Submission to the International Development Committee inquiry

Humanitarian crises monitoring: impact of coronavirus


Evidence submitted by ActionAid UK

April 2020


About ActionAid International


ActionAid is an international charity that works with women and girls living in poverty. Our dedicated local staff are helping end violence against women and girls and changing lives, for good.


Founded as a British charity in 1972, ActionAid works in 45 countries. We are now headquartered in South Africa, with staff and partners in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe. Our vision is a world free from poverty and injustice in which every person enjoys the right to a life with dignity. Our top priority is to end the inequality that keeps women and girls locked in poverty, and to restore the rights denied them from birth. We focus our work on three key areas; women’s economic rights, ending violence against women and girls, and women’s and girls’ rights in humanitarian crises.


ActionAid has extensive experience of working with DFID and responding to emergencies, including the Ebola crisis. Our aim is to save lives, contribute to mitigating the impact of emergencies and to protect the rights of women and girls in these contexts. In addition, ActionAid works to shift power to local women’s rights actors to lead response and recovery measures.


For more information about ActionAid’s work or this submission, please contact Joanne O’Neill, Senior Advocacy Manager,






  1.                The emergence, incidence and spread of coronavirus virus infections and the COVID-19 disease in developing countries


1.1. Countries in the global south - many of which are already dealing with humanitarian emergencies such as climate-related disasters, refugee crises and conflict - are now potentially facing a mass outbreak of the virus.  This is starting to have a significant impact on people in the world’s poorest countries as they struggle with entrenched poverty, poor access to water and sanitation facilities, less-equipped healthcare systems and weaker economic and political conditions.


1.2. For the moment, the death rate and number of COVID-19 cases in poorer countries lags behind those in Europe and North America. This is in part due to the way the disease has spread but also because of the weaknesses in reporting and tracking cases in countries with already weak healthcare and monitoring capacity.  According to the World Health Organisation, the true number of cases is likely to be significantly higher[1]. Outbreaks in poorer countries are expected to grow in the same rapid way as they have done in rich countries yet due to the lack of resilience in southern health care systems there will be far less options for treatment. In a bid to stall the spread of the virus, southern governments have started to implement social distancing measures and mobility restrictions. This has its own implications because of the lack of accompanying measures to protect (especially informal) livelihoods and incomes; the effect of confinement measures on family tensions and subsequent domestic violence and the risks associated with harsh management of controls and curfews. In Uganda, for example, more deaths have resulted from the curfew than the outbreak. This includes women in labour unable to get to hospital but also from police brutality.


Learnings from the ActionAid response

1.3.             ActionAid has a long-standing relationship with the communities we are based in and a long history of both responding to disasters and helping communities prepare for them, for example, in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, during the Ebola crisis. ActionAid works directly with local women and girls to provide support and save lives. Our approach is to shift the power to local women and WROs to lead the emergency response. Local women know best what their communities need and are able to get lifesaving supplies quickly and fairly to those who need it most.


1.4.             From the Ebola response, we know that strong community engagement and risk messaging, which takes into consideration the gendered impacts of epidemics, is essential to stop the spread of disease and that health-only approaches do not work. Experience also shows that rapid, community-level responses are needed to scale-up programmes which meet both the primary and secondary impacts of the pandemic in already vulnerable communities. We know from Ebola and other emergencies that UN agencies often cannot act quickly enough. By contrast, NGOs can respond within 48 hours if the resources are available.  With our pre-existing relationships in communities, we are well-placed to deliver disease prevention, vital system strengthening at community level and critical food and cash interventions quickly - when preventing and containing disease is still possible.


1.5.             ActionAid has been able to initiate responses by repurposing existing resources, including supporter funding.  There is capacity to scale these up considerably and rapidly, however donor funding is coming on stream too slowly at a time when time is of the essence. To date, ActionAid has responded to COVID-19 through a range of activities, these include:


1.6. Women-Led distributions: Women-led distribution during emergencies is important; as well as including women in the response it reduces the risk of sexual exploitation in exchange for essential goods, something observed in the safeguarding scandals. Experience also shows us that women-led responses are better at reaching the most vulnerable and marginalised. In Senegal ActionAid is providing preventative assistance around awareness raising on COVID-19. This includes distributing hygiene and sanitation items such as bleach and soap. In DRC, ActionAid is supporting locally led distributions of hygiene kits, which will be targeted to those most in need, to enhance minimal contact and social distancing, as well as providing education kits to help families and single parent/mother households. 


