 response.

In remarks at a virtual event on May 13, van Trotsenberg said the bank will provide up to $160 billion in financing toward health, economic, and other social shocks that countries are facing worldwide for a period of over 15 months. This includes $50 billion of the bank’s International Development Association resources, its financing window for the world’s lowest-income countries.

The World Bank first announced a financing package of $12 billion on March 3 to support countries responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by an additional $2 billion two weeks later. Then in April, the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, launched by the bank in 2016, announced an allocation of $195.8 million to 64 low-income countries that have reported cases of COVID-19. The PEF funding was in addition to the $160 billion the bank has committed to for COVID-19. However, some aid experts and officials think the bank should scale up its financing.

World Food Programme

The World Food Programme’s logistics and procurement director is also leading the program’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID-19 corporate response director, Amer Daoudi oversees WFP’s logistics and supply chain services, leads resource-mobilization efforts, and works with external partners such as governments, U.N. agencies, and the private sector on the COVID-19 response. He is responsible for WFP’s operational management and ensuring support for the program’s regional directors.

WFP is providing key logistical support in the COVID-19 response amid a significant decrease in commercial flights worldwide. In April, the U.N. program flew critical personal protective equipment and medical devices to countries in Africa as part of the first U.N. Solidarity Flight. On May 1, it also flew the first set of humanitarian workers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

UN air bridge plan is ready but lacks funding to take off amid pandemic

COVID-19 has grounded commercial flights, pushing the World Food Programme to seek alternatives with chartered flights and new regional air hubs. The plans are in place but still require the funding to be realized, a director of operations at WFP tells Devex.

The program has set up regional transport hubs or air bridges in several locations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe to help transport coronavirus-related cargo and personnel responding to the pandemic. The transport can also be used for medical evacuations. WFP and WHO co-chair the U.N. COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force.

WFP does this while working to assess the impact of the pandemic on hunger and food security and adapting its strategy to continue food distributions in countries of operation.

World Health Organization

Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been the leading voice on WHO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are different people taking the charge on several fronts within WHO. Flanking Tedros during WHO’s press briefings are Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergency operations, and Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19.

The World Health Organization has been providing advice to the public on how people can protect themselves from COVID-19; issuing technical guidance and policy recommendations to governments on different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic; and playing a central role in coordinating the international response to the crisis.

It has launched and taken part in numerous COVID-19 initiatives, the latest one being the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which is aimed at speeding up the development and production of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics for COVID-19 and ensuring equitable and affordable access to them. The U.N. health agency also spearheaded the launch of the “solidarity trials” to assess four treatment options for COVID-19 and speed up the search for a solution.

But WHO has suffered criticism, and U.S. President Donald Trump announced a funding freeze to the agency after accusing it of mismanaging the pandemic and relying too heavily on information from China.

Lisa Cornish and Michael Igoe contributed reporting.

This article will be updated as more information emerges on the COVID-19 response in other aid organizations. Let us know who is leading the response in your organization by emailing jennylei.ravelo@devex.com. 

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This article was last updated on 16 June 2020

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.