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How local NGOs are adapting during the pandemic

Part 1 of 7

Insights, innovations and recommendations

[Editor’s Note: This week, R4D in partnership with FieldWorks is highlighting the obstacles faced by local civil society organizations around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the unique and innovative ways that local organizations are at the forefront of response and prevention in low- and middle-income countries. As international organizations and donors adapt to their new reality, we want to amplify the experience, voices, and perceptions of those on their own frontlines — of how the ripple effects of the pandemic are felt by the world’s most vulnerable people and what can be done to “build back better.” In this introductory post, we’ll share five key takeaways on how local NGOs are adapting during the pandemic.]

Back in March, many of us went from having clear project workplans to scenario planning for all of the possible pandemic paths in the short span of a couple of weeks. And, for many of us, one of the first things we did was connect with our local partners to ask questions like, “how are things looking there,” “how should we be changing course” and “what can we be doing to help?”

Since the initial shock, we have spent a lot of time planning, problem solving and sharing what we think is working and what we could be doing more of. One thing we realized we needed to do more of is just listen.

At the end of the day, many of the blog posts and webinars and guidebooks that are out there still more heavily feature the voices of INGOs and people from high-income countries — ourselves included. And with the pandemic making it all the more challenging to find those connections, we wanted to stop and give space to our partners who are facing incredible challenges, while also taking steps to combat the pandemic and all of the social, political and economic side effects of COVID-19. Most importantly, we wanted to amplify their voices and their accomplishments during this challenging time.

So, we sat down (virtually, of course) with several civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs working on health, education, nutrition and accountability issues around the world. We conducted these discussions as part of our Partner Navigator project, an initiative that was designed to find way to better connect capable and strong local NGOs with international partners and donors. While we saw the need for this work — and in fact started it — before the pandemic affected much of the world, it is clear that efforts like these are needed now more than ever.

We asked our local partners involved with the Partner Navigator what they are seeing, what they are doing and what they think would help civil society build back better when we get through the immediate wave of the pandemic. And we’ll be featuring their responses in Q&A blogs soon.

We highly recommend reading the posts that directly share what we have heard from our partners (including Actions pour l’Environnement et le Développement Durable (ACED) in Benin, Asocación BPD in Guatemala, This-Ability and Commonwealth Housing Group in Kenya, Transparency International Rwanda, and the Foundation for Civil Society in Tanzania); they share their stories better than we can! Over the next week, we will be posting interviews with these organizations that highlight the amazing work that they are doing and how partners in the north can help, now and in the future.

In the meantime, we share a few reflections here on some of the common threads we pulled from all of these interviews.

1. Funding and support may have stopped, but the needs and the work didn’t.

Many of the organizations with which we spoke do not work directly on health issues — and it goes without saying that none had worked on this specific health issue before. But the arrival of a global pandemic caused many things to slow and other things to ramp up. Unfortunately, both of these changes were in the wrong direction.

Many of the funding sources and mechanisms for supporting communities and people who need help disappeared, virtually overnight. Many donors did continue to move forward with existing grants and commitments, but for organizations that also rely on local support and individual donations, the pandemic shifted priorities and ability of people and organizations to help local CSOs.

And while resources dropped, existing problems — even those that on the surface appear unrelated to COVID-19 — worsened, especially for those most vulnerable. The lockdown in Guatemala, for example, meant that local farmers and artisans could not get to the market to sell their goods — leaving them with little or no income to feed their families. In some cases, government policies that were touted as ways to protect people in Africa ended up resulting in citizens not able to get the services they needed.

2. CSOs are finding innovative ways to adapt.

While everyone with whom we spoke made it clear that their adaptations are not ideal substitutes for in-person support, we did not speak with anyone who said they had just stopped because their work was now impossible. CSOs are employing diverse solutions from providing tablets to community partners to sharing videos with key social and behavior change campaign messages to transforming SMS-based monitoring systems into ways of providing direct support. The blog posts featuring our interviews provide much more information on these approaches, and these ideas pushed us to ask the question of how partners like us that are not based in countries can do more to help.

3. We need to rethink how we connect — and support connections — across partners in different countries and regions.

The pandemic has revealed many gaps in how global development has developed and evolved, and one of those gaps is the continued reliance on the “parachute in” model of technical support. Moving away from this model requires many shifts — but one big one is finding better mechanisms to connect organizations and potential partners that do not require a chance meeting on a trip or at a workshop. Our partners at FieldWorks are designing and iterating on one way to do this — through a new kind of interactive platform that provides both objective information about CSOs around the world to those who may be seeking partners and mechanisms for virtual engagement and trust-building across organizations. Each of the CSOs featured in this blog series has a profile page on the FieldWorks site, and you can learn more in the links at the bottom of each post.

4. We need to work on ensuring that financial support goes straight to country partners — and that technical support starts in country and in region.

One global danger of the pandemic is that new funding for COVID relief and rebuilding is funneled through INGOs because of ease and existing relationships. While there are some goals for which this may be appropriate, CSOs in low- and middle-income countries are best placed to make the decisions and take action to address many of the challenges that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. Filtering funds through intermediaries likely means less resources for direct action in countries.

Looking beyond funding, much of the capacity building that has been historically “parachuted in” can be led locally — and made better and more effective by supporting local and regional mentors, coaches and programming. This is a model R4D has been supporting recently — and one of the organizations featured in this blog series (the Foundation for Civil Society in Tanzania) is a leader and model for what this approach could and should look like when it is led in region, by local actors and for local actors.

5. We need to support more organizational capacity and resilience strengthening.

The recommendations above are about how we should be doing support and capacity building in the future — but there is also a lot to learn about “what capacity” deserves a closer look. While this pandemic will slow at some time, the ripple effects will be long lasting — and it is unlikely to be the last time we face a global crisis like this.

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Local CSOs are adapting heroically in these difficult times, but they are having to overcome challenges related to diversification of funding, restrictions on communications, and other challenges that deserve their own attention as we move on from the crisis phase of the virus. The CSOS with which we spoke have many recommendations for how we can help “build back better” that are highlighted in the series, and it is critical that we not sit these on the backburner, only to forget about them until the next global shock arises.

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