1.7. Women-led information sharing: In Haiti ActionAid is working closely with the Ministry of Health to provide communication material and megaphones for community sensitisation, which will be led by local women’s groups. In DRC, ActionAid is working with women’s groups who received training on hygiene measures during the Ebola crisis and are using this experience to increase awareness around COVID-19. In Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, ActionAid is already distributing approved information on prevention of COVID-19 through our supported protection centres. In Kenya, ActionAid has distributed information and myth-busting leaflets to communities through its network of women’s collectives and community groups.  


1.8. Women-led support networks: In Palestine, SAWA, an ActionAid partner, is operating a free helpline to support Palestinian refugees and raise awareness of COVID-19. They are currently operating from their homes due to travel restrictions and home isolation. The helpline is open 24 hours, 7 days a week.




  1. The direct and indirect impacts of the outbreak on developing countries, and specific risks and threats (particularly relating to countries with existing humanitarian crises and/or substantial populations of refugees or internally displaced persons)


2.1. COVID-19 threatens to devastate communities already facing entrenched poverty and injustice. Within these communities, ActionAid UK would like to draw attention to the significant threats posed by COVID-19 to the rights of women and girls; the impact on ActionAid’s programming with women and girls; and the particular risks faced by communities who are living in occupied territories and those who have been displaced.


A gendered crisis

2.2. Evidence and experience (including from public health crises Ebola and Zika) suggest that in emergencies existing gender inequalities are magnified, having both immediate and long-lasting effects on gender equality. Emerging evidence suggests that COVID-19 will also have distinctly gendered implications. Recognising how COVID-19 will affect women and men differently is a fundamental step for DFID in creating an effective response. Some of the gendered impacts of COVID-19 include:


2.3. Increased risk of exposure: Based on other health epidemics, governments can anticipate increased incidence among women due to their gender role in families, which include caring for sick family members, which increases their exposure to the virus as infection rates grow. 70% of health sector jobs globally are also held by women[2], which places women on the frontline of care and treatment of those affected by the virus; again, increasing women’s frequency and intensity of exposure to disease.


2.4. Unequal access to healthcare, resources and information: In low income countries, women also make up two-thirds of the informal economy without access to sick leave and unemployment benefits. Many women are already more likely to be living poverty. As COVID-19 couples with a global economic crisis, women’s overrepresentation in precarious employment will leave them out of work and with no social protection, unable to access healthcare and treatment. Evidence from other outbreaks also suggests that educational levels impact knowledge uptake, and targeted outreach to women and girls with different levels of literacy and disabilities is needed to respond to communication needs for the most marginalised groups. This point is particularly important given recent reports indicating the spread of inaccurate information about COVID-19. Womens role as unpaid carers also means their lack of access to information is critical and dangerous.


2.5. Increased risk of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and disruption to support services: UNFPA Minimum Standards on gender based violence (GBV) in emergencies require all humanitarian actors to assume that violence increases in times of crisis and increases in intimate partner violence (IPV) are particularly common.[3] As tensions rise due to containment, food insecurity and financial pressures, women and children are likely to experience an increase in domestic violence and the economic impact puts them at higher risk of sexual exploitation. Evidence has shown that the economic impacts of the Ebola outbreak, placed women and children at greater risk of exploitation and sexual violence.[4] With two thirds of health sector jobs being held by women globally, the increased risk of workplace violence is also anticipated in response to COVID-19 – as reported already by healthcare workers in Singapore[5] and as raised as a key concern by the National Healthcare Union FNOPI in Italy.[6]


2.6. Self-isolation practices and over-burdened health services will also result in women being unable to access VAWG support services such as clinical management of rape and mental health support.[7] During the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, the failure to prioritise funding for GBV coupled with a breakdown in health systems severely impacted specialised services for survivors. Evidence already shows increases in reported cases of IPV in Italy and China; for example, in central Hubei Province 90% of reports on IPV to an anti-domestic violence organisation were attributed as COVID-19 related.[8]


