Making Change Happen in the era of COVID-19

Coronavirus has changed our ways of working and being, perhaps irreversibly. Here, IIED director Andrew Norton takes stock of the impact on our strategic approach, exploring the pandemic’s implications for our five global challenges. He considers IIED’s changing priorities and ways of working, before indicating how we might support worldwide efforts to ‘build forward’ to sustainable, fair and inclusive development pathways.

Andrew Norton

In the five months since IIED closed its office doors, a ‘temporary measure’ has developed into a new era. Our work has continued but inevitably changed; how we deliver it, but also in terms of priorities and the needs of our partners.

The scope and scale of the pandemic and its impacts and implications for the future are not yet clear. We do not know when it will end, or how the world will transition to a new state. We do know that the world faces the largest economic shock since the Second World War and that vast numbers of people will be pushed into poverty. 

Among so many unknowns, IIED’s strategy has been tested as a touchstone for our decision-making. As the pandemic continues to transform and grow, I wanted to take stock of the impacts on our strategic approach and consider its potential role in shaping a fairer future. 

Revisiting the five global challenges

In 2019 we published our five-year strategy: 'Make Change Happen' outlines how IIED’s partnership-based research model takes local solutions to influential global forums. It also describes how we achieve impact.

Make Change Happen is framed around five ‘global challenges’ where progress must be made at multiple scales; it identifies the contributions we seek to make. 

But how does the pandemic affect the chances of addressing these global challenges? How do strategies and framings need to evolve, as the pandemic develops and its effects are felt differently in different geographies?

While there are no definitive answers at this point, we can begin to analyse how the emerging impacts of the pandemic map onto the global challenges, and where our expertise and networks are well-placed to contribute. I explore each in brief, below.

Working with uncertainty

It is worth noting that the effects of the pandemic in most of the world are still unclear. In many aspects, such as the impact on income poverty or income inequality, relevant household survey data has not been collected in the pandemic for any lower and middle-income countries.

So while much policy assessment of COVID-19 impacts will rely on projections based on pre-pandemic data, we must also deploy innovative ways of capturing a rapidly changing situation. IIED has been publishing a range of accounts of local lived realities in the pandemic, with a particular focus on urban informal settlements. Many of these accounts speak to realities that are deeply uncertain and fragile for people at the best of times – so the difference between the pre-pandemic state and now may not feel as clear cut as it does in wealthy contexts.

Andrew NortonAndrew Norton provides an update on IIED's strategic thinking following the COVID-19 pandemic

Increasing inequality

Looking across a range of snapshots of different local realities, there is compelling evidence that COVID-19 is exacerbating inequalities of health, wealth and income at a global scale.  

In low and middle-income countries, people living in informal settlements have been particularly hard-hit: unable to take preventive measures due to the lack of living space and the need to work, they also lack access to health services.

A recent study in Mumbai, India, found that more than 50% of people living in slums tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, as against only 16% of other residents. 

And while large numbers of low-income workers in informal employment have lost work and are without income protection or savings, the pandemic has seen more than 75% of the world’s richest people report an increase in their family fortunes.

‘Lockdown’ measures have created gendered inequalities. Concerns of a ‘shadow pandemic’ of rising domestic violence; even in OECD countries women are covering a disproportionate amount of childcare and domestic work; the overrepresentation of women in sectors that have suffered most under COVID restrictions; the list goes on. 

Disparities in infection rates and recorded deaths expose the effects of racism and structural disadvantage in many high-income countries, including the UK.

In the United States, when adjusted for age, the risk of death from COVID‐19 is as much as nine times higher for Black Americans than it is for White Americans.

Inequality between countries is also a concern, with a range of probable long-term impacts. A boost to automation in productive sectors is likely to reduce dependence on extended supply chains – and on human labour. This may reduce the possibilities for increasing prosperity for low-income countries.  

Modelling of the impacts on poverty at a global scale demonstrates that if the pandemic drives increasing inequality, it will drive more people into poverty than a similar percentage hit on growth. This suggests that effective deployment of social protection measures to reduce inequality could halve the number of people pushed into extreme poverty by COVID-19 (PDF). Expanded social protection responses can also be used to increase resilience to other shocks, such as extreme weather events.

