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Q&A: Actions pour l’Environnement et le Développement Durable

Part 2 of 7

An interview with Frejus Thoto

[Editor’s Note: This week, R4D and FieldWorks are 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 post, Denise Bonsu, a senior program associate at R4D, shares her conversation with Mr. Frejus Thoto, the Executive Director of Actions pour l’Environnement et le Développement Durable (ACED).]

Denise Bonsu: How would you describe your organization to someone unfamiliar with your work?

Frejus Thoto: Actions pour l’Environnement et le Développement Durable (ACED) is a nonprofit organization in Benin that works to strengthen communities by providing them with sustainable solutions with which to combat poverty and hunger, with a specific focus on food and nutritional security. We combine scientific research with policy and local action to reduce poverty and hunger in the most vulnerable communities in Benin. Recently, we have been exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the food and nutritional security field to help policymakers mitigate the effects of the pandemic on local communities.

Denise: What are the main objectives of your work?

Frejus: Our work centers on three pillars: 1) Improving smallholders’ access to innovations and markers by improving their production efficiency of healthy and affordable foods and increasing their access to markers; 2) Protecting the ecosystem by generating knowledge on ecosystem services and advocating for the integration of an ecosystem approach into planning and decision-making; and 3)Using evidence and data to promote food and nutrition security by producing timely evidence and research, improving access to evidence, and increasing evidence use. 

Denise: What are some of the effects that you have seen the covid-19 pandemic have on CSOs and NGOs in your country?

Frejus: COVID-19 has had two primary effects on the work that we do. The first effect is that, as a result of the pandemic, we have not been able to implement some of our activities that required a certain level of engagement with stakeholders we were unable meet with due to lockdown restrictions that limited our mobility on the ground. For example, we hold an Evidence Policy Action forum every year that helps increase our visibility and highlights the work that we do. Unfortunately, this year, we had to cancel the forum due to social distancing guidelines and travel restrictions implemented as a result of COVID-19.

COVID-19 also resulted in a number of financial setbacks for our organization. For example, we were working on an agricultural project in a local community that was disrupted since we were no longer allowed to visit that community to obtain data and follow up activities. Now that restrictions are being eased, we have to go back to those communities to gather the data that we were unable to collect during the lockdown and follow up activities, which creates a financial burden for us since we have to spend additional money to go back to those communities and complete the project.  Additionally, since all of our employees had to work remotely during the lockdown, we had to provide them with tools and resources to support remote work. For example, our internet bills increased significantly since we had to ensure that all of our employees had access to the internet during this period. We also had to invest in a number of applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams that increased our spending expenditures. This is an ongoing issue since, up to now; we have not yet fully transitioned back to the office.

Lastly, even though the majority of our projects were paused for four months during the lockdown, we were still paying our employees. We are in the process of applying for extensions from our funders that extend the time we have to complete our projects but does not increase the budget. This means that we will be working with the same budget that we received initially even though the time period to complete the work has been extended, meaning that we will have to find other ways of covering employee salaries and other expenses. The situation has also halted our fundraising strategy. Before COVID-19, we were having discussions with certain donors about receiving additional funding to complete our work. Unfortunately, as a result of COVID-19, donor priorities have changed and we now need to explore other ways of securing funding which is difficult during the COVID-19 era.

Denise: What changes do you think would help your country “Build Back Better” after the pandemic? (in other words — what could happen that would make your country stronger after covid-19 ends)

Frejus: Having a better understanding of what happened during the pandemic, specifically in the food and nutrition security sector would be a good starting point. In addition, analyzing the impact that COVID-19 has had on the work we do on the ground, as well as the Government’s response to the pandemic. Lastly, developing a post-COVID-19 strategy that provides NGOs with economic support to start their activities back up once the pandemic is over.

Denise: What support could other partners/countries provide to help your country “build back better” after the pandemic? 

Frejus; It is important for them to have a better understanding of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the NGOs/CSOs they work with. It is also important for them to work jointly with these organizations to formulate a plan for getting them back on their feet after the pandemic is over. Also, exploring different ways to provide them with additional funding to help them during these challenging times. It is also important for them to understand that we are currently in a period that no one could have imagined and that there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment. Therefore, it is important that partners are more flexible with NGOs or CSOs in terms of operational planning of activities and budget reallocation.

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