COVID-19 international development forum

COVID-19 international development forum
(Credit: Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash)

All of us in the international development space – in Australia, the region and worldwide – have had our work disrupted. What do we do now? We need to debate the big picture issues (here and here) but we also need to trial and share practical solutions.

We propose to use the Devpolicy Blog to provide a forum for discussion and solutions. Add your contribution to the comments section below. Focus on the big- picture reforms needed, or the practical responses required. Add your comment, critique or suggestion below. Debate, applaud, respond, add.

Are you refashioning your project? Starting again? Or just giving up? What are you doing to support the aid project you are funding now that you can no longer visit it? How are you supervising your staff? Which digital tools are best? Or have you just let go? How is that working? And what is like to be working in country, perhaps with more autonomy than ever?

Are you having to downsize in Australia? And/or hire more in country? How are you dealing with funding uncertainty? Is it time for a major rationalisation and shake-up? Will things never be the same again? Is this the end of an era? What changes will and should endure? Or will this all be forgotten in six months?

Start by adding a comment below. Who knows you might even end up writing a blog. All voices welcomed, wherever you are based. It’s for NGOs and contractors and academics as well as for government and multilateral employees.

Comments will be (as always) moderated by the Devpolicy Blog editors, but all views are welcome.

Never in our lifetime have we been more isolated yet so significantly connected both by common purpose and by virtual tools. This modest initiative might present an opportunity to connect ideas to shape some positive solutions.

Thanks to Mel Dunn, VP of DT Global, for the suggestion and initial work on this forum.

Have a look at the comments below. You can also check out our COVID-19 blogs and podcasts published in 2020 below.

COVID-19 and international development

COVID-19 and the Pacific

COVID-19 and Asia

Want more? Check out COVID-19 content on the ANU’s Policy Forum (and their Pacific COVID-19 response map here) or East Asia Forum, or on the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter.

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Development Policy Centre


  • Thank you very much for opening this space for discussion!

    I am an International Development postgraduate student currently looking at the potential impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in the relationships between China and Latin America. Following on Roche and Tarpey’s piece on March 23th, I believe the present crisis can easily be seen as a critical junction – one of those key and unexpected moments in history that hold the potential to accelerate processes of social change. In the case of China-Latin America relations, it seems that the coronavirus crisis can represent a turning point in the long-lasted hegemony of the U.S. over the region (which has already shown signs of its deterioration over the last few decades). On that scenario, China, with its attractive funding and ‘flexible’ parameters, steps in to fill the void left by the North American superpower. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) might represent one of the landmarks in the transition.

    I would appreciate any comments on the matter. Looking at the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of social change theory seems to be a fascinating exercise!

  • According to the latest report of Business Insider in which they based their data in World Health Organization (WHO), updated as of today that the virus has killed more than 95,000 people and infected globally over 1,500,000.*

    This pandemic is getting worse and people in the government seemingly not doing enough for the welfare of its people.

    The fact is, we’re already in the middle of one of the most severe health crises since the Spanish Flu and healthcare systems in most countries simply can’t handle the load anymore due to overwhelming number of cases infected and hospitals are understaffed and even lack of medical supplies.

    If a worst case is really have to happen. Experts are advising that people must learn to be more “medically self reliant“ and prepare something more…

  • I want to share with you my own experience. I’m from US and as you might know, today US is the country with the most cases of COVID-19 virus in the world. You guys really do you work pretty well, holding only 20+ place in the world of coronavirus’ pandemic cases. I hope you won’t face this disease in such a big scale.
    From this survey –, 28% of Americans don’t have emergency savings and only one in four have a rainy day fund, but not enough money to cover three months’ worth of living expenses.
    Week ago 3 mln of Americans lost their jobs! And it’s not even the peak of the disease that’s expected in mid-April.

    If COVID-19 cases will continue to grow for the next few weeks, then all these people without savings mentioned below will struggle really a lot.

    In our case, we’re trying to save our workers’ jobs. We’re lucky because of our field of activity (mold remediation services). So on our customer’s request, we released a COVID-19 disinfection service to help our neighbors to fight against this virus. (

    What I want to say is just to keep you guys from our US experience. For the moment, here in Australia, you’re in a much better situation then we are, so take advantage of this. Act faster, act stricter, act ahead and you’ll avoid the major crisis.

  • In Australia as elsewhere our civil liberties are being curtailed and new police powers are being introduced.

    Disruption, uncertainty and distraction contribute to an environment in which corrupt actors can take advantage of the crisis for their own benefit. Decisions can be influenced, contracts and licences granted, purchases made outside of procurement guidelines, and tenders secured without the same level of scrutiny and due diligence that may normally apply.

    We need to be alert to the granting of special powers to senior politicians that could damage our democracy long-term. It’s never easy to wind back powers once granted. The concentration of power should not, under any circumstances, lead to its abuse. And special powers in response to the pandemic, must only be used for the purposes for which they were granted.