When it comes to investing in recovery, inequality between countries is again significant: on one hand are the nations with hard currencies that can easily finance stimulus spending at a massive scale; on the other, countries that cannot do the same without risking inflation, unsustainable debt and economic collapse.  

Effective mechanisms for debt relief, such as debt-for-nature swaps, will be critical to support low-income countries to invest in green recovery.  

The climate crisis

The drop in emissions associated with the global peak of lockdown – estimated at 17% in May – was a striking real-time experiment in behaviour change. But impact on the long-term trajectory of planetary warming was negligible

In terms of global policy, the processes needed to see the Paris Agreement fully operational have been disrupted; COP26 will be held a year late and must cover extra ground. Vital agenda points include a new and upgraded set of national climate action plans; agreement on transparency in measuring emissions; and how carbon markets will operate on a global scale.

More hearteningly, the response to the pandemic proved that radical action is possible and can be done fast. There are signs from both Europe and the United States of a new politics emerging from the school of the ‘Green New Deal’, aiming to achieve simultaneously social and environmental justice.

But the pandemic will only help the world get to grips with the climate crisis if it drives profound political change across all its dimensions. 

Watching countries cope with COVID-19 has demonstrated that building capacity to respond to crises fundamentally requires that we combat inequality in multiple dimensions: ethnicity, gender, generational, class and other aspects relevant to the context. 

Resilience in the face of multiple threats is also built on the vibrancy and strength of the local institutional fabric, and the willingness and ability of public institutions to engage with grassroots organisations creatively, respectfully and effectively

Physical restrictions challenged public climate activism, but it was also energised by a shift to digital activism. This may, in the long run, act to globalise the climate movement; strengthening links between youth activists in different geographies will also sharpen the focus on climate justice. We explored these possibilities in a successful panel discussion.

An assault on the natural world

The biodiversity crisis we are facing was laid bare in 2019: around one million animal and plant species face extinction unless urgent action is taken. 

There is growing evidence that deforestation and extinctions make pandemics more likely: species that tend to survive in degraded environments, such as rats and bats, are more likely to be involved in zoonotic transmissions of diseases to humans

A clear area of forest showing only the chopped down remnants of trees Cleared land in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Deforestation has increased sharply during the coronavirus crisis. Habitat and ecosystem destruction make pandemics more likely (Photo: Achmad Ibrahim/CIFOR via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This information, alongside a compelling illustration of the value of nature to human society, health and wellbeing, should render COVID-19 a powerful extra level of motivation to global efforts to stem the tide of biodiversity loss.

Yet net conservation effects of the pandemic in most contexts have been negative. Public agencies’ ability to fund conservation activity will be damaged by economic contraction that will affect domestic revenues in most countries as well as aid flows.

And most importantly there has been a huge decline in tourist activity, which funds much of the effective conservation activity in the global South, and particularly activity that engages local community actors. This is an area we have worked on for years at IIED, and we have seen great results.

But pressures on local livelihoods, combined with reduced effectiveness of regulation and conservation action, are likely to see increased poaching, tree cutting, artisanal mining, encroachment on protected areas and agricultural conversion of habitats.

Effects on marine environments are not yet clear, but it is likely that the pandemic has hampered the institutions that safeguard national waters and marine protected areas. There have been reports of an increase in plastic pollution linked to the pandemic response.

In the medium term, it is anticipated that many countries will seek to enhance their future resilience to such shocks by reducing dependence on extended supply chains for essential goods, including food. In many parts of Africa, this could accelerate the conversion of forest and other wild lands to agricultural use, with negative impacts on biodiversity conservation. 

It is clear that the pandemic has done nothing to turn biodiversity loss around; rather it has highlighted an urgent need for fresh thinking and new approaches. 

One of the most important conclusions of 2019's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report (PDF) was that biodiversity does better in areas under the control and management of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. It is therefore crucial that local and indigenous land rights are protected and that policies build on effective local action.