2.7. Increased (unpaid) care burdens and economic pressures: Public health emergencies can have a significant and sustained impact on livelihoods. This is particularly true for women, who are more likely to be engaged in informal, low-wage or migrant work[9]. Unions are already reporting mass closures of garment factories in Asia[10]. In Bangladesh alone, for example, more than a million garment workers have been sent home without pay or social protection after major clothing brands cancelled or suspended $3.05 billion of orders due to the collapse in consumer demand caused by COVID-19.  With the media indicating that UK retailers will re-open with a need to reduce prices, we can expect – as witnessed during the 2008 financial crisis – a further decline of wages in supply chains, increasing poverty.


2.8. Women undertake more than 76% of the world's unpaid care work, which remains largely invisible and uncounted, despite providing the foundation to our economies and societies. During the Zika outbreak many women were forced to leave paid work to move into full-time care of their family members.  During the Ebola outbreak, gender stereotypes and societal expectations meant women and girls shouldered increased unpaid care burdens within the household, while economic pressures disrupted their lives.[11] Increased caregiving burdens or economic pressures can also force girls to drop out of school, with dire implications for their educational, economic and health outcomes.


Impact to programme delivery

2.9. ActionAid UK currently provides grant/contract management and assurance for a total of ten UK government funded projects in Rwanda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, the DRC, Zambia, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Lebanon and Ethiopia. Due to social distancing and limitations on movement, the majority of project activities at the community, local, national and international level have been suspended. This means that any planned meetings, training workshops, sensitisation activities will also be impacted. This also affects all planned research, training workshops and end of project evaluations. As a result, COVID-19 will affect programme delivery and will have a negative impact on the quality of results. In response, ActionAid UK is looking at integrating COVID-19 measures into existing programmes through community preparedness plans and preventative measures such as awareness-raising, information sharing, hygiene messages/kits and myth-busting through signposting to credible information sources and available services.


2.10.         COVID-19 also has implications for GBV services. As described above, humanitarian crises exacerbate GBV and other forms of discrimination. Limits on movement and an increased burden on already under-resourced services will also impact on the services available to women and girls. It is vital that the UK government supports women-led and locally-led responses, both in the immediate response and in the longer-term since these are essential to maintaining strong protection mechanisms. ActionAid is looking at awareness raising and protection mechanisms that can be accessed remotely, such as through the existing SMS platform that ActionAid Kenya already has in place as part of the Not Any Girl project for UK Aid Match. In Liberia, ActionAid is using lessons learned from the Ebola crisis to access hard to reach communities by using its network of local partners, including women’s rights organisations and rural women’s leaders, to distribute life-saving advice and health information. Social media and virtual meetings will be used for mobilising communities and spreading awareness messages. 


Vulnerable Communities

2.11.         The threats to communities in occupied territories are severe and they have no sovereignty in designing a response to the crisis. The Gaza health system has a very low capacity to test people for the virus, which is likely to increase the chances of undiagnosed people spreading the disease. Current social distancing measures are also restricting access to hygiene materials and food; posing obvious difficulties for households. Overcrowded households are an additional factor which increases the risk of infection.


2.12.         Emerging evidence suggests that refugees and internally displaced peoples in camp-based settings are at particularly high risk because of their high population densities and poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene provision. In Cox’s Bazaar, in Bangladesh, for instance, where over 800,000 Rohingya refugees are living, over half the population does not have access to enough water and at least one-third of people do not have access to soap.  In most camp and camp-like settings, overcrowding and limited physical infrastructure makes social distancing almost impossible.  As elsewhere, we are concerned by the reports of inaccurate information being circulated about COVID-19. 




  1. The UK’s response, bilaterally and with the international community, to the spread of coronavirus to developing countries


3.1. The government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be a critical moment in shaping the UK’s global role in years to come. DFID is a respected and experienced humanitarian donor and it must now lead a coordinated international response to COVID-19, focused on protecting those most at risk, including women and girls.


