Thinking and Working Politically in the Times of COVID-19: Recognizing and Capturing Opportunities

Jul 17, 2020 by Sarah Swift Comments (2)

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?  

What is One Health?

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. 

Cape Town Together

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

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

Young people in China campaigning for freedom of speech and accusing the government of hiding the truth about COVID-19.

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.  


COVID-19: Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Issues and Potential USAID Responses 


Sadly COVID 19 has exposed how flatf-ooted most development parnters and projects are. In all of the PEAs I have worked on we advise to be prepared for the next crisis and use it to advance policy priorities. However, when I surveyed previous clients' projects including those financed by USAID, the EU, DfID and the UN systems the vast majority were too busy hunkering down than to take advantage of opportunities.   

And what big opportunities there are: Bangladesh and the Philippines for example have authorised stimulus spending the equivalent of 50% of annual domestic revenue - Malaysia even more so allocating more than a 100% of annual revenue to stiumulus in response to COVID and low oil prices. In South Africa, the government has banned sales of cigarettes and limited access to alcohol - alcohol related violence and risky sexual behaviour is a serious contributor to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Now is the opporutnity to talk about domesitc revenue - for example Bangladesh undertaxes and underfinances social services and that is why there is little access to health care. Now is the time to talk about structural drivers of social and economic problems like Bangladesh and Philippines' dependence on breaking up families to send migrants abroad. But, most development partners are too busy treating this as just another crisis - sadly our short term institutional incentives to demonstrate that we are effective humanitarians has swamped the space for thinking and working politically. We are missing the biggest opportunity to rewrite the rules of the game in a generation because we are too busy trying to get visibility rather than mobilising our resources for beihind the scenes advocacy to advantage our long term developmental goals.

Finally, COVID and Debbie Birx have exposed a major failing in the response to AIDS in Southern Africa. Instead of doing contact tracing and ensuring protection for vulnerable girls, the global community including Debbie Birx have opted for a biomedical approach that has simply transformed a fifth of the population into chronic care patients. Like with COVID, the answe to pandemics is prevention not treatment - and before we dismiss this as yesterday's mistake, keep in mind that many experts think the HIV/AIDS crisis is yet to peak in Southern Africa.

Now is the time to recognise that TWP and PEA is about using our influence asd development partners to influence decisions that change the rules of the game. Let us not waste this opportunity on latgely humanitarian publicity stunts that suck all the air out of the room and de facto silence advocates for change.


posted A year ago

I would agree with Alexander O'Riordan about how Covid has exposed the frailities and short-comings in development partners and projects. But to be frank, this is not confined to our efforts to solve chronic problems of the south. Consider the recernt blog from a true champion of my sector - water, sanitaiton and hygiene - Val Curtis, who is dying of cancer and reflects on the impact of a decade of austerity on our National Health Service (NHS) in the UK. It is a picture of a failing system, starved of sufficient funding and poltiical priositisation which has slowly been unravelling - now with the effects of COvid-19 this is all to clear. Please take the time to read her account which is both heartbreaking and inspiring

Harold Lockwood

posted A year ago