How NGOs and international organisations will adapt beyond the pandemic

Authors: Jece Shunmugam
  • Reading time: 7 min.
  • Posted on: June 2, 2020

Ed Fletcher, our Co-MD, was joined by Andrew Griffiths of SightsaversMartha Mackenzie of UNICEF, and Vishnee Sauntoo of Age International, to discuss how the crisis had shaped their communications, the opportunity for international cooperation, and how the Sustainable Development Goals are now more important than ever.

So what did we learn?

Response, recovery AND reimagine

Our panellists started the discussion by exploring whether enough was being done to adopt a cohesive narrative by the international community. Andrew Griffiths spoke of the discord between the international development community’s strategy to responding to the crisis versus its strategy to recovering from it. 

He proposed that the international development sector had formed a cohesive response narrative that quickly responded to the changing environment they were operating in; and that donors were being incredibly supportive and flexible to the changing needs on the ground. However, he pointed out that the current recovery strategy and narrative is focusing more on getting back to where we were, instead of recognising adaptation is what will be required in order to continue progress.

Martha Mackenzie echoed this, highlighting that the international community must also seek to “reimagine” the future beyond the crisis, and come together to build a better, bigger and bolder vision for the world. 

Within this, there’s a key takeaway around positioning the post-Covid world narrative as a hopeful opportunity to rebuild (and reimagine) society and learn from our mistakes, as hard as that may be to visualise right now. With so much of the public consciousness dominated by uncertainty and anxiety, laying out a vision of hope is crucial to inspiring people that there is a future beyond this pandemic. 

Timing is everything

Whilst it was broadly agreed that in many countries now was not the right time to start shifting the public narrative to the international impact of the pandemic, there wasn’t firm agreement as to when that moment would be. Vishnee Sauntoo highlighted that the crisis has made fundraising within the UK particularly difficult with many segments of the population, particularly those in areas most heavily affected by the virus. This despite the fact that many of the social countermeasures that have been put in place across the nation simply wouldn’t be possible overseas. 

In warzones, the realities are different. You can’t socially distance. If people can’t work, people will starve. 

Vishnee Sauntoo, Age International

One suggestion to address this difficult situation was by positioning work being carried out internationally to tackle the pandemic as an extension of the domestic mobilisation. By building a narrative that is inclusive rather than in isolation helps to remind the public that this pandemic is having a global impact, and solidarity can be found in that. 

As the UK ‘pandemic moment’ begins to ease, Age International is also driving the wider narrative around the vulnerability of older people, harnessing it to advocate for this group’s inclusion in humanitarian response plans. Whereas women and children are usually prioritised in emergency scenarios, perhaps this will be a turning point for acknowledging the risk older people face. That being said, it was pointed out that the poorest and most vulnerable children  may be the “hidden victims” of this pandemic, with education halted and family care systems debilitated – two of the potential knock-on effects that UNICEF’s acutely aware of. 

Another suggestion coming out of this is that if we start to position the pandemic as a series of horrific moments, rather than a perpetual, endless crisis, we can start to contextualise the public’s experience, and recognise there is a time limit, albeit a significant one. Evidence suggests we can even start nudging the public towards a more global perspective as the spotlight of the pandemic moves away from the UK. 

Cooperation & trust

Martha expressed optimism around the future of international cooperation. Although the pandemic came in the midst of another crisis – that of cooperation – she noted it has brought attention to the importance of a unified, international response to global emergencies.

Looking to the future, the world got very small – very local; we existed in a very small way. But it also got big, very quickly, as we recognised how interconnected we all are.

Martha Mackenzie, UNICEF

Martha also questioned the perception that the public cannot be swayed when it comes to development, highlighting that with the right messaging and interventions, people can be nudged towards it. This assertion was supported by recent data from Charities Aid Foundation showing that public sentiment to international aid remains high, and from the Development Engagement Lab, which found that COVID-19 has led more people to think about issues in a global context.

There was also discussion about how the pandemic presented an unanticipated opportunity to rebuild public trust in the international development sector following years of scandals and enquiries. At a macro level too, Mackenzie highlighted that there has been a resurgence in the desire for a cohesive, international community, which presents an opportunity for institutions like the UN to bring governments together and build support for global cooperation. 

SDGs as the glue to bind us together

To draw the discussion to a close, our Ed questioned the panel about where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lie within the road to recovery and reimagination. Andrew – who alongside his role at Sightsavers, also co-chairs the Bond SDG Group – echoed the need for international cooperation and suggested that the SDGs are the best and most comprehensive framework for international cooperation. 

The SDGs are the best framework we have. They describe a trajectory of sustainable development, something to be excited about: good lives and a healthy planet. 

Andrew Griffiths, Sightsavers

He emphasised that the SDG framework is best placed to think about complicated challenges in a post-COVID world, from climate change to gender equality. But they should not be seen in isolation, and future responses cannot be either an SDG-informed approach or COVID-approach, but rather exist as one.

The full discussion is available to view below. The #GreatAdaptation is a series of fireside discussions created by Shape History to bring together social impact leaders, NGOs, institutions, and humanitarian organisations on some of the most pressing issues facing the sector and how we can build resilience for the future. Find out more here.

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