3.2. ActionAid believes the UK government should focus its response in a number of ways:


3.3. Having responded to other public health crises, ActionAid UK is well-positioned to support DFID respond to this global emergency. ActionAid UK makes the following recommendations to the UK government:


3.4. Urgently scale up contributions to NGOs as part of the global COVID-19 response: ActionAid UK welcomes the UK government’s investment in efforts focused on tackling COVID-19 internationally. This includes important support for vaccine research, hygiene awareness and multilateral responses. Most recently the government committed £200m to fighting COVID-19 specifically in low-income countries. While we commend the government for this act of international solidarity, we are disappointed that just 10% of the latest funding has been allocated to NGOs through the Rapid Response Facility (RRF).


3.5. From responses such as the Ebola crises, we know that rapid engagement and messaging at a community level is vital to stop the spread of disease and limit its impact. Experience also shows that UN agencies cannot respond quickly enough. ActionAid and sector colleagues have the reach, the community trust and the local partners and networks, including, crucially, women-led organisations and WRO’s, to get understandable and accepted messaging into households both rapidly and consistently. To that end we urge the UK government to:



3.6. Conduct gender consultation and analysis: It is important even amidst this crisis that UK ODA adheres to both the International Development Act 2002 and the subsequent International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014. These require that DFID’s ODA is focused on poverty and considers the gender impact. As a foundation of its approach to COVID-19 then, the UK Government as well as DFID in particular must conduct rapid, meaningful gender data and analysis of the crisis by meaningfully consulting with WROs based in the global south. DFID must recognise that WROs are at the frontline, know best what the top priorities, threats and risks are for women as well as what processes must be put in place to meet their needs and uphold their rights.


3.7. Channel funds to women’s rights organisations (WROs): A proportion of funding for the UK’s COVID-19 response must be channelled through local WROs. This funding must be flexible and adaptable to the ever-changing and difficult context and must always be focused on the poorest and most vulnerable rights-holders. In order for local organisations to accept and implement funds, the UK government must adapt its compliance and due diligence processes. Resourcing these local, women’s rights actors to do their vital work will ensure that the needs of women and girls are met, including women’s protection, prevention and response to VAWG. These investments will also multiply benefits for the wider community and support the success, sustainability and impact of broader response and recovery efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.


3.8. Support women’s leadership: DFID should also work to strengthen the participation and leadership of WROs in COVID-19 decision-making spaces/processes. This includes encouraging the input and participation of local WROs in COVID-19 cluster contingency planning. Women often know the best ways of getting health messages to their families and communities, the right entry points and the most effective strategies for driving behaviour change, which are powerful assets in infectious disease control.[13] Strengthening women’s leadership also ensures responses that incorporate the needs and priorities of half the population, who also play a critical role as frontline responders in health emergencies as both primary carers in families and the majority of the health workforce. Increasing women’s participation also supports women post-recovery although it is important to recognize and respond to the backlash women in leadership roles often face. 


3.9. Provide flexibility in current funding: the UK government should exercise maximum flexibility in current funding arrangements. This could include: de-restricting of current grant expenditure, swift agreement to re-purposing of funds where requested to implement COVID-19 response activities, agreement of No Cost Extensions to programmes approaching an end and flexibility in the use of contingency reserves (where applicable).


3.10.         Take a holistic approach to women and girls rights: Women and girls’ lives are being affected in multiple ways by COVID-19. Given the interlinked nature of these impacts, COVID-19 demands holistic solutions underpinned by the provision of public services. Past and current programmes funded through DFID have a wealth of evidence and experience on how best to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls (e.g. What Works), which should underpin the UK government’s response to COVID-19. Using technology and helplines through existing women’s rights networks will support the most marginalised girls especially.




  1. Lessons identified and learned/applied from previous experience with infectious diseases (for example, Ebola); the implications for DFID’s policy on a global heath strategy


4.1. ActionAid has learned valuable lessons from its experience responding to the Ebola crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the DRC. Such learning has been referred to throughout this submission and includes understanding the impact of crises on existing inequalities and the resulting increase in threats to women and girls rights. The Ebola crisis also demonstrated the effectiveness of investing in local women-led responses. Of relevance to COVID-19, experience shows that women often know the best ways of getting health messages to their communities, the right entry points and the most effective strategies for driving behaviour change. In Liberia for instance, ActionAid worked with WROs and networks across the country to mobilise door-to-door providing information on disinfecting homes and responding to and limiting contact with sick people. They also supported contact-tracing and case management, as well as distribution of essential supplies for people in quarantine, this included ensuring children were able to maintain learning during school closures.




