Six humanitarian lessons from the COVID-19 crisis

Dec 22, 2020

2020 showed us the consequences of not cooperating, said participants of the UN humanitarian agency OCHA’s annual policy gathering. So where does that lead humanitarian action in 2021?

WFP registers people in need in Yemen, while respecting physical distancing. Credit: WFP/Mohammed Awadh

2020 was a “dumpster fire” and “hellish year” for countries in crisis that were then hit with the economic- and health-related meltdowns of COVID-19, said speakers at OCHA’s 2020 Global Humanitarian Policy Forum. John Norris, Deputy Director for Policy and Strategic Insight at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, described 2020 as “a year of consequences where we saw the painful cost of not cooperating.”

At this year’s virtual event, OCHA gathered leaders from humanitarian and development, scientific, data and technology, public health and private sectors to discuss how the pandemic has shaken the world’s political, socioeconomic and humanitarian systems, and how it is shaping global response. The opening event was live-streamed on Twitter to facilitate broad participation. More than 1,000 participants from over 80 countries joined.

Participants highlighted six priorities for action.

Choose public good over public bad

Multilateralism is the way forward, said Franck Bousquet, the World Bank’s Head of Fragility, Conflict and Violence. “2020 made us realize the importance of global public good and global public bad.” The Gates Foundation’s Norris acknowledged: “The multilateral system can be frustrating — we sit through interminable meetings, but now we’ve seen what the alternative looks like: people playing a zero-sum game, looking only at their bottom line. We have to find ways to cooperate, otherwise the human toll is just absolutely unbearable.” As Butch Meily, President of IdeaSpace and the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation and member of the Connecting Business initiative, put it: “We are stronger together.”

Pape Gaye, President Emeritus of Intrahealth International, underlined the need to be bold and go beyond the rhetoric: “We need an acceleration agenda. Cooperation on COVID response is complicated because in a polarized world, responses must span public health, education, economic, humanitarian and development sectors, and include both urgent and long-term solutions.”

For the World Bank, this means scaling up partnerships and investing in countries in crisis like never before. Breaking down these sectoral siloes is hard, but ultimately “people do not care where help comes from — they just need help,” stressed Bousquet.

Give control to local organizations

Local civil society organization, Greencode, in Nigeria, delivers water to displaced people in Borno State, with support from the Nigeria Humanitarian Fund. Credit: OCHA/Eve Sabbagh

Panellists agreed that with every crisis comes opportunity. The pandemic prompted the humanitarian community to pivot towards direct support for national aid organizations on the front lines, highlighting their importance. In the Philippines, for instance, a volcanic explosion in January was followed by COVID-19 in February and then a series of typhoons. The response rested on partnerships between local organisations, said Meily. “We have learned that we have to rely on ourselves.”

But support for a localized response is not inevitable and risks being a “passing fad,” warned Christina Bennett, CEO of the Start Network. Even in the pandemic, many donors reverted to type, funding through their established, safe channels, not yet ready to forge new partnerships. Genuine local leadership requires community involvement at every step, from needs assessment to programme design, implementation and execution, said Anna Ekeledo, Head of AfriLabs. To achieve true localization at the community level, we must support marginalized groups in insecure places, which generally are not the capital cities, stressed Bousquet and Norris.

International “gatekeepers” need to cede the space to national and local actors, added Bennett. “Use your power and positioning to be in the service of local leadership rather than taking up the space that they should be occupying.” Gaye called for a redefinition of localization, which he said was in itself a top-down, northern notion. He suggested we focus on our legacy of “leaving behind strengthened people, social groups and systems.” This includes a greater stress on knowledge-sharing across southern countries, said Ana Patricia Muñoz, Executive Director, Grupo FARO.

Bennett asked: “Is collaboration with local actors a means to an end [in humanitarian aid] or is it an end in and of itself? The former will bring about business as usual, but the latter is the backbone to building a sustainable civil society that can respond to future crises. If that is our goal, then direct funding [of local NGOs] is a no-brainer.”

