Jun 8, 2020

What we’re reading: beyond Love in the Time of Cholera

Jacob Bathanti , Consultant

Photo: A banner in Bogotá, Colombia, warns residents about COVID-19 and reminds them to wash their hands. 

Here at GDI we are, like many development practitioners and analysts, trying to make sense of the uncertainty that attends an atmosphere of crisis. How do we update our ways of thinking and our ways of working to respond to the COVID-19 crisis? And what can we learn from this crisis to prepare for the next one - whether the looming effects of economic recessions or the slow-gathering storm clouds of climate change? The point of getting through crisis is not to simply – simplistically – return to a status quo ante, the shortcomings of which are well-documented. Rather, there exists an opportunity to rebuild better – with more inclusive orders, more resilient systems, and more accountable ways of working.  

A number of recent pieces focus on how to make the way we work in international development more adaptive, how to rebuild for resilience, and how to ensure accountability during the response.  

The uncertainty of an ongoing pandemic crisis lays bare the need to quickly integrate and use new knowledge. A new article on Oxfam’s Poverty to Power blog lays out an intriguing premise for how we think about monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (MERL): as this crisis spurs an urgent need for timely, context-sensitive information, and reveals the importance of quick adaptation to new knowledge, it also constitutes a critical juncture for the development community “to embed more locally-led, politically-informed and adaptive types of MERL in aid and development practice.” These techniques for embedding feedback loops, adapting to community contexts, and localizing can both be used as we respond to COVID – learning in time to make a difference, as the article notes in the headline – and could, if adopted, constitute important paradigm shifts in how we monitor projects and policies, and how we adapt as we learn. The implications go beyond COVID-19. They extend to the applicability of adaptive and inclusive approaches to other challenges, such as climate change. And they ultimately challenge us to reimagine the relationships of power that we embed in the way that we learn and adapt during implementation. Read the whole piece – as a bonus, it contains the most artful Love in the Time of Cholera hook that I’ve seen in this time of coronavirus.  

How might we imagine shifting our approaches in the health sector in particular? In a recent article at The New Humanitarian, Jonathan Papoulidis examines what it will take to build more resilient health systems in the future, particularly in fragile states. Papoulidis notes that "As previous crises have waned, so too has international engagement" (something that a GDI case study found to be a crucial challenge in rebuilding health systems in Liberia after the Ebola epidemic, by the way). Besides keeping our eye on the ball now, donors and international organizations should focus on building resilience with attention to “multi-dimensional risks” – the overlapping configurations of vulnerabilities that stem from diverse sources, from climate change and natural disasters to conflict and displacement. He also argues that approaches should be adaptive, and scalable. These approaches are sometimes seen as hard to reconcile, but Papoulidis argues that this can be done through effective organizing at the country level, particularly if they are further complemented by well-structured country platforms to coordinate local, national, and international actors (a topic that he’s written about for the GDI blog in the past as well).  

We can also work adaptively now, as this blog post from the World Bank’s Ed Olowo-Okere argues. Noting that governments and international organizations are currently implementing interventions that will inject considerable resources into overstretched health systems and struggling economies, he makes the case for proactive transparency measures and short feedback loops to ensure that they also guard against corruption risks. At the Let’s Talk Development blog, Norman Loayza collates some useful principles for effective implementation of donor funds to COVID-19, with implications for flexibility based on local context and the particularities of this crisis (e.g., figuring out ways to respect and reinforce social distancing while getting people the social support they need).  

And we can listen more effectively. GDI partner Feedback Labs has a new framework on how funders can listen across multiple stages of responding to the epidemic: relief; short-term recovery; long-term recovery; and resiliency. The techniques – the how-to – shift from stage to stage, but are united by a guiding ethos of listening to the communities that we aim to serve. This listening, particularly with attention to communities whose voices are not always heard, enable us to respond better. In the context of this framework, “the ultimate, long-term goal in response to COVID-19 should be to rebuild social systems to be more effective and more equitable.” The framework also links to a number of other useful feedback resources. And here's a Zoom link for a June 16 webinar on the framework (1 - 2 pm, ET). 

We hope that you find some of these materials useful. If you have resources that you’d like to recommend, please drop us a line at gdi@worldbank.org.