As with climate action, the global process to address biodiversity loss has been affected. The 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, due to make the final decision on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, has been put back to 2021. 

Increasing urban risk

As noted earlier, a combination of density, living conditions, insecure livelihoods and other factors have combined to hit those living in informal settlements particularly hard. It is effectively impossible for these urban residents to follow instructions designed for completely different contexts: social distancing, hand washing, quarantining and working from home.

A woman covered in protective plastic and wearing a mask demonstrates handwashing to other women outsideSharmin Akter works with marginalised communities in densely populated areas of Dhaka to raise awareness about the importance of hand washing during the pandemic. (Photo: UN Women Asia and the Pacific via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In some cases, policy measures have imposed extraordinary suffering on the poorest: the nationwide lockdown in India on 24 March left many day-wage workers unable to survive where they were living, provoking a mass exodus to rural areas

But there is evidence of a striking dynamism in local grassroots responses, indicating potential for building long-term resilience; we have worked to identify and amplify examples through our partnership networks.

What happens in cities cannot be underestimated: by 2050, the world will be over two-thirds urban, with the majority of those extra 2.5 billion urban dwellers located in poorer countries (PDF)

Many of these countries lack the institutional systems and resources to shape their urban transition in inclusive, resilient and sustainable ways. The pandemic’s exposure of the level of risk in urban informal settlements has underscored how vital it is that the emerging urban realities in low and middle-income countries are resilient and provide good, healthy living conditions. 

To achieve this, public policy and institutions need to engage with the realities of life in informal settlements and informal employment, and work with local organisations to meet challenges such as COVID-19.

Without a truly unprecedented global effort to shape an inclusive and sustainable urban transition in the poorest countries the chances of containing future pandemics will be greatly reduced.  

Unsustainable markets

Global market relationships expect to see shorter supply chains, reductions in remittances and a broad boost to digital, among other impacts. All of these – depending on how they materialise – could have negative impacts for lower income countries.  

The World Bank has projected a 20% decline in migrant labour remittances during 2020 for lower and middle income countries; this would have a very significant economic and social impact.

Countries which depend significantly on exports of consumer manufacturing, such as Bangladesh’s garments sector, were hit early in the pandemic as retailers cancelled orders.

A seated woman, wearing a face mask, huddles over a sewing machine making face masksFragile livelihoods: a woman makes face masks in a factory Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, April 2020 (Photo: KB Mpofu/ILO via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The long-term implications could also be significant: as the global economy becomes ever more dependent on digital systems for communication, marketing and production, there is a risk that countries and social groups with poor levels of connectivity will be further excluded.

The pandemic has also caused profound changes in labour markets and local food systems, but these reflect different local realities.  

In East Africa, for example, many small-scale farmers and agricultural workers have been devastated by plummeting foreign demand for goods like flowers, coffee and fish, leading to mass lay-offs and pay reductions in key export industries. Delays and bottlenecks in transport systems affect access to inputs and the ability to market produce.  

As in many other locations, informal food vendors – who are an important part of the provisioning system and predominantly female – have suffered loss of income as a result of lockdown policies.

East Africa is not alone in experiencing the impacts of COVID-19 alongside climate-related shocks including locust invasions, droughts and floods. Efforts to tackle these crises have at times been hampered by the pandemic response.

Building forward, starting from the lived reality of change

The global response to COVID-19 must be to ‘build forward’ rather than merely build back, with the goal of more equitable and sustainable societies firmly in mind. Our aim to ‘make change happen’ firmly applies. 

To do this, we must address many critical challenges – including the pandemic, the climate crisis, the global crisis of biodiversity loss, and inequality – simultaneously, seeking synergies and integrated solutions. 

There isn’t time to address the great crises of our age sequentially. Thinking holistically requires profound and radical change.

For IIED, a key element of our response will be to focus on the importance of organised communities for responding to the pandemic and building better and more resilient futures.  

The stories of grassroots impact and action that we have gathered and published over recent months illustrate that successful relief and recovery support builds on local collective action and the grassroots structures that enable and nurture it. 

