While OECD countries are still working to contain the far reaching consequences of COVID-19 at home, policymakers are stepping up to help developing country partners. Many OECD countries, multilateral institutions and international organizations have committed funds – and more announcements are coming every day.
While these efforts provide hope, as evaluators, we worry that the pressure for urgent action can lead to critical missteps. Evidence from past interventions during global or regional crises has shown that not all well-intended actions are effective. What is most important, and at the same time most challenging, is striking the right balance between quick and flexible responses on the one hand, and coordination, quality planning and context-sensitivity on the other hand.
Efforts should be informed by lessons from the past, including the plentiful evidence from evaluations of other relief efforts (such as the synthesis, “Addressing the novel coronavirus” by the Independent Evaluation Office of the ADB). Moreover, we strongly recommend that all upcoming humanitarian and development assistance responses be accompanied by high-quality results monitoring, evaluation and research. Ignoring past evidence and failing to invest in generating credible new evidence about what is and is not working, in which contexts and for whom, may well cost lives.
Lessons for effective development cooperation
Thankfully, evaluations of responses to recent epidemics (SARS, Ebola, Avian Influenza) and natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, provide key lessons for policymakers facing these challenges today. Based on past failures and successes, and on what we have seen emerging in the early days of the COVID-19 response, we think the following four lessons are of particular relevance:
- Donor coordination schemes – with enough clout to make decisions and steer actions – are crucial for effectiveness and efficiency. Even in normal times, the proliferation of projects and donor fragmentation is a burden on local capacities in poor nations. In times of crises, any additional fragmentation by NGOs, bilateral agencies and multilateral organizations, will do serious harm.
- Development partners should engage with political leadership at the national level and foster ownership at the local level. These are crucial for obtaining context-specific solutions and to avoid undermining effective home-grown responses. Only if political elites neglect the challenges of the crisis and are clearly not committed to basic human right standards, should bypassing state structures and cooperating with (local) NGOs only, be the strategy of choice.
- Development partners and governments must communicate transparently and consistently to the local population and allow for deliberation among stake-holders and community groups about the costs and benefits (and unknowns) of different options. Increasing legitimacy through transparent and reliable communication has been proven to be critical for active disease surveillance and for cushioning the effects of natural disasters. Moreover, access to information enables affected people to define and demand accountability and it allows them to plan their own recovery.
- Institutions can strategically align and transition between humanitarian assistance and longer-term cooperation for resilient, country-owned health systems. Evaluations of the Ebola response in West Africa found that too often assistance was ended abruptly and in an uncoordinated manner, undermining short term gains and the broader health system. In our interconnected world, global public health is as strong as its weakest (national) link. Thus, development assistance providers should work with partner governments to design proper exit strategies. External players such as international NGO’s and international organizations should transform themselves from delivery agents to enablers, monitors and advocates.
If these relevant and applicable lessons from past experiences and evaluations are taken into account, we believe that the effectiveness and relevance of current efforts will increase substantially.
To support this process, development partners and national and sub-national governments should already now begin by investing in sound data, monitoring and evaluation systems. After all, these take time to build, whilst legitimate questions about fiduciary risks and policy effectiveness will arise almost immediately. This need not be laborious, but must get the basics right to enable accountability and learning as we move forward. It involves clearly defining our goals (such as, expanding treatment capacities), gathering baseline data (how many ventilators are available now) and ensuring sufficient capacities to track outcomes (the ratio of ventilators to people who need them; access for people in vulnerable groups). It also involves starting rigorous impact analyses as soon as possible, tracking how COVID-19 related support is impacting different people, and guarding against unintended negative effects.
As evaluators we have three roles: advising on how best to measure and monitor, providing high-quality evidence, and making evidence and lessons much more accessible to today’s policymakers. In the OECD-DAC Evaluation Network, we are reviewing past lessons – such as those highlighted here – to produce an evidence-based policy brief. We are also working with our members and our partners in the UN and multilateral evaluation units, to launch a COVID-19 evaluation coalition to provide an independent, credible assessment of progress and results and coordinate efforts.