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COVID-19 funding for NGOs: If not now, when?

Local response is delayed at the very time it needs to be a priority.

Louise O'Brien/TNH

When Start Network launched its global COVID-19 fund on 2 April, we received a record number of alerts from our civil society members – 85 calls for rapid preparedness and response activities in 69 countries. Collectively, these alerts identified more than 60 million people in need of immediate assistance – people living on the Myanmar-Thailand border, where the regular flow of migrants is becoming a vector of the disease; people living in urban Haiti, where poor sanitation is driving up infection rates; or street children in Senegal who face starvation during lockdown, when they are unable to forage for food.

These alerts appealed for a total of £20 million ($25 million) from our fund, to be used to distribute protective gear to community health workers, to install handwashing stations in health facilities and marketplaces, to shore up food supply chains by injecting cash into local economies. All activities were deemed urgent, to be implemented in the next 45 days.

Of those 85 alerts, we have been able to fund only 14.

What these alerts tell us is that even before infection rates begin their familiar, steep climb in low-income countries, needs are immediate and overwhelming. And what we know from the frustration of having to turn down more than 70 requests for help is that funding is not going through the right channels, and assistance to these countries is not getting there fast enough.

The time to get money and action to those on the ground is now.

“What we know from the frustration of having to turn down more than 70 requests for help is that funding is not going through the right channels.”

Public and private donors have pledged billions in international aid so far, but the bulk of those billions are being spent through the World Health Organisation, the United Nations system, and the development banks, which are not set up to act with the speed and flexibility coronavirus response requires.

Meanwhile, the NGOs – particularly local NGOs in the affected countries – which offer agility, reach, depth of experience, and frontline access, are left wanting, waiting for these funds to trickle down to them. That process will take weeks, if not months. Crucial community-level activities are being delayed at the very time they need to be a priority.

In 2015, I co-authored a study on the Ebola crisis in West Africa. We concluded that the humanitarian response in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea was “criminally late”, in part because the international aid system was trapped in its bureaucracies, hobbled by politics, and so failed to act quickly. Even after the Ebola outbreak was recognised as a public health emergency and a direct threat to international security, it was two to three months before the funding began to flow. Health workers we interviewed at the time admitted that they had watched thousands die because response was late, describing how people offloaded bodies onto the street while the world dithered.

Ebola also taught us that local responses rooted in and implemented by communities were the fastest, most trusted, and most effective means to stem the progression of the disease. Then, local organisations were able to take and enforce community actions, where international aid organisations and governments could not. Now, this will be particularly important to stopping the spread of coronavirus, which will require trusted voices to re-enforce public health messages and practices that run counter to normal patterns of behaviour. 

Avoiding these past mistakes means meeting the virus – now – at ground level, where it clusters and festers, with:

  • Significant, fast funding to local NGOs. This must be injected immediately, in-country at community level where frontline responders have the best chance of implementing life-saving initiatives and stemming COVID-19 infections and fatalities.
  • The tools to act. Acting quickly will also require exemptions to curfews or lockdowns, privileged access by local organisations to protective equipment as key workers, and sustained access to financial institutions and channels to swiftly transfer funds to local partners in COVID-19-affected countries.
  • Non-discrimination. We are already seeing some governments using coronavirus to close their borders, deny healthcare and services, and stigmatise refugees and minority groups. Not only does this undermine human rights, foster mistrust, and fuel violence, it sabotages our public health objectives. 

“Without quickly converting funding pledges into community-level actions, we will again spend billions of dollars playing catch-up.”

We now understand that to overcome this virus anywhere we must overcome it everywhere, prioritising the most vulnerable populations with fast action, or we all remain at risk. 

We also know from experience that without quickly converting funding pledges into community-level actions, we will again spend billions of dollars playing catch-up on ineffective, belated responses that could have been avoided had we acted quickly, nimbly, and through the channels that have the best chance of success. 

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