International Development Committee inquiry: The impact of Coronavirus on developing countries
Concern Worldwide (UK) submission
28 October 2020
About Concern Worldwide
Concern Worldwide is an international non-governmental humanitarian organisation dedicated to the elimination of extreme poverty. We deliver life-saving aid in emergencies as well as long term development support to communities. Each year, we work with 25 million people across 23 countries, in some of the hardest to reach and most fragile places.
Concern Worldwide’s Written Evidence
Concern made submissions to this inquiry on 17 April and 7 May 2020 which focussed on the secondary impacts of Coronavirus. This submission adds to these by summarising qualitative research on the experiences of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in four countries: Malawi, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh.
There were interviews with households (30 people) at four intervals: in late-June, mid-July, early-August and early-September, which chart how their situations changed over time.
Country Contexts: the macroeconomic impact of Coronavirus in the four countries
- Bangladesh exemplifies the triple economic blow that many countries have suffered from Covid-19: domestic slowdown, a sharp decline in exports and a drop in remittances by up to 20%. This threatens to double the country’s poverty rate, pushing it to over 40%.
- In Somalia, the Government is projecting an 11% decline in GDP through 2020. Remittances, received by an estimated 40% of Somali households, have dropped by around 50%. Somalia also faces other serious challenges including: weak health infrastructure; flooding; displacement; locusts; and conflict - combining to create a fragile humanitarian situation.
- In Malawi, poverty is forecasted to increase by up to 4.9% in urban areas and 2.2% in rural areas.
- In Sierra Leone the pandemic is compounding an economic situation already severely affected by currency depreciation, rampant inflation and curtailed economic activity.
Impact on… Livelihoods
- The biggest impact has been on those living in urban and peri-urban areas, particularly where people dependent on small-scale trading and the informal labour market.
- The impact of Covid-19 restrictions show how dependent the extreme poor are on others in the market for their livelihoods. As better-off people fear the spread of the disease, lose their jobs or see a decline in their earnings they are no longer in a position to employ others, which affects the earning potential of the poorest.
- In Malawi, one man in Lilongwe highlighted how:
“I found a job a few weeks ago in area 49 as a gardener for a certain family. However, a few days after starting the job, there were rumours that someone in the neighbourhood had tested positive for Covid-19. This made my employer make all his employees go home and wait until the situation changes. This has rendered me jobless again.”
- Traders are impacted by falling income in the community. In Somalia, a trader described how ‘because vegetables are more expensive than before I stopped purchasing them. If I buy them and bring to the IDP to trade, people will not be able to buy them’. In Sierra Leone, a woman who sells soap, usually on credit, said ‘With the bad creditors, I can barely use the income to buy garri and other condiments to sustain the household.’
- Restrictions on opening hours for small-scale traders have also posed challenges. In Sierra Leone, the curfew has meant that those who sell foodstuffs in urban areas, where the peak time for business is in the two hours before midnight, have been forced to close.
- The reduction in employment opportunities has also led to large-scale movement of people out of urban areas. This was particularly noticeable in Bangladesh where those who could afford to, returned to rural areas, leaving the poorest behind. One shop keeper in Dhaka mentioned how in June she had 250 customers a day but in July this had dropped to 200.
- Selling household assets was one of the most common ways of coping but often at ‘knock-down’ prices. In Somalia, one man who sold his motorcycle did so at $350 having purchased it four months previously at $750.
- One important difference was noted in Malawi, where the distress sale of assets did not materialise. This seems to be attributable to the government’s distribution of MK 36,700 to households in Lilongwe, as well as cash support from Concern in Nsanje and Mangochi.
- Borrowing money, or in certain contexts taking goods on credit in the local store, was also a major means of coping for the people interviewed, though this is less widely accessible than before as there is an increase in demand for this type of support.
- In August, while the situation remained challenging, some ‘green shoots’ could be seen. In Sierra Leone, the fact that traders can now travel between districts was identified as a major improvement, reducing the cost of purchased goods.
Impact on… food and nutrition security
- Reduced access to food - both in quantity and quality - has been a core impact of the pandemic. However, it plays out differently across contexts: less prevalent in rural areas in Malawi; changing over time in parts of Sierra Leone; being a consistent challenge in urban areas and IDP camps in Somalia.
- There are both supply and demand-side causes driven by reduced mobility, increased transport costs ,and reductions in production on one hand and reduced purchasing power on the other. Unsurprisingly this hits net purchasers of food more.
