COVID-19 and the curious case of development sector un-partnerships

The key principle for the development in dealing with the global pandemic should not be rationality but equity

By Pradeep Narayanan, Sowmyaa Bharadwaj
Published: Monday 27 April 2020
COVID-19 and the curious case of development sector un-partnerships. Photo: Pradeep Kumar

The novel coronavirus disease outbreak (COVID-19) and resultant lockdowns have created circumstances unfamiliar to most across the world. The universality of the impact has brought in ramifications for the non-profit sector as well.  

The sector is dabbling with precarious decision-making about the fate of development projects: Many require scaling up, others have to be reviewed, some overhauled and yet others called off altogether. 

The global pandemic has created circumstances where every funding or programmatic decision is intrinsically related to the survival of individuals, entities like non-government organisations (NGO), even communities.

Weighing heavily under the decision to be reviewed, overhauled or called off is the essence of partnerships at three levels — among organisations / NGOs; between organisations and communities that they work with and; among the communities themselves. In these challenging times, the set of values and principles, which each stands for and boasts of, is compromised. 

This last month has witnessed a mixed bag of scenarios related to the fate of organisations working in the non-profit sector. There has been a range of positive scenarios that donor/ funding agencies have demonstrated with respect to NGOs they fund. This includes: 

  1. A project getting over on March 31, 2020 — the donor extended it by three months, primarily for teams and partner organisations to tide over the crisis.
  2. A project where permission to divert (deviate from the original plan) some existing allocations on certain programmes to provide relief in these difficult times to the communities the project work with was granted easily.
  3. A project, supposed to start April 2020 was not shelved, but allowed to begin later. This ensured a greater role for community peers, so that its members could access certain resources such as wages and honorarium, rather than just relief.

On the other hand, there have been some diametrically different, negative scenarios, which donor / funder organisations have imposed. Some of these include: 

  1. A project being called off because it was entirely field-based, or being suspended with immediate effect, until further notice.
  2. A project scheduled to end in March 2020 being terminated abruptly with no space for renegotiation, stranding the team members without the ability to apply for another job.
  3. A project funded by CSR funds that had a verbal commitment for extension that is now being told it would not be funded as the related funds have been reallocated to other sources such as government funds. 
  4. A project in the pipeline has been unceremoniously shelved.
  5. An ongoing, longer-term project is being reconsidered, causing enormous fund insecurities among the organisation, its staff and wider communities they work with.
  6. A project (the NGO implementing the programme) has conveyed their inability to divert existing resources for relief unless there is commitment of further resources from the donor.

If one goes into merely rational decision-making principles, almost every scenario can be justified under the current pandemic circumstances, given the universality of the uncertainty and struggle.

The key principle, here though, should not be rationality but equity — presumably the bane of each organisation’s existence. Of the two things to consider here, the first is that the impact of the pandemic is not similar on all organisations, staff within organisations, communities at the margins and those affected by various forms of vulnerabilities within communities.

It is not difficult to identify who is on the margins — the decision-making system, if dissected, would provide anybody with some understanding about who is excluded from the system and who is excluded because of structural reasons even though there may be token representation.

Second, related to, but in addition to the above, is that the burden of the cost of the pandemic on the decisions related to the project — such as its closure, modification or continuation — should not be disproportionately experienced by different organisations, individuals, communities. 

It is important to ask whether the decision related to any NGO project’s continuation or closure has been made keeping equity considerations in mind. In other words, the burden of the decision should not be disproportionately borne by the powerless in the partnership.

Powerlessness is basically around those at the margins who do not have space in decision-making, especially in the domains that are of existential nature. For example, the conceptualisation and financing domains of any NGO project are largely centralised and lie with very key persons (heads of the NGO and senior management).

It is possible that the burden is higher for those organisations at the grassroots level and, in fact, those at intermediate levels have the burden of implementing unpleasant decisions at their level and the level below.

It is also possible that those at intermediate levels, in order to protect themselves, pass on the burden to the ground. In all these, of course the communities have the least say. 

In this decision-making about the fate of the future of NGOs and their programmes, a parallel narrative being perpetuated by decision-makers / donors and funders is that of “transparency”.

There is invariably an email that describes in tremendous detail the nature of the problem, followed by democratic discussions — but in each discussion what is reiterated is that the project would not be extended.

These emails are subsequently shared as evidence of the high standards of transparency and accountability — with a failure to recognise that one is being transparently unethical.

The need of the hour and a demand from every constituent member, formal and informal, of any partnership, is a white paper that clearly indicates the projected loss owing to the lockdown.

Each donor / funder must also detail how those losses are distributed across partners. The rationale of distribution of loss should be clearly specified and must align with the principles of just, fair and equitable partnerships.

It is also important that (a) this process itself is anchored by a third party, independent of existing partners; and (b) this process has the space for listening to the voices of those at margins. 

To conclude, the following are necessary assumptions and non-negotiable principles that need to be kept in mind in decision-making on continuance, modification or severance of projects. 

Necessary assumptions

  • The impact of the pandemic is not similar for all
  • The burden of the decision will be borne disproportionately by the powerless in the partnership
  • While ownership of the project should be with the community, the true ‘ownership’ and decision-making often lies with financiers / NGO and donors
  • Organisations often become concerned with their own survival over the survival of the communities they work with

Non-negotiable principles

  • Being transparently unethical does not make an entity ethical
  • Details on the cost burden of COVID-19 with respect to project vis-à-vis different stakeholders should be shared, ensuring a space for genuine discussion for those excluded and on the margins 
  • The burden of the cost of the project has to be borne proportionally by all the stakeholders. None should be disproportionately affected.
  • The project vision about community well-being should govern decision-making 

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