Real life challenges of programming in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic: A case for flexibility and agility in the development aid sector – Reflections from the South


Compiled by Nyaradzo Mutonhori and Moreblessings Chidaushe

When it started with a few cases in Wuhan, China towards the end of 2019, COVID-19 was little discussed or given the attention it deserved, and the world may well have under-estimated its potential spread and impact right from the beginning. No-one was prepared for what the world is currently witnessing. The current situation is unprecedented and forcing everyone into doing things differently. A lot of things will never be the same again even when COVID-19 is long gone.  As of now, the world is struggling to find the best ways and means to cope, adapt and mitigate, as we are told the vaccine may be more than a year away – 2020 will be a very long year, jokingly some have even suggested that if only we could put the year 2020 on reset mode so that we start on a clean slate.

The Aid sector is among the most affected sectors. Development workers all over the world are grappling with the harsh realities and the many questions that have arisen as they attempt to implement their programmes and projects in this unfamiliar COVID-19 pandemic era.

Civil society organizations are asking many questions: How are we going to implement projects, assuming we will be able to conduct planned activities later this year? Should we postpone activities or just cancel them totally and begin planning again when it is possible? What kind of context will prevail after the pandemic and how do we maintain communication with communities and stakeholders we work with, so our work remains relevant? How do we mobilize international collaboration and solidarity at a time when everyone is swamped and focusing on their own contexts, how do we ensure that we do not lose the gains we have so far made, how do we not lose  active contact, engagement and  communication with our constituencies, will we have to start things anew when COVID-19 is gone? The questions are many and the answers are not always easy, and neither are they straightforward in times of such unimaginable uncertainty.

For those of us working on advocacy and depend on mobilizing and convening meetings and gatherings, the reality brought about by the pandemic is that physical convenings have become impossible (and might be for a long while) – policy influencing work has stalled given that;

  • it is impossible to gather rights-holders in large numbers and
  •  targeted institutions/government ministries may not be able to provide responses to the issues we may raise- as governments shift their focus to deal with the pandemic. Parliaments are suspending session and the law-making processes while oversight is slowly waning.

That we now have to work outside our normal comfort zones and our normal operating structures requires us as civil society organizations working on advocacy to be creative in order to somehow maintain active engagement and impact with our various constituencies throughout this period. We should not lose contact with our communities if we are to maintain the gains and progress that we have so far made in the different areas that we work in, losing this will be an expensive exercise that may require us to start many things afresh.

But how do we maintain active engagement and contact with our constituencies during this time of social distancing under such harsh realities as poor connectivity, expensive data, lack of electricity and of cause communities that are understandably and rightfully focusing on protecting themselves from the pandemic? How do we strike a balance to get our work to continue while respecting that communities need the time and space to focus on protecting themselves from the pandemic?

Public discourse on pertinent issues should be promoted to continue through available forms of media. In the policy advocacy value chain, we may still need to get responses from stakeholders/policy makers, we may still need to enhance capacities and generate research to buttress our policy reform proposals. Field research has become impossible and it is a fundamental element. Campaigning and solidarity have largely taken a backstage especially for regional and global campaigns. In most of our organizations, we rely on building North-South and South-South Solidarity.  How do we strategize on campaigning and solidarity in this new global reality? Social media communication platform such as Twitter and Facebook – when used well are very powerful and influential platforms to build and maintain solidarity and should never be underestimated or undermined. At a time like this, how do we best use them to make sure that we continue driving our advocacy work and campaigns on the ground and at global levels.

Despite the challenges in conducting our work as we knew it, the actual effect of COVID-19 has been an increase in the demand for our work. For instance, how do we deal with gender-based violence considering survivors may be more exposed because of confinement with their abusers over a long period of time? How can communities continue to hold duty bearers accountable for the governance of national resources such as mineral revenue and public financial management and to make sure that resources are transparently allocated towards dealing with the pandemic. How can duty bearers ensure that greater access to clean water and health services is prioritized and actually delivered to poor communities? 

When we define essential services how can communities be involved to ensure we do not overlook other critical needs and rights beyond health services? For instance, how best can Gender Commissions continue to tackle gender-based violence and how best can local authorities and municipalities continue to provide services such as clean water.

Inequality and poverty will manifest themselves significantly and differently during this time and render women and children more vulnerable as food aid is stopped and livelihoods suffer due to the pandemic. How can civil society influence and shape responses by national governments and cooperating partners to cater for the resultant humanitarian and economic crises or their exacerbation?

 It is fundamental to ensure that women and children have regular access to information because of their increased vulnerabilities due to the increase in unpaid care work and greater demand on them as primary caregivers. With schools closed, how can children and the youth voices be amplified so that their rights are considered?

Clearly, the implications of COVID-19 to programming are many and mind-boggling and there may not be straightforward answers to all the questions that are arising with the new reality. Agility and flexibility will need to be a new norm for us to remain relevant to our various constituencies moving forward.

There will be a need to invest energies extensively during this time by maintaining close communications with stakeholders and especially marginalized remote communities, being alive to the reality that we do not create an elite in the communities that may be seen to be the favored ones with more access to us than the broader communities.

 We need to be alive to the reality that energies  amongst target communities will wane especially as the pandemic becomes protracted, momentum will be lost especially for some of us doing policy advocacy and lobbying work, including strengthening social justice movements and in some instances we may need to accept the harsh reality that we may need to start from scratch to devise and implement change pathways when the pandemic is gone. Reality may even call for complete and utter shift in our planned strategic and annual plans and interventions as we adapt to emerging needs.

 In all this, we need to remain strong, focused, protect each other and remain resolute that together we will fight this and emerge stronger when the pandemic is gone.

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