As the COVID pandemic spread around the world a significant natural experiment took place in the Pacific. The vast majority of non-Pacific international aid workers, technical specialists and diplomats returned to their home countries. Preliminary findings of a real-time monitoring exercise of the effects on development and humanitarian organisations and their ways of working are revealing some interesting shifts. But will they last?
New spaces for local leadership have emerged
National actors report that the reduced physical presence of international aid workers has enlarged their space for local leadership and seen them exercise greater influence over decision-making. More than three quarters of survey respondents agree or strongly agree that the experience of the pandemic will strengthen locally-led response and programming in the future.
In the humanitarian sector, these changes were also apparent in responses to tropical cyclone Harold a powerful storm that caused widespread destruction in the region in April 2020. Local actors took the lead on policy decisions and in meetings that are traditionally dominated by international staff in this part of the world. This visibility is important to gaining further authority and confidence.
Women had a stronger and more visible role in the response than in other recent disasters. As COVID-19 was primarily a public health response where women are highly represented, they played a critical response role and an empowering one in the Pacific. The response also drew attention to women’s socio-economic roles in ensuring community cohesion and mobilisation of communal resilience structures. This represents a shift away from the more typical male dominated ‘command and control’ mode of cyclone response to one that emphasises skills and experience in engagement and communication. The greater use of social media, such as Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, also created more informal space for women’s engagement.
Pacific Islanders also perceive a changed work environment. They report that this has meant more relational and culturally appropriate ways of working, including: meetings being held in local languages; more systematic inclusion of prayers at the beginning and end of meetings; and generally less formality. They speak of a more relaxed atmosphere, with more laughter and less sense of surveillance. Moreover, Pacific Islanders point to reduced need to negotiate their professional and personal lives, for instance, with children more commonly present in offices after school. They also noted Increased levels of communication and collaboration between Pacific Islander staff, within organisations and across organisations, as competition between agencies reduces.
The empowerment being reported nonetheless still reverberates with legacies of colonial approaches to aid practice. Some Pacific Islanders working in international agencies note a nervousness to step into leadership roles because of a fear that their leadership must resemble the model established by international managers, and that they will not be supported if they fail by those measures. Respondents spoke about a continuing ‘colonisation of the mind,’ worrying that they are unable to match the expertise of expatriates, even when they know this is not the case.
Remote support has worked where strong relationships and trust were already in place
According to a regional survey conducted as part of this exercise by the localization technical working group of the Pacific Resilience Partnership, 70% of respondents believe that there has been an increase in remote support i.e. online mentoring, technical assistance etc. However, the proportion of international and regional organisations that held this perception is higher than the proportion of national and local organisations. This difference highlights how the ‘digital divide’ and other hierarchies still affect the aid system.
Interviews with national and local actors reveal strong approval of remote support. Many interviewees note that it is useful to have assistance available at the end of the phone, or for short-term assistance, rather than creating the relationships of dependency which come from technical assistance being based full-time in Pacific offices.
It was suggested that international staff can provide effective and valued remote support, but past relationships, strong cultural and country understanding, and trust are vital. All of which require experience in the region and prior relationships built on past experience to work well. Paradoxically of course all these attributes flow from physical presence.
International remote support was also valued for allowing local actors to get on with the job and ‘buffer’ them from the compliance demands of international project management systems. But sometimes the preference for remote support was simply expressed as a rejection of control: ‘We don’t need white people hovering over us.’
Local humanitarian organisations report receiving more funding but most money still goes through international mechanisms
Sixty-six per cent of national and local actors in the Pacific report receiving an increase in funding in the wake of COVID-19, and 61% of national or local actors report new partnerships with other organisations. During the Red Cross response to Tropical Cyclone Harold and COVID-19 in April 2020, approximately 60–80% of funding went directly to the National Red Cross Societies, in part due to much lower implementation costs through reduced international surge personnel and travel. Beyond the Red Cross, however, the response saw international donor funding remaining international NGO-centric and was difficult, if not impossible, for local actors to access. Other reports identified that the international humanitarian system reverted to funding through large multilateral agencies with little funds trickling to frontline responders. And little change to a system where the amount of direct funding to local organisations remains at 2.1% of total humanitarian funding globally, despite the 2016 Grand Bargain commitment of 25%.
Making the most of the window?
Our preliminary findings point to some common features across both humanitarian and development agencies in the Pacific, which are consistent with other research on non-aid initiatives in the region. Crises often shine a bright light on power relations and inequality. In particular, it seems that the natural experiment of the withdrawal of expatriates has created unforeseen dynamics which are of interest and significance. All of which raise questions about pre-pandemic ways of working.
As the sector shifts back into a COVID-normal state, international actors will begin to return to the Pacific. A new natural experiment will begin. We are presented with a valuable window of opportunity to adopt new practices which learn from and build on the positive adaptations made over the past year. One fear expressed by several participants was that this opportunity might be missed in the rush to return to ‘normal.’ In all sectors, questions are being asked about how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed ways of working for the better (whilst recognising that some have changed for the worse) and therefore what features need to be retained. Our real-time monitoring of events and experiences in the Pacific strongly suggests that the humanitarian and development sectors need to engage in similar analysis at both individual agency and collective levels.