In a public health crisis like COVID-19, the first step is emergency response. Hospitals need supplies, and people need access to care. But what often gets lost until those initial concerns subside is the economic crisis that follows. Past outbreaks, such as Ebola in West Africa in 2014, have devastated economies and livelihoods in the developing world. Even as the current pandemic rages, global development organizations can help ensure that economic recovery begins now.
While it’s too early to know exactly how this pandemic will play out, the full trajectory of COVID-19 will be different in different parts of the world. The economic effects will also vary from region to region. According to a McKinsey & Company report, GDP growth may drop three to eight percentage points this year in Africa, where countries already face constrained health systems and widespread poverty.
Despite the uncertainties, what is clear now is COVID-19’s threat to food security, as it strains supply chains and prevents agricultural activity. We need a long-term approach to economic development that recognizes the role of market actors in responding to periodic shocks and supporting recovery.
The Value of Existing Relationships
What many development organizations have to offer now is social capital. Through years of development programming, my organization, ACDI/VOCA, has built relationships with global communities based on trust and reliability. This relationship of trust extends not only to community members, but also to the traders and suppliers who together form value chains in those economies.
During the Ebola outbreak, ACDI/VOCA implemented programs in Liberia and Sierra Leone funded by the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Food for Peace. It quickly became clear that the only way to achieve our long-term development goals was to complement them with emergency aid.
Relationships are key to the rapid startup of emergency programming; they are also key to identifying those most vulnerable in a crisis. The existing networks we had allowed us to reach remote populations and communicate accurate health information.
They also allowed us to reach women and girls, who are most at risk during a pandemic or other disaster. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, our programs targeted female heads of households who traditionally care for the family’s health and nutrition needs. Community engagement, gender sensitization, and safeguarding were important to the programs’ successes in providing resources to those who could not participant in normal market activities. With gender-based violence on the rise and more care burdens falling on women and girls, now is the time to address COVID-19’s gender-specific shocks.
Leveraging the Power of the Private Sector
What we need now is a rapid assessment of COVID-19’s impact on market systems and food security, and strategies to strengthen those systems. And to be sustainable, development organizations must engage the private sector. Private sector investment has the power to stabilize market prices and supply chains.
During Ebola, our programs in Liberia and Sierra Leone engaged the private sector through agricultural input fairs. Companies sold discounted seeds and other critical inputs to farmers who needed to prepare for the next agricultural production season and could no longer rely on empty-handed local lenders. The fairs were designed to increase the availability of food and stabilize prices, without displacing the relationships established between communities and suppliers, thus helping mitigate the negative impact of Ebola on an already tenuous food system.
During COVID-19, we are seeing similar threats to the agriculture sector. In Bangladesh, our Feed the Future program has begun relaying private sector concerns about supply chain bottlenecks with the aim of having restrictions on certain imports waived. The program is also helping transporters obtain permits to deliver food aid to rural areas in lockdown. Program staff are shifting activities toward providing small grants to local individuals, especially women and youth, for supply chain, transport, and local market activities.
Moving Forward with Optimism and Realism
Vice Admiral James Stockdale once said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” This Stockdale Paradox is not unlike the need to prioritize both immediate emergency aid and longer-term economic development at the same time.
With continued support to developing countries and those most at risk, we can achieve both our immediate and longer-term objectives. All we need is the discipline to confront the current reality of the pandemic and the vision and optimism to continue addressing the needs of long-term economic and social development – both at the same time.
Charles J. Hall is the President and CEO of ACDI/VOCA.