Robert Hakiza explains how refugee-led organisation Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) is helping local communities in Uganda. This video is also available on IIED's YouTube channel

Changing priorities in the era of COVID-19

In the early months of the pandemic, IIED focused on two tracks in terms of our thematic and operational work. 

Firstly, we published a wide range of analytical and ethnographic work reflecting different thematic aspects and localised realities of the pandemic. Our partners’ work has been prominent in this content, highlighting perspectives from Africa, Asia and Latin America.  

Secondly, we have started a range of work streams that seek to respond to the changing landscape for sustainable development in the era of COVID-19. These include work in the following areas: 

  • Transformative urban recovery with a particular focus on informal settlements in lower and middle income countries
  • Developing tools to finance a green recovery using debt for nature and climate swaps
  • Developing green recovery policy options for the Least Developed Countries, and
  • Working towards sustainable financing mechanisms for community-based action for conservation in Africa to counteract loss of aid and tourism revenues.

We will continue to innovate and look for partnerships and initiatives that can make a difference.

Guiding principles 

We will use the following principles to help us navigate a changing landscape for sustainable development action in the era of COVID-19:

  • A focus on inclusion and social justice in all actions designed to promote resilience and recovery, including seeking ways to combat racial and gender inequalities
  • A focus on supporting and highlighting the role of grassroots organisations in supporting resilience and recovery
  • A commitment to developing an evidence base to support public institutions to find the best ways to partner with the local organisational structures that are the foundation of most effective action to promote resilience
  • A focus on promoting the governance conditions necessary for effective civil society and grassroots action, and highlighting the connections between democratic governance and resilience, and
  • Building forward towards a world that confronts the challenges of recovery from the pandemic alongside radical actions to address the combined threats of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and vast inequality.

We will work with our partner networks across civil society, social movements and grassroots organisations, as well as with research institutions, governments and development actors to identify areas where we can together make a contribution to meaningful change. 

How best to ‘build forward’ from the global shock of the pandemic is not a static question. The landscape is constantly changing, and identifying the best places to make a contribution requires sensitivity to how other actors are positioning their actions and responses.  

We will be open to engaging on a range of agendas and welcome suggestions and dialogue.

Ways of working: combining the best of old and new 

Since the scale and significance of the coronavirus pandemic became clear in March 2020, we have been reviewing the consequences for our modes of operation – how we do research, collaborate to innovate and promote change, communicate and engage in public debate. 

The dominance of online working developed fast and has created a new world of work and research. As the situation develops, we will seek to retain the best of that while selectively restarting research and policy dialogues that are travel-dependent and benefit from physical presence and face-to-face contact. 

A man gets his temperature checked by someone in protective clothing.Ways of working will be very different in a world with extensive restrictions on face-to-face contact (Photo: KB Mpofu/ILO via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

We are mindful that internet access remains a global inequality and reliance on online conferencing or negotiations could further shut out marginalised voices

Significant lessons are emerging in relation to our communications work. Since February, we have worked with partners to create a wide range of pandemic-related blogs and other outputs, many of which have highlighted local realities and the role of grassroots organisations in pandemic response and building future resilience. This has led to an increase in traffic to our website (up 30% on the same period last year).

Our convening and events programme swiftly moved online and we have increased our outreach approximately fivefold, with a vastly increased audience in the global South. We will retain digital convening as a primary tool as the situation develops.

Where we go from here

We will maintain the strategic focus on the five global challenges outlined in 'Make Change Happen'. These remain our strongest possible contributions.

We will constantly review the changing landscape as the pandemic evolves, and consider how we can best contribute to building forward in ways that address social and environmental justice and provides for lasting resilience.

New areas of focus and activity will emerge and some may drop away. Everything any organisation will try to achieve in the era of the pandemic will be to some extent a moving target. We will look to our strong monitoring, evaluation and learning capacity to help us stay effective.

As we learn and adapt we will maintain a focus on partnership, on the role of evidence, on highlighting lived realities and the contribution of grassroots organisations, and on values of social and environmental justice that need to be central in building forward from the pandemic.

Andrew Norton signature

IIED director Andrew Norton