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The impact of Covid-19: A case for maintaining external aid commitments and international cooperation

Article by Craig Oliphant

May 12, 2020

The impact of Covid-19: A case for maintaining external aid commitments and international cooperation

In conflict affected and vulnerable regions around the world the impact from and reactions to Covid-19 are differentiated. Different countries find themselves at varying stages of the pandemic. The situation is variable according to the contexts of each country and how hard the virus is hitting. In contrast to identified virus hotspots, the number of infections and mortalities in some places are still relatively low. The one thing so far that has been consistent and regrettably noteworthy – with the exception of the 4th May online Summit to pledge funds for development of a coronavirus vaccine, but without the participation of US or Russia  – is the lack of a concerted or coordinated international  response. Some countries are in a particularly vulnerable position because of inadequate healthcare provisions where existing medical facilities and capacities risk being overwhelmed if or when the pandemic really takes hold locally.

In traditional donor countries, including the UK which is currently among the hardest hit by Covid-19, pressing needs internally stemming from the crisis and urgent funding allocations for resources to deal with the pandemic and economic fallout, could – as pressures build on budgets – risk squeezing out available funding for overseas aid (ODA). For now, there is no explicit indication from London that such a false choice between internal and external priorities should be made.

The UK has a strong record as a development and peacebuilding aid donor, including through its Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), and it has played a leading soft power role internationally. The propositions hitherto around internal and external have managed to steer clear of ‘either/or’ and stay with ‘both/and’ – and thereby to promote the ‘win/win’ dimension of foreign aid in serving the interests and promoting the values of the UK. While there may inevitably have to be some re-calibration on allocations post-Covid, and possibly some adjustments to the work of the Department for International Development (DfID), it will send an important signal if the arguments of those in Whitehall keen to adhere to a commitment to 0.7% spending of national income (GNI) on external aid are able to prevail, and in what is sure to be a highly turbulent and uncertain period ahead. It is a period when, given all the challenges, the clamour of voices in certain circles – and not least the tabloid press – is set to grow to prioritise funding for domestic needs.

These are key questions now for the medium and longer term. Already the percentage of what is (and will be) a diminished GDP in the UK, as in all countries worldwide, make for less spending in real terms for external projects. The essential issue about maintaining focused external aid spending, as part of a range of bilateral and multilateral inputs towards targeted vulnerable countries,  is that it is seeking to promote stability in these regions, enhance development, reduce migration – all part of key UK national interests.

Based on what has already impacted hard on so many countries across the globe, it is clear the pandemic will have a sweeping range of effects. While there is a sense in which everything is changing, Covid-19 is also likely to accentuate and exacerbate existing trends that have long been underway.  For example, conflict prevention norms and management mechanisms are already eroding. The pandemic, which is likely to include another (anticipated) wave in the autumn, may further accelerate this effect as governments unfortunately put less emphasis on international cooperation in the prevailing circumstances.

Current pressing challenges

Governance institutions in heavily affected countries will be placed under enormous pressure in terms of the health systems, education systems, food supply chains, law enforcement, and border control. There is concern that in some cases this will impact on regime stability.

National governments that are perceived to mount a less than effective response may lose legitimacy, whereas local governance actors and non-state actors who are able to support at least some basic needs may find their legitimacy increased.  Some governments may have to move to real-time budgeting which will increase uncertainty. Corruption in several aid-targeted countries is likely to increase as urgent medical needs and scarce supplies provide ample opportunities for graft, extortionate pricing and fraud.

Sociopolitical cohesion may also be placed under severe strain in many contexts as the health crisis affects socioeconomic groups differently along the following axes: rich-poor; urban-rural; region-region; citizen-migrant. This is likely to sharpen socio-political divides, and may be exacerbated by the prolonged need for social distancing. Social distancing will have a devastating impact on the personal economy of many people in many countries. And, quite apart from the mortality rates from the pandemic, a chilling toll is already evident that will leave millions jobless.

Economic inequality and rising unemployment are likely to interact with Covid-19 fallout in multiple and complex ways. That hits vulnerable communities hardest, and in particular refugees and displaced people, and increased fragility accentuates existing risks in conflict-affected or otherwise failing states. Covid-19 and the pandemic responses are predicted to interact with climate change and other natural disasters (e.g. the locust outbreak in East Africa) to create famine-like conditions in up to 30 countries, with Africa particularly adversely affected. In many areas, priorities centre around basic needs such as food security.

Across the world we are seeing an expanded use of executive power and restrictions of human rights. Many countries have or are likely to adopt expanded state surveillance as part of their Covid-19 response. In countries where freedom of expression was already threatened, Covid-19 has become yet another front in repression. Overall the space for critique and holding governments to account is narrowing in many countries.[1] However, in many countries in urgent need of aid, civil society has been critical in mobilising a response to the pandemic, which may have increased its popular legitimacy. A number of countries have already postponed elections (a long and rolling list). Others still are experiencing a shifting balance of power between military and civilian authorities as the military gets involved in enforcing lockdowns.

There are concerns at a number of levels. Firstly, that states may be slow to lift autocratic measures even as the threat of the virus tails off. Secondly, that in the medium term populations will accept more autocratic approaches as a necessary safeguard against the threat of the virus (as part of the ‘new normal’). The question about whether autocracy or liberal democracy is a better system in the face of a crisis like this is dismissed by some as a false line of inquiry.  But it is likely, nevertheless, to be part of the narrative for some time – and influenced by a strong perception bias, and partly shaped too through the tools of misinformation and disinformation by those seeking to promote autocratic government agendas.

