There are six areas that the U.S. government should focus on in order to lead a successful pandemic response globally. One of these critical areas is working directly with local governments and civil society organizations. With transportation routes closed and supply chains disrupted, U.S. assistance must be leveraged to help communities protect their own health and economies. A successful COVID-19 response will require effective local solutions that engage both governments and local civil society organizations in the decision-making process.
Local governments and organizations are the most knowledgeable about the needs in their communities and the landscape for addressing those needs. Nearly every country has developed a national level response plan to the COVID-19 crisis. National level plans should be used by donors, including the U.S, to align and coordinate assistance with the plans and priorities of the national and local governments. This isn’t always how the U.S. operates. During the 2014 Ebola crisis, Oxfam found that increased funding was not aligned to national recovery plans, leaving governments unable to accurately plan and manage the crisis. Currently, it’s hard to tell if and how U.S. development agencies are coordinating and aligning their work with country-led efforts. Alignment takes time, and as a result, U.S. officials may instead opt to modify existing programs to address the new challenge.
Collaboration can be effective to directly tackle the most pressing needs of communities affected by the pandemic. In Pakistan, the International Rescue Committee, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other partners, are working with the government to make supplementary reading learning materials widely and freely available on the government education websites to benefit early grade students, teachers, and parents to continue learning. This project is also supporting Tele School, an educational TV channel initiated in Pakistan by the Ministry of Federal Education & Professional Training to support students staying home during the COVID-19 crisis.
Working with and through nationally led efforts can also help the U.S. identify and target those who might be missed. In the Philippines, the government has COVID-19 National Action Plan anchored on four-pronged approach to mitigate the consequences and social, economic and security impact of COVID-19. Yet, local civil society groups point out that the plan doesn’t sufficiently consider the informal economy, the different needs of women, and the complexity of the situations confronting people living in conflict areas. Better local coordination could help donors complement the existing planning processes that are seen as incomplete or better integrate views of communities left out of the current discussion.
Working through local organizations is another way that the U.S. government can maximize efficiency and effectiveness of the pandemic response. This is both a critical component of meeting immediate needs during the crisis, and of building the capacity of local organizations. Working with and strengthening the capacity of local entities will help build long-term resilience and sustainable development.
Local organizations, with the support and guidance from INGOs, are already making strides combating the virus in their own communities. For example, in Myanmar, Caritas in Kachin State (KMSS) have set up handwashing facilities in camps for internally displaced people and converted facilities into quarantine and isolation centers. In Lebanon, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart provided education materials to Syrian refugee children amid school closures. Teachers now come to the center individually and prepare materials to distribute using the program’s buses. In Albania, Caritas Albania adapted its emergency distribution of food and living supplies to include hygiene items and COVID-19 prevention tips for 600 families who have been living in tents since the November 2019 earthquake. These are just a few of many examples of local organizations stepping up to meet the needs of their communities.
Unfortunately, so far, only a small percentage of U.S. pandemic response funds have been channeled to local organizations. To maximize American impact, the U.S. Agency for International Development should simplify and fast-track these partnerships. To do so, USAID should simplify proposal processes and requirements and accelerate procurement and acquisition instruments to create more space for local organizations to respond. INGOs should be encouraged and incentivized to provide greater technical support to local actors and donors should ensure that local institutions have strategies and funding to mitigate risk.
The United States, supported by funding from Congress and leadership from the administration, has the potential to lead the world in global pandemic response. Given the challenges of the moment, the pandemic is the ultimate opportunity to leverage the power of local organizations for an optimally effective response.