Noor Lekkerkerker, Head of Advocacy and Research, Basmeh and Zeitooneh, and Howard Mollett, Head of Humanitarian Policy, CAFOD
As the impacts of the Coronavirus epidemic are felt around the world, donors, UN and international NGOs recognise that locally-led humanitarian action will be important, arguably more so than ever. Governments have restricted movement within and across borders; with foreigners especially constrained. Last week one major INGO shared that around forty percent of its international staff have withdrawn from countries in which they operate to relocate or return home to families. Donor officials have talked about the need for a new ‘localisation on steroids’ approach. A UN Global COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan highlights the ‘importance of involving and supporting local organizations’; highlighting UN agency sub-granting, pooled funds, and direct donor funding. Yet it also states that 95 percent will go to nine UN entities. We also know both UN agencies and many donors have made very slow progress on fostering quality partnership and quality funding to local actors. We agree with Ed Schekenberg that this will require new ways of thinking about complementarities between international and local actors. So how to move forward?
We work for two agencies: CAFOD and Basmeh and Zeitooneh (B&Z); respectively an INGO ‘signatory’ and a national NGO ‘endorser’ of the Charter For Change. Like others, we are trying to move fast and learn about what might work in a localised COVID response. Obviously we don’t have all the answers, but we have identified the following entry-points for donors, UN agencies and INGOs:
Support the role of civil society in national health capacity strengthening and conflict contexts
Global pandemics require multilateral action and government leadership. For this reason, some donors emphasise a ‘systems strengthening’ approach in support of state institutions. So what role for local civil society in this?
Firstly, we need to promote a more comprehensive understanding of national health systems, and the contribution of NGOs to this. Take Jordan for example. There another local partner of CAFOD – Caritas Jordan – has supported the Ministry of Health on both health policy at national level and provision of primary healthcare through Caritas-run clinics. A fragmented approach would be counterproductive. Just like in donor countries, so too countries in the global south have a mixed provision of health services by public, private and voluntary sectors. So we need to build on what works in each context – a ‘national health infrastructure’ effort. Caritas Jordan has raised funds from the Catholic community to support COVID-19 response efforts, and stands ready to work in support of a joint approach to this.
Secondly, we need to recognise the role of local NGOs in contexts where there is civil conflict, where the government and UN may not have access to parts of the country. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo for example. Catholic health structures (‘Bureau Diocésain des Oeuvres Médicales’) manage 40 percent of the country’s health system, and have a presence in hard-to-reach areas. In the context of the recent Ebola crisis, faith-based organisations played important roles in the response, but many of them were not able to access UN funding until late in the response (some only after a year), and then only shorter-term, inflexible grants. All this played out in a context of violent conflict between the central government, local political actors and armed groups, which spread and shaped rumours about the virus and the response. Opportunities to address the fears people had about Ebola and the response to it were missed. Backlash against the Ebola response grew and, tragically, lives were lost – both frontline aid workers and community members who did not receive the information and support they needed from sources they trusted.
Recognise the importance of community engagement on COVID, and civil society’s role in this, alongside the medical response
Another lesson from the DRC Ebola response was the negative consequences of belated attention to community engagement. Those actors best-placed to communicate public health guidance in ways that make sense in terms of local social norms are often local NGOs, like faith-based groups, which do not benefit from strategic partnerships with UN agencies or institutional donors.
The situation in Lebanon as COVID-19 spreads certainly highlights the important contributions that local NGOs can make on this front. In Shatila Camp, for example, Basmeh & Zeitooneh opened its first community centre in 2013. The fragile security situation of the camp, with its complex political dynamics, the presence of opposing factions depending on each neighbourhood, and the absence of Lebanese authorities render it complicated for the majority of INGOs to gain the trust of the local population and authorities. B&Z has won the trust of the camp and steadily gained access, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. In doing so, its staff have built an in-depth understanding and of social, political and humanitarian dynamics, including a database on vulnerability and protection issues, which will be of critical importance to COVID response.
For example, the low levels of awareness about Coronavirus in Shatila Camp and an unwillingness to practice social distancing observed over recent days needs to be understood in the context of how residents live their lives. The overwhelming lack of social protection coverage means that people cannot lay down their work for even a few days, let alone weeks. Likewise their response to the crisis is shaped by information sources they have access to, and which messages and rumours are spread by the local authorities and others. Local organisations understand these dynamics, and can design programmes in response.