An evacuation centre in San Jose, in the Philippines where people fled after the Taal Volcano. Credit: OCHA/Pierre Peron

Donors, it’s time to re-evaluate risk

Most humanitarian funding still passes through layers of intermediaries before reaching national NGOs, with each intermediary taking a significant cut, stressed Jan Egeland. That’s why it took six months for some COVID-19 funding to reach people on the ground. But the pandemic catalysed more flexible, unearmarked funding among some donors, said Pascale Meige at the IFRC and Kim Eling, an Expert in the Cabinet of the European Commission’s Commissioner for Crisis Management. We are likely to see more of this, as the humanitarian system showed what it could deliver when funding is flexible.

Egeland, Eling and Patrick Saez of the Center for Global Development stressed the importance of Country-Based Pooled Funds, which can fund NGOs on the front lines within 48 hours. In such uncertain times, it’s challenging to move away from earmarked funding that’s channelled through large international agencies, reflected Saez. “There is a caution not to do anything that could change the willingness of lawmakers in capitals to support humanitarian assistance.” It’s time for donors to stop focusing only on compliance and to value the different strengths of local organizations, several panellists noted. This must include core funding, rather than just being project oriented. Some local organizations can employ staff only as volunteers and then dissolve when money disappears, but this is an unstable business model.

Dominique Burgeon of the UN’s FAO stressed local authorities’ primary role in “staying and delivering” and the international community’s role in supporting and facilitating that work without trying to control it.

Take time to build capacity, partnerships and preparedness

Partnerships need to be built before disasters occur. This view was shared by Ekeledo, Nicole Clifton at the UPS Foundation, and Salvatore Vicari, MSF’s Regional Humanitarian Affairs Advisor. This is vital in a pandemic where, as with Ebola, trust runs low when treatment facilities operate with high mortality rates and low visitor access.

AfriLabs involves communities right from the project design phase, said Ekeledo. You can’t build a partnership in 24 hours, said IFRC’s Pascale Meige, “especially not a fair and equal one.” Local partners don’t just need a seat at the table, they need to be heard. Bousquet stressed that health crises can only be resolved by building the resilience of local communities.

David Nabarro, Co-Director and Chair of Global Health, Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London, asked why we are not applying lessons learned. The pandemic-related damage was predictable, but the lessons tend not to be applied because it’s “a little inconvenient.” It requires changes in how we are organized and how we work, but it mostly requires “investing in preparedness.” Some Governments launched effective responses, including Rwanda, Senegal and Vietnam. Each recognized the long-term economic repercussions of a weak response. Nabarro believes that building trust ahead of the next crisis requires system leadership. “The virus is the problem and people are the solution.”

Access and civilian protection remain among most urgent priorities for action

The pandemic has exacerbated the drivers of fragility, and lack of access or protection are as critical as ever, said Egeland, who had just returned from the Sudan-Ethiopia border, home to thousands of Tigrayans who had fled fighting.

But he stressed that the quality of humanitarian assistance has never been better. For instance, NRC built a school for 700 children in just five days, but the problem is lack of protection and access. Bousquet noted: “COVID could push more than 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021. We will have the biggest forced displacement crisis since World War II. There will be large-scale food insecurity. The trends are not going in the right direction.” We must be the most effective for people most impacted. The pandemic revealed the need for investment in social protection schemes, given that vulnerable people have been so hard hit.

Use technology for the benefit of all

Students follow a social studies on TV in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Brian Otiento/

The pandemic has changed how we live, work and educate our children, meaning “all of society is going through a digital transformation,” said John Frank, Vice President of UN Affairs at Microsoft. Digital technologies can make humanitarian organizations more effective, but this requires broad acceptance and willingness to learn.

“While the pandemic presents opportunity, this is not a time for opportunism,” stressed Dakota Gruener, Executive Director, ID2020. What we do today will have a lasting impact. How effective technologies are for the humanitarian sector depends on how we use them and the quality of the data that goes into them, noted Jason A. Lee at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Massimo Marelli, Head of Data Protection Office, ICRC, emphasized the importance of data protection to ensure individual rights and dignity, as well as agency, transparency and trust. “Successful and responsible deployment of technology does not start from the technology. It starts from the problem. It has the people at the centre.”

Ruchi Saxena, Director, Flying Labs India, underlined the critical role of local leadership and ownership of technology solutions to keep people at the centre and deploy technology successfully. Ria Sen, WFP Disaster Risk Reduction Expert, stressed the need for user-centric solutions and knowledge-sharing to help the humanitarian community progress together. “Let’s start moving from pilot to full-scale integrated projects until we reach every last person on this Earth.”