Balancing domestic and external priorities

As already highlighted, there is a need to ensure that a preoccupation with major internal/domestic priorities does not preclude (now or going forward) an important role too for external assistance, particularly to help vulnerable regions and communities dotted round the globe. The portfolio and network of NGOs traditionally funded by donors like the British government needs to be encouraged and supported to work with their extensive networks,  in Covid-relevant ways.

What ‘Covid-relevant’ actually means in specific and differentiated contexts still needs to be fully defined. Recovery from disaster is likely to be a key focus, with an emphasis primarily in terms of economic recovery and health support. However, there needs also to be some push-back to ensure that conflict prevention and peacebuilding, human rights and other long-standing structural priorities do not get completely squeezed out.

The Covid crisis will self-evidently be the main lens or prism through which national and international donors look to engage with external projects for the near and medium term.  A focus on prevention and preparation, on relevant capacity-building, sharing know-how & skills will all be essential – and including through drawing on adaptive and flexible use of existing NGO platforms and local networks.

Donors will be in response (‘fire-fighting’) mode for some months and the emerging strategy will be developed somewhat “on the hoof”. However, ultimately positive outcomes in this struggle will only come if politicians can also prioritise global interests, at the same time as ensuring national needs are met. It bears reiterating, once more, that there will be a key need for investment in prevention and preparation, as well as in know-how and skills capacity.

The importance of the local level

In all of this, it is crucial to keep a focus on the local level and on inclusive approaches and practices. NGO partners in different contexts are starting to play active roles in the response locally – be it in sensitising communities to the virus and public information in the absence of state capacity or trust in state information. There are some concerns that states are using the opportunity for securitised responses and restrictions on civic space. The scope for NGOs to do work with local partners and networks is much more limited. That is primarily because of the inability to travel and as the emphasis has been placed on providing online support remotely, strategising with partners, doing analysis and looking for innovative ways to adapt. Some remote mediation has been possible to keep dialogue processes moving.

How should the UK Government position its external assistance to help prevent and tackle Covid-19, and its effects? 

As governments across the world have been involved in intense crisis response internally, while also planning on next steps, different institutions are taking a while to properly coordinate and develop a coherence to plans. As a donor, the UK Government should look to:

  • Understand that where state capacity is lacking or the state is not trusted – the case in many conflict-affected contexts – intermediaries in civil society are going to make the difference to the course of the virus. It is vital to support them – both with resources and politically. And to recognise that it is often women and young people who are the ones playing vital roles – their voices need to be amplified (rather than further marginalised) in the response planning and analysis.
  • Talk to the sector as regularly as possible to gather information and ideas (but to coordinate internally so as not to overload people or duplicate tasks).
  • Not “Covid-ise” all programming.  Covid is, of course, a threat multiplier – and even more so points to the need to avoid cutting the links of existing NGO cooperation with local partners and networks in conflict-affected areas. Work at that level needs to continue – and that can be done in many contexts. It can help too to mitigate the effects of Covid as and when it hits further into some vulnerable regions. Clearly, conventional conflict resolution and prevention work have to adapt, and some new responses need to be developed.

Something that demands urgent attention, and in a situation where most of the world’s children have been out of school, is the need for a massive effort and commitment to focus on the impact of this crisis on education. A particular concern must be in sustaining external support for this in the world’s poorest countries and especially in refugee/IDP communities, and at a time when there is and will be significant pressure on budgets and an understandable preoccupation with health systems and on boosting economies. There is a clear risk that education slips down the world’s priority list. Furthermore, donors need to redouble efforts to support youth-led initiatives as part of externally-funded projects since they will be the ones bearing the burden and cost of fallout from Covid-19 for years to come.[2]

Overall, and notwithstanding the severity and depth of this global crisis and its accompanying competing demands, the UK (like other responsible donors) can & should play such an important part if it is guided, among others, by these four-fold considerations. Firstly, that conflict prevention and peacebuilding does not get side-lined in the global humanitarian response. All indications are that conflict will be exacerbated or new conflicts arise. Secondly, that conflict and gender-sensitivity are at the heart and core of humanitarian and development response and support for the most marginalised and vulnerable. Thirdly, that the UK at a global level is championing multilateral and collaborative responses to the pandemic.  And, fourthly, that the UK does not pull back on its commitment to overseas aid when we are into recovery. That would be a false economy.[3]

More broadly, and finally, there is an overriding need to look for ways to use this momentous crisis also as a historic opportunity too – to promote systemic change. Let us hope that Covid-19 serves ultimately as a wake-up call for humanity.  And that the world, in shifting to a ‘new normal’, cannot go back to business as usual after this.


[1] The latest data from V-Dem on ‘pandemic backsliding’ suggests that 48 countries have a high risk of democratic declines during the Covid-19 pandemic and 34 countries are at medium risk.  FPC Research Fellow Dr. Beata Martin-Rozumiłowicz has suggested that it is important to look at the impact that the Covid-19 is having on democratic practice in her recent FPC Briefing: How to Maintain Integrity of Elections during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

[2] The points in this paragraph flow from the input of FPC Advisory Council Member Stephen Twigg

[3] The points in this paragraph are developed from the input of Dr Teresa Dumasy and colleagues at Conciliation Resources

Photo from UN Photo- Flags of member nations flying at United Nations Headquarters. 30/Dec/2005. UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto.

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