Adaptive Leadership in COVID-19 Response

Jun 16, 2020 by Andrew Wells-Dang and Emily Janoch Comments (0)

Like many international humanitarian organizations and donors, CARE International is increasingly employing a politically smart approach to adaptive management throughout our global programs. “Politically smart” means that CARE and our partners engage with changing power dynamics – especially concerning gender and other forms of exclusion – and broker relationships among government, civil society, and business stakeholders. Adaptive management recognizes that we work in complex and volatile contexts with continually shifting needs, barriers and drivers of change. We support locally led program designs that center the voices of people in the communities we serve, with fast feedback loops and “small bets” to manage risk and promote innovation. CARE’s Rapid Gender Analysis (RGA) methodology is based on the understanding that humanitarian response is necessarily imperfect, iterative, and practical.  These efforts align with insights from the Thinking and Working Politically community and the Doing Development Differently manifesto.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing both the ways we work and the content of our programs, as all of CARE’s humanitarian, development and advocacy programs adapt to the new reality of the pandemic. As of June 8, CARE has life-saving humanitarian crisis response and/or COVID-19 adaptations underway in 64 countries; 55 of these countries have completed or are contributing to an RGA, and at least 32 countries are advocating with their national governments to improve their COVID responses. Globally, CARE has reached 9.2 million people with direct COVID-related services and more than 134.2 million people with access to vital information about the crisis. But much more is needed, and to contribute to a larger-scale response and eventual recovery that “builds back equal”, we need to work with others: local and national governments, as well as global organizations and the private sector.

Among the adaptive, politically-smart approaches CARE is taking are the following:

  • Brokering new partnerships: In dozens of countries, CARE is working with local NGOs and other INGOs to influence the UN-led Humanitarian Response Plans. CARE Egypt created a National Initiative for COVID-19, including the National Council for Women (NCW), Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Plan International, and Ministry of Social Solidarity. CARE is also coordinating a committee on gender-based violence (GBV) established under the umbrella of the NCW with six Egyptian women’s rights organizations.
  • Best-fit strategies that support existing government initiatives: In Sierra Leone, CARE has taken a lead role in the Emergency Operations Center with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Freetown City Council, including community influencers in city training events. In Thailand, CARE staff are serving as hotline focal points for COVID-19 information in Myanmar and Cambodian languages. In Sudan, CARE is helping the Ministry of Health access masks and gloves for crucial medical services. And the CARE India team built the information management system that state governments are adopting to manage COVID-19 information.
  • Supporting the voices of women-led organizations: In West Bank/Gaza, CARE is coordinating with women-led organizations to discuss gendered impacts of COVID-19. CARE Honduras is supporting women’s rights organizations to advocate for a law that requires gender equality in the measures that the government is taking to respond to COVID-19.
  • Collaborating creatively: In Bangladesh, the CARE team is working with Skilled Health Entrepreneurs—women in the private sector who charge a small fee for delivering health messages and supplies. In Sri Lanka, Manussakama Pure Water, a social enterprise CARE supports, is marketing self-designed hand-washing basins using oil drums.
  • Generating context-specific evidence—especially about impacts on women: CARE Malawi is working with the government to understand what women need in crisis. In Bangladesh, the team coordinated the national needs assessment process for COVID-19. CARE Ecuador has organized national virtual forums as a basis for policy recommendations to the government. And in Cambodia, CARE is the only organization conducting gender-specific analysis.

There is a lot we still don’t know about the pandemic and its effects in the global South. Findings from a West Africa RGA, as well as in other regions and countries, indicate that for many women, the social and economic impacts of food shortages and livelihood losses outweigh the perceived health risks of COVID-19. GBV rates are rising at rates of up to 33 percent worldwide as women are forced to quarantine together with their abusers. And over the whole situation hangs the specter of a coronavirus spike that could overwhelm the health facilities of poorer countries. In face of these threats, CARE is nevertheless seeing initial positive outcomes from our COVID-19 responses and advocacy:

  • Governments are putting gender at the center of their response. In Malawi, the government is partnering with CARE to conduct an RGA so they can build responses that support women. In Bangladesh, the national needs assessment includes a focus on women and what they need. The European External Action Service, with input from CARE, has released a declaration on Gender, GBV, and sexual and reproductive health on behalf of the EU.
  • Local leaders are mobilizing responses. In Bangladesh, CARE is supporting local administration to set up isolation centers for suspected cases of COVID-19 and to build hand-washing facilities in different crowded locations. In Burkina Faso, health centers are training and supporting community-based health workers to educate others about COVID-19. In Rwanda, the government has mobilized 400 health workers to start contact tracing.
  • Responses are keeping people safe. In Mozambique, the government has adapted all of its distribution processes for goods and cash to respect social distancing.
  • Humanitarian workers can still support people. In countries like Kenya, Ghana, Sudan, and others, governments are re-classifying humanitarian workers as essential staff who can continue their work and support the people who need it most.

Over the coming months, CARE will monitor the progress of our adaptive responses through a bi-weekly global situation report and our suite of advocacy monitoring, evaluation and learning tools. We expect that new challenges will emerge, as both the coronavirus itself and human reactions to it remain highly unpredictable. One thing is certain: COVID-19 is not only a world-shaking health crisis, but also a social and political event with immense consequences. We will need all the approaches and adaptations in our toolbox to keep up with it.