Thinking and Working Politically in the Times of COVID-19: Recognizing and Capturing Opportunities
Sarah Swift is a Democracy Officer, Cross Sectoral Programming Division, USAID's Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance
“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger--but recognize the opportunity.” -John F. Kennedy
“What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for?” -Leslie Dwight
We are living an era of crisis, and I am not one to compartmentalize.
The dangers are multiple. Washington, D.C. is reopening its economy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. An extraordinary movement has grown out of the latest, dramatic illustrations of the injustices faced by black Americans, and with it, came unprecedented military presence on streets near my home. I fear both the pandemic’s resurgence and the opportunities for change that would be lost in the absence of action. And with normalcy feeling so far away, I fear for my family relationships, my job satisfaction, and my sanity.
Arguably, my sanity has been the first casualty. Yet, in calmer moments, I recognize what this moment has made possible. My son rushes to join my work meetings, entranced by the sight of himself on camera. He has perfected his technique in “tummy rubbing” our cat. He has created more genius cardboard creations than I ever imagined possible; as a result of his NPR science podcast, he now not only knows what a bacteriologist is, he also wants to be one. And I’ve been able to watch all this.
In work, as with life, I have been trying to remember the opportunities, while keeping the dangers clearly in view. Are there opportunities that were not possible before? Among other things, I wonder if we have a chance to elevate Political Economy Analysis (PEA) and Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) within USAID. PEA and TWP are all about understanding how current events interact with enduring trends and conditions, and together, form space for change. They help you to step back from a situation and to reflect -- ideally in the absence of judgement upon what is -- where incentives may have shifted.
How then, can we use TWP to better understand the forces upon us -- helping us to navigate around the dangers, certainly, but also, to recognize and seize new opportunities?
The threats to USAID’s programming are numerous. Yet, without wishing to minimize the undeniable suffering it is inflicting, it also offers opportunities through its remarkably vivid illustration of just how intimately each individual’s welfare depends on that of everyone else. Small groups of powerful elites are instrumental in perpetuating many of our challenges -- and they have been impacted by COVID as we all have. With the pandemic, could incentives be shifting, making a crack in some of the underlying forces which have limited our efforts in the past?
Thinking and Working Politically in the Time of COVID-19
To explore these questions, I pulled together a small group of willing souls, with a shared interest in PEA/TWP and the desire to probe for any possible silver linings for an initial discussion around “Thinking and Working Politically in the Time of COVID-19: Recognizing and Capturing Opportunities.”
The group, from USAID’s Office of Forestry and Biodiversity, the Office of Health Systems, and USAID Missions in Colombia and Kenya, quickly coalesced around a couple of themes. First, could this moment disrupt barriers to effective collaboration within USAID? With all sectors impacted to varying degrees, the crisis offers the possibility of common language and the potential to shift the way USAID thinks and works as an organization. As a zoonotic disease (which passes to humans from animals or insects), COVID-19 is intimately connected to trade in wildlife. Will this allow a shared understanding to penetrate, namely that such practices threaten not only biodiversity, but also future human health? Could this contribute to a more holistic promotion of health -- sometimes known as “One Health”-- in partner countries, marrying the focus on specific diseases, with a recognition of the importance of the underlying systems -- environmental, social, governance, and others?
Another theme: How can we account for, and manage where appropriate, the further disrupted relationships between citizens and governments in our partner countries? As has been observed in previous disasters, pandemic response is shaping citizen trust in government and other critical institutions. And trust really matters when considering the current and future inclination of people to take recommended precautions: to seek needed healthcare, to accept vaccination once available, to participate appropriately in the economy, or to conform to laws on the wildlife trade. It’s both so important and so fragile -- something I meditate upon often as I pore over the Washington, D.C. government’s COVID-19 data and metrics for reopening and wonder, with so much at stake, do I trust them?
With PEA and TWP as a lens, we can work to maximize the possibility that silver linings are more than a cliche. We begin by working to understand the world that COVID-19 confronted:
What incentives -- formal or informal -- have kept USAID staff in siloed approaches to our work, with lines of communication and work frequently failing to reflect real life?
What has been the underlying relationship between citizens and government in our partner countries? Were these forces static or evolving? How has our work impacted the quality of these relationships?
And then we reflect, with these new circumstances, who may see a shift in their own interests? Are there opportunities to support alliances that may not have been possible before?
Support for New Alliances
In issues large and small it seems like this might just be the case. With the pandemic, elites in many places have seen their ability to travel for health care curtailed. As they confront their new reliance on domestic health services, could increasing investment in those systems be the result? Perhaps. In Nigeria, Africa’s wealthiest man, Aliko Dangote, established the Coalition Against COVID-19, or CACOVID, on March 26, with the mission of mobilizing leadership and resources from the private sector to build the capacity of the health system to respond to the crisis. The coalition achieved a total contributions of $55.7 million for CACOVID in its first two weeks.
Notwithstanding other, more troubling, developments around closing civic space, there are signs of African governments taking an increasingly proactive approach to addressing citizen needs. A majority of African countries have responded to COVID-19 with steps to develop a social safety net for their most vulnerable. Among other government resources dedicated to the COVID-19 response, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa reduced by one-third his salary and those of his ministers, with the funds to be dedicated to economic and social relief measures. This case was referenced by my former colleague, Ashley Quarcoo, as a data point in support of the possibility that COVID-19 could help reduce polarization. In Niger, one of Africa’s poorest countries, the government has assumed responsibility for water and electricity for vulnerable households. In such responses, could there be something to build upon?
Communities have also shown initiative, coalescing in new ways to respond to the pandemic and its impacts. In South Africa, “Cape Town Together”, has spawned more than 70 Community Action Networks, in neighborhoods across the city of Cape Town and the country as a whole. With a focus on racial and economic diversity within their groups, their experiment is around finding ways of not only responding to the current crisis, but seeding transformation that lasts beyond the pandemic.
Children sit waiting to be fed on what is known as “the battlefield”, where rival gangs often clash in Lavender Hill. Gang violence in the area has subsided since a ceasefire was brokered following the shooting of five-year-old Valentino Grootetjie in December last year. Photo: Brenton Geach https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/700/202875.html
And finally, the pandemic has perhaps offered a unique set of opportunities to youth. With every aspect of life -- including civic engagement -- moving online, young people have seen barriers to their own activism reduced. Greater access and renewed motivation has resulted, for one, in the surging activism (online) of Chinese youth. Surely this offers an opportunity to explore: how can we build upon this engagement and, when safe to do so, help it to expand beyond the digital space?
Young people in China campaigning for freedom of speech and accusing the government of hiding the truth about COVID-19. https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/i-have-obligation-speak-dead
As the world changes around us, we agreed this was a space to watch -- to see where opportunities open, as well as close.
In the meantime, the quotes I frequently reference to explain the concepts of PEA and TWP have been repurposed as a series of personal mantras. I smile through virtual presentations when my son climbs into my lap, and imagine that one day, I’ll be able to listen as he explains Thinking and Working Politically to his friends.