    (I’m a messenger – this is an extract from a blog by Serena Lillyhwhite, head of Transparency International Australia:

  • Revisioning Resourcing and Task Allocation in Light of COVID-19

    Managing resources during a time when international travel has largely stopped has no doubt posed challenges for the implementation of development projects everywhere. Many international experts have returned home, new advisers are unable to mobilise and those who remained in-country, may not be able to return home at the end of their inputs. At Aus4Transport, we are experiencing this firsthand and it has the potential to delay the Detailed Design of the Central Highlands Connectivity Transport Project (CHCIP) and the Northern Mountains Province Transport Connectivity Project (NMPTCP) we are currently supporting the Government of Vietnam to implement. Seeing an opportunity to help our consultants address these challenges – where one team has international experts here who are nearing the end of their assignments, or are undertaking intermittent inputs due to changes to project schedules and delays in field consultations – while the other team is unable to mobilise international experts as per their schedule resulting in a different kind of delay – we introduced the two consultant teams to see if there was a way they could work together and help each other out with resourcing needs. We are also looking at innovative ways to allow international experts to work from their home location and provide support to the local field teams in different ways using video and teleconferencing, document sharing and remote workshopping. This has already resulted in one request to substitute the Social Development Specialist nominated for the NMPTP, who is unable to mobilise, with a Social Development Specialist on the CHCIP who is already based in Vietnam and working only intermittently on CHCIP. Thinking outside the square, and revisioning the allocation and use of experts, advisers and other resources is critical in a time like this and allows us to keep things moving while the world comes to a relative stand-still.

  • There is so much hype around COVID-19 – coping with this pandemic is not any different from its predecessors, including self-consciousness of our actions and interactions with others. Treating this pandemic as the armageddon is ignoring the other opportunities to really show our humanity in this world: starvation kills 20 times more people around the world on a yearly basis, and homelessness, lack of education and many other non-related diseases affect many more people creating a downward spiral of poverty that kills millions worldwide. This pandemic is the tip of the iceberg on a number of pandemic diseases over the past 100 years, without having the same severity yet of the previous ones; however, this time the world is aware through access to social networks. The opportunity is there to show humanity, to understand that there is balance on everything and that our individual actions affect everything around us. My main concern beyond self-awareness and following the recommended precautions, is the potential impact on the world’s economy, which could create another disaster through lack of resources to feed and shelter millions around the world, leading to fear, chaos and vandalism. From DT-Global we could be working with governments to motivate and foster safe economic and trade development in impoverished societies. We can’t let fear overcome our ability to thrive and innovate to resolve this pandemic – wash your hands, wear face masks, keep physical contact at safe distances, but overall, show HUMANITY and help others overcome the economic battle to come.

  • The special characteristics of disaster workers are more common than I thought.

    Over the years that I worked in Aceh I observed a few very effective people who I believed changed the nature of professionalism in disaster response (here), and I wrote up the adaptations that certain professions need to be effective (here).

    And now we are working from home we are all having to adapt in similar ways to those we observed in Aceh. And the rush of governments and the medical professions and medical research to respond is illustrating these adaptations far better than I could in my observations in Aceh, and proving them to be more common than I thought. But it may still be worthwhile noting the values and principles we use, and the way we use them to shape our environments.

    We are finding so many special people that are helping with this crisis who have these values in common:

    • Strategic. They comprehend and continually assess where they are and where they want to go. They continually adjust their plans in order to assure they get the results they intended.
    • Adaptability, a sense of when to be adaptive, and the values and principles of adapting.
    • Compassion. They have compassion for those who suffer, and their colleagues in relief who struggle to make sense and make a contribution.
    • Respect, first of all for community, then for government and colleagues. Even those who might not deserve respect are treated respectfully.
    • Passion. Our special people do not just do their job, they do it with passion.
    • Determination. They did not give up easily.
    • Gratitude. They all expressed gratitude for being able to be part of it all.

    Our special people are guided by common principles:

    • Those who suffer are their clients, directly or indirectly.
    • It is communities and economies that recover, not just sick people.
    • Our special people know they might be wrong about assumptions, but they move forward. Wrong turns are detected quickly to move to right ones
    • They recognise when standard practices are inappropriate and aim to tailor better ones.
    • An honest trail is better than a creative report. Special people do not like writing reports. But they all keep records and love to tell people what they had done.
    • Z-learning curves. They assume every event requires intensive learning to gain new understanding and new competencies as they go along.

    Again I repeat the motto of Bob McKerrow, a long-time special Red Cross person: “do your best and then a little more.” And we all are doing that, even if we are just staying home.

    Creating environment

    Special people put effort into shaping their work environment or just their home environment.

    • Testing and challenging systems. Just like we cannot rely on solving problems if we do not understand them, we cannot rely on a system unless we understand how it won’t harm us. The Corona virus has turned on research into the virus and also into the social systems we need to depend on.
    • Tailoring systems. When standard operating procedures are not appropriate, special people around the world are create new ones, always trying to create certainty.
    • Building purposeful networks including the local community, government and fellow recovery workers. Never before have we seen such a wealth of new networks, from home schooling to public announcements, to caring for the poor and vulnerable.
    • Expediting decision-making. The pressure to act drives our special people to avoid both delaying a decision and making an instant decision, and they are decisive in everything.
    • Volunteering and claiming authority. We see everywhere people volunteering to take responsibility, and take authority, asking to be delegated the power to make decisions that affected other people. When there is no-one in charge, special people take control, then hand it back to the appropriate people when they appear.