  1. Whether there are particular risks of transfer of the coronavirus from conflicted and fragile environments to other countries


5.1. Conflict affected communities have been seen to be hardest to reach in public health actions such as the attempts to eradicate polio and Guinea Worm disease.  The weak or absent health systems, the difficulty of delivering messaging and the complexity of dense and vulnerable displaced populations put them at high risk of harbouring and continuing disease long after outbreaks are believed to have been brought under control, leaving a high risk of them being focal points for re-emergence of outbreaks. In the DRC, conflict in the north-east of the country contributed to the spread of Ebola as some 400,000 people became displaced. The recent identification of cases of Ebola in DRC just two days before it was expected the outbreak would be declared over is another example of this. Conflict and humanitarian crisis then, creates displacement and movement of population, tends to lead to people living in precarious and overcrowded environments and broadly increases vulnerability, not least for women and girls.  Experience shows disease can be devastating and long-lasting in such contexts.  They therefore become a risk of being a source of fresh outbreaks and so need to be a focus of prevention and control from the early stages and throughout the pandemic.




  1. The impact of the outbreak, and consequential mitigation measures, on fund-raising by UK-based development charities/NGOs


6.1. The UK development sector is an international hub of expertise and is well-placed to support the UK government’s response to COVID-19. However, many NGOs will be significantly affected by the expected drop in fundraising revenue. The Bond network, of which ActionAid is a member, states that unrestricted income from voluntary giving is predicted to fall by an average of 48% and total income by a third[14].  87% of Bond members are cutting programmes; 60% have already made cuts to staffing costs and a further 25% are in the process of doing the same. Only 15% of organisations are likely to leave their staffing untouched.[15]  A Hays Macintyre survey from October 2019 revealed that only 24% of a selected group of 189 Bond members had reserves sufficient to continue operating for three months.[16] This will obviously have significant consequences for NGO operations. We note that the support for UK charities appears to be focused on domestic charities. We, of course, recognise the vital work of domestic NGOs at this time but COVID-19 is a global crisis and we believe the UK should be leading an international response; part of this effort involves supporting its global delivery capacity.


6.2. ActionAid believes that the COVID-19 crisis will not be over anywhere until it is over everywhere. The NGO sector is uniquely placed to respond to this emergency and contribute to the efforts to stop COVID-19 overseas and at home – we have the reach, the vital community trust and the local partners and networks, to get understandable messaging into households rapidly. To that end, we agree with our colleagues at Bond, which believes the UK government must recognise the impact of the crisis on UK-based NGOs and provide urgent short-term support to keep these vital organisations afloat; make changes to grant conditions that enable them to pivot existing programmes to respond to the pandemic; as well as providing additional funds that enable them to address the primary and secondary impacts of the crisis. At a challenging time domestically, we cannot rely solely on the generosity of a UK public that is facing its own economic difficulties to support an early international response to this crisis.





[1] Burke (2020), Coronavirus cases in Africa pass 2400 amid fears for health services, Guardian [Online Resource]

[2] WHO. Boniol M, McIsaac M, Xu L, Wuliji T, Diallo K, Campbell J. Gender Equity in the Health Workforce: Analysis of 104 Countries. Working paper 1. 2019.

[3] International Rescue Committee (2015), “Private Violence, Public Concern,” IRC, January 2015 [Online Resource]

[4] UNGA (2018) Protecting Humanity from Future Health Crises: Report of the High Level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises; UNICEF Helpdesk, GBV in Emergencies: Emergency Responses to Public Health Outbreaks, UNGA [Online Resource]

[5] Fernandez, P. (2020) ‘Covid-19 outbreak: Take stern action against those who harass healthcare workers in public spaces’, Today Online, in Fraser, E. (2020)

[6] Fernandez, P. (2020) ‘Covid-19 outbreak: Take stern action against those who harass healthcare workers in public spaces’, Today Online, in Fraser, E. (