- Throughout, respondents spoke about increases in prices in local markets. In June, in Somalia, people spoke about increases in the price of vegetables, fruits and meat, ‘1kg of potatoes was $0.5 and now is $1.4, you can see the difference, it increased double’. In Malawi, respondents described how the price had not increased but vendors had reduced the quantities they were selling, ‘Previously, 2 piles of fish could support a meal but now they cannot as sellers have reduced the sizes to maximize profits.’
- In July, some in Bangladesh said prices were falling slightly, driven by seasonal factors, with fruit becoming affordable. The overall sense, however, is that ‘the price never goes down’ which is particularly problematic for the poorest.
- In Sierra Leone, respondents blamed the price increases on the early inter-district travel restrictions, which made it costly to transport goods. However, once the restrictions were lifted, this did not automatically translate into a reversal of price increases.
- Families are faced with two choices: to change either the amount or type of food consumed. Most respondents reported cutting back on the number of meals they consume. In June a man in Bangladesh said ‘I can buy food for one meal a day; I can’t buy for another one. I am in a lot of trouble with the children. I can’t feed them what I could before, not even half’.
- Reducing food quality became common. In Somalia, one man described how his family now ‘add more water for the milk of children to drink twice a day instead of once and we pay for less expensive foods’.
- However, by August, in both Somalia and Bangladesh there was increased availability of food due to the eid ul adha celebrations, with meat being distributed by a number of organisations and wealthy individuals. While in Lilongwe (Malawi) a cash transfer by the government has helped improve food consumption.
- Over time, reductions in the quantity and quality of food can have profound impacts on health, particularly for children, adolescents and pregnant women, who often have greater nutritional needs. In Somalia, it was observed that ‘almost all camp children are becoming malnourished due to hunger’.
- The burden has also fallen disproportionately on women in terms of finding food, supporting children’s education and generating income. While there have been some examples of men taking on greater domestic responsibility, these are not commonplace.
- Increased tensions within the household were also reported. One of the women in Somalia highlighted how ‘married men and women always fight in the house due to lockdown and lack of enough food in the house’.
- Increased rates of malnutrition is also combining dangerously with reduced attendance at health centres, particularly for the poorest. This can be attributable to fear (though there is evidence this is decreasing), the cost of attending health facilities and requirements such as the wearing of masks.
Support Changed Over Time
- Support from government or NGOs initially took the form of messaging on how to prevent the virus spreading and support for hand washing.
- In Somalia, some spoke of Concern Worldwide providing water, in Malawi they said they received soap (in Lilongwe) and counselling and support in other areas. This was subsequently replaced by food distributions. In general, this form of support was seen as being welcome, but insufficient.
- More recently, cash support has been provided in Lilongwe (Malawi) and the urban centres of Bangladesh. In Lilongwe, respondents received MK 36,700 from the government, which appears to have helped prevent the distress sale of assets.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Our research supports wider evidence that the pandemic is having a profound impact on livelihoods, food security and nutrition. The poorest people have the least ability to withstand economic shocks, especially as existing informal support networks - such as community lending or remittances from abroad - have also been undermined by the pandemic.
With 55% of the world’s population without access to a government safety net, coping mechanisms often involve the distress sale of assets and reducing the quantity or quality of food purchased.
Recommendation 1: In the immediate response, cash assistance to urban and peri-urban communities with no other means of earning a living must be prioritised.
Recommendation 2: Response plans must ensure those already furthest behind do not become even more disadvantaged, including addressing ‘catch up’ and cost-related barriers to service access.
Recommendation 3: Support should be given for sustainable livelihoods and decent work as part of the economic recovery. Graduation Programmes have been shown to be effective in helping vulnerable groups to develop new skills and livelihoods.
Support from governments, NGOs and donors remains critical. The recent announcement from the UK government of £119 million to help protect the world’s poorest from the threat of coronavirus and famine was welcome. However, to have long-term impact, sustained and predictable investment in nutrition is needed. Yet, UK nutrition commitments run out this year
Recommendation 4: To maintain long-term support for tackling malnutrition the UK government should renew its financial commitment to nutrition, with at least £120 million per year from 2021-2025 for nutrition specific programming and £680 million per year for nutrition-sensitive programming.
We would be happy to provide further information about Concern’s research or attend an oral evidence session to inform the Committee’s inquiry.
Concern Worldwide UK