Facing a COVID-19 future: listening and learning to inform the ‘new normal’

Like many organisations, IIED has spent the last few weeks thinking about how COVID-19 will have an impact on its work in the short and longer term. Here, we reflect on some key issues.

Rosalind Goodrich's picture
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28 May 2020

Rosalind Goodrich is head of research communications at IIED

A man in a face mask talking to a group of people

Representatives of a union for domestic workers and people working in the informal economy in the Ivory Coast brief villagers on how to protect themselves from COVID-19 (Photo: IDWF via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Since lockdown began, we’ve been thinking not only about how IIED and our own staff are affected by the coronavirus pandemic but also staff in our partner organisations and the communities in which they work.

Aside from practical issues arising from working at home and not being able to travel, IIED faces a future of potentially less funding. A significant part of our work is funded from official development assistance (ODA) – pegged by the UK government at 0.7% of gross national income. As that income falls, so will ODA, and we are already finding that budgets are being revised as the figure is tracked in real time.

And what about our partners? For them, COVID-19 presents yet another layer of risk to respond to; it adds a new dimension and potentially disrupts carefully thought-through adaptation strategies.

In the short term, we’re thinking about how to plan ahead and we’ve started to capture some community experiences. We can support global South knowledge exchanges and learn from how communities, grassroots networks and our partners have coped, so that solutions based on lived experience inform the ‘new normal’. 

Here, for starters, are three areas we want to explore further. 

1. Too fast and we risk greater inequality

First, the question of how to adapt is crucial. Governments and society are having to respond quickly to the public health crisis and we’ve seen that some countries have been better at that than others. But the risk of maladaptation to COVID-19 – of a quick response leading to a damaging and inequitable result in the longer term – is present for all. 

Now more than any other time, policymakers and decision-makers at all levels must listen to citizens and civil society – including those in policymaking – and hear their experiences and concerns.

We will support our partners in their work to empower women’s groups and youth organisations, encourage inhabitants of informal settlements to influence and collaborate with municipal authorities, bring together powerful people with people of less power across many sectors – food, forests, farming, fishing and mining – to foster dialogue and cooperation.

With that there may be a better chance that policies and practices relating to precious public goods are owned by society and that decisions are transparent and understood. More than ever, governance must be good; IIED will renew its efforts to support partners to argue their case and shape a policy narrative that reflects their perspectives.

2. Making room for risk

Communities and partner organisations are faced with novel situations – indeed, who of us has experienced a lockdown situation before? It is important that we can experiment with how we respond, accepting that some initiatives will work but others may fail. 

This is a second issue exercising IIED. How can we work with funders in an environment where there is uncertainty, where there are increased risks but where innovation and creative responses are needed urgently?

We’ve seen with our work on getting climate finance to the local level and to the small organisations and communities that need it most, that there are mechanisms to reduce risk and at the same time build capability. And as Sheela Patel says, if we want to deliver change, we actually have to make room for risk.

This is a difficult conversation, but one that we’d like to have. Climate change is not going away, food security will continue to be a pressing issue, conflicts over resources are likely to increase and all will be framed by an uncertain funding environment. COVID-19 adds complexity to the solutions that must be found for these and other pressing issues: they need to be flexible and multi-faceted with funding that matches.

3. Digital technology has to be accessible and inclusive

And thirdly (but certainly not finally) the pandemic has ramped up institutional thinking on how to use digital technology to the best effect. 

IIED has worked in the same way for many years, valuing face-to-face contact and collaboration with partners and communities and accepting the air miles that result. Now that has got to change. 

We plan to explore how tech could help us to keep doing research, exchange information and discuss the meaning of results with partners, and keep being able to gather the views of people living with the challenges we are all trying to address – but without the travel.

Building trust and making sure women and men, older and younger people, and those living with disabilities can be part of this exercise won’t be easy. The hurdles of bandwidth, Wi-Fi, data costs, security, access to a smartphone, computer and the right software will all have to be overcome. 

Above all else our research must continue to be inclusive and representative of all parts of society.

A challenge or an opportunity?

It is easy to feel overwhelmed but IIED is working from a strong base: almost 50 years of partnership with organisations that have been dealing with complexity, with risk, with potential failure on a day-to-day basis, and learning from that experience, have developed successful strategies for moving forward.

IIED in its 2019-24 strategy wants to Make Change Happen. This pandemic challenges us to think about how we can also change.

We are still striving for social justice, equitable policymaking, resilient communities and sustainable development but, as with global crises of the past, perhaps COVID-19 is the catalyst for us to achieve this in a fundamentally different way.

About the author

Rosalind Goodrich (rosalind.goodrich@iied.org) is head of research communications at IIED

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