Have local NGOs at the table when risk management is discussed in the COVID response
Amongst those most at risk in the Coronavirus epidemic will be frontline responders, including local NGO staff and volunteers. One of the most obvious risks is that to the safety and good health of local NGO staff. If a health-worker in donor countries falls sick in the course of their work, it is unimaginable that they would not receive medical assistance. For many local NGO staff and volunteers, both in Lebanon and elsewhere, they risk their health and life everyday without guarantees on health insurance. So it’s important that clear understandings between international agencies and their partners are reached on duty of care, as well as between local NGOs and their staff.
Given the fast pace and uncertainty of the COVID crisis, another risk faced by local NGOs is the potential for both longer-term programmes, and new COVID projects, to be suspended or pressure to shift their focus quickly. Recent years has brought progress in donors providing flexible, longer-term funding to UN agencies and a handful of INGOs, but benefits of this have largely not been passed onto local NGOs.
Happily there are some good practices to build on. For example, B&Z benefits from a flexible approach by some of its INGO partners, which enables us to adapt and redirect our programming rapidly after the lockdown was announced in Lebanon – including support for rent, food and hygiene interventions, as well as adapting our approach to protection, legal counselling and awareness-raising. Being able to keep staff on-board, despite current projects being suspended, has enabled us to work with them identifying new skills they need in the COVID-19 response. Staff are already producing online materials and planning safe approaches to field work in the face of the epidemic. As we head towards the month’s end (reporting period for many), flexibility to adapt current programmes needs to be matched by new and additional funds for the COVID response. This must not come at the expense of existing programmes addressing on-going humanitarian needs.
We therefore believe local NGOs need to be at the table in conversations between donors, UN agencies and INGOs about how to effectively mitigate risks in the COVID-19 response. One major concern here is that some donors have shifted in recent years towards large commercial contracts with for-profit contract managers, who then sub-grant to INGOs and local NGOs. This has often led to those contract-holders acting as ‘gate-keepers’ in the relationship between the participating agencies and with the donor, which is contrary to the partnership approach essential for risk-sharing. Local NGOs are best-placed to talk through the challenges they face and identify practical responses to these.
In response to all this, CAFOD is also reviewing how it can maximise its flexibility and responsiveness to local partners efforts to adapt and respond in the crisis. This has included allocating a significant amount of our flexible funding raised from Catholic communities in the UK to a small grants facility to support COVID efforts by our partners, alongside our longer-term support to them.
Local NGOs need to benefit from longer-term and flexible funding, including adequate support for overhead costs to cover safety, health insurance and other risk management priorities. All of this needs to be packaged with support for capacity-strengthening to acquire the new skills, technology and equipment required to meet the new kinds of risks – known and unknown – that the Coronavirus presents. This should include support for ‘capacity-sharing’ approaches where local, national and regional actors are supported to identify their own training needs and ‘south – south’ training, mentoring, learning and research.
Prioritise the impacts of COVID on protection, human rights and civil society space
The Coronavirus epidemic is already worsening protection risks facing vulnerable sections of society
Fears, rumours and misinformation about the virus get fuelled by underlying social and political tensions. Local organisations have a key role to play in addressing and mitigating this.
In Lebanon, for example, tensions are shaped by the stigma and discrimination faced by refugees living in informal settlements and overcrowded areas. A hugely important factor for refugees is the fear of being deported back to Syria if they contract the virus, which has already caused some to not seek health assistance. In parts of the country, refugees have been under strict confinement for three weeks already; imposed long before the wider lockdown. Residents of informal camps are told to stay at home, with only one person per camp (the chawiche) allowed seek supplies for other residents. They often struggle to find adequate, basic food and hygiene materials; with markets disrupted and prices increasing due to COVID, which come on top of a prior economic crisis in the country. Intra-Lebanese tensions have also risen; fuelled by misinformation and fake news. Trust in UN agencies is variable, and often shaped by whether individuals have received assistance from the UN or not, as well as their treatment by UN agency staff. Local NGOs have roles to play in engaging local leaders and communities to counter rumours and spread the correct information to at-risk populations. But this wont happen if they are not provided with quality funding to do so.
In the wider Middle East region, Latin America and elsewhere, some governments have passed emergency measures, which threaten the space for civil society to operate and risk eroding human rights protections (eg intrusive surveillance operations). This risks compromising the ability of local NGOs to undertake protection activities, such as legal work to protect the rights of vulnerable populations. Donors, UN agencies and others need to take proactive steps to promote government strategies that are proportionate, non-discriminatory and in compliance with human rights and refugee protection norms. CAFOD, for example, is looking at how to adapt its longer-term support to human rights defenders on these issues; including raising concerns with Foreign Affairs departments, UN human rights monitoring mechanisms and rapporteurs.
Blog by Noor Lekkerkerker, Head of Advocacy and Research, Basmeh and Zeitooneh, and Howard Mollett, Head of Humanitarian Policy, CAFOD