    As I discover that the special skills and aptitudes I saw in Aceh are so common now as we face this virus and its impact, I wish all readers well, and take care.

    • Really interesting Owen, thanks. I particularly agree with the values that you have laid out here. For the rest I don’t disagree exactly but I do have some concerns about the framing. It seems that the overall presentation of the disaster response actor here is of someone who does things *to* or *for* those affected by the disaster, rather than someone who does things *with* them. And while there certainly is plenty that may need to be done for affected people, it is in fact those people who are the first responders to their own crisis, who are there for the long haul. Many people with these values will emerge from within the affected communities, and a top order responsibility of the disaster worker has to be to recognise them and to facilitate their leadership.

      One thing I take a very different view on is in your last dot point: “When there is no-one in charge, special people take control, then hand it back to the appropriate people when they appear.” This suggests that the earlier status quo is desirable or achievable, and also that those who step forward are not in fact the appropriate people in the long term. And there is also the fact that more than a few people are in fact very reluctant to give up control once they have experienced it!

      In development more generally (beyond disasters) there is going to be a lot of localisation/decolonisation happening in coming months – the choice of label may depend on whether you work in an INGO or a local organisation, and who is in charge of the process! Whatever the case, ‘handing back power’ may be the last thing that anyone wants.

      • Hi James

        I appreciate different views on framing. And I do indeed agree with you about your *to* *for* and *with*, and *with* is definitely difficult work. I have just assumed it.

        My experience is limited on the ground. Certainly all the guys I classed as heroes in Aceh and Nias were all working both for and with locals. We tried to develop Village Planning in Aceh after the tsunami, and we just did not have the resources to help the villagers plan. And yes too many parties came in with their housing programs that locals jumped at because they were delivering faster. It’s complicated.

        But I fail to understand your point about ‘handing back power’ so I guess you miss my point. Of course I did not mean return to the status quo. An example from Aceh, we got WFP to take on planning of logistics. Important, because if all parties organised their own transport of goods, there would be chaos and delays. But before WFP could deliver, the good guys were getting materials in. And when WFP came in, they handed the logistics over to them.

        While many people do not like to release power once they have it, it was not a problem with the good guys in Aceh and Nias. And I doubt it is a problem of all the heroes of the Corona disaster. I think most will be quite happy when it’s over.

        In Aceh, would it be credible that I meant to hand things back to the police and army and GAM depending on where they were working before the tsunami? Not at all. And yes I did help with the change to local autonomy.

  • Thanks for this, a really interesting idea. One thing that I have been thinking about is what havoc this will wreak if it gets to vulnerable groups in refugee camps/informal settlements and other marginalised spaces. As developed countries are struggling to contain the disease, what hope do those in already fragile settings have? What strategies are being used to prepare, or respond? I noted COVID19 cases in Turkey for example are increasing rapidly, with a high population of refugees vulnerability would also be high.

    Another thing that I’ve been considering is rights violations in the policing of lockdowns/isolations, particularly in countries with poor records of human rights, and where those living in poverty or in marginalised populations are already facing rights violations. As well as the huge impact on the informal sector and the wider economy.

    There’s also the risks of increased domestic violence in countries where this is already a significant issue (including developed countries like Australia).

    Would be really interested to hear how people are working on these issues, or what approaches could be taken. I think the human toll of this will unfortunately extend well beyond those who die or are incapacitated by the illness itself.


    The Improving Project Delivery (IPD) activity is a DFAT funded initiative managed by DT Global under the Indonesia Australia Partnership for Infrastructure (Kemitraan Indonesia Australia untuk Infrastruktur – KIAT) between the Governments of Australia and Indonesia. Design and construction audits are a key part of the project.

    With our team leader now in Australia, under direction from him the IPD team contacted our local counterparts to discuss their willingness to trial holding design audit meetings virtually. A pending design audit closing meeting was due to be held with officials in the North Sumatra province. Various approaches were considered, and it was agreed to proceed with Skype.

    The design audit closing meeting was held on Friday, 20 March 2020. It was attended by the IPD Design Audit team (based in Jakarta and working from home), along with the government staff and national project staff based in Medan and KIAT representatives based in Jakarta. Full video conferencing was available between all participants, as well as document sharing. The connections were stable throughout: freezing and dropping out were not problems. The design audit was successfully completed by the end of the day.

    An interesting innovation that came out of the meeting was an agreed pause for all Indonesian participants to take a break from the meeting to attend to prayer at the appropriate time at the various locations.

    Our initial piloting has now expanded to convene a session for Japayura last Friday, 27 March 2020, with each session involving up to 20 participants.

    Indonesia has 22 Balai (main Directorate General of Highways offices located away from Jakarta) serving all 34 provinces. Current indications are we will be able to serve each Balai that is included in the list of agreed projects.

    Shared by Vince Crosdale, Team Leader / Senior Highway and Bridge Specialist, on behalf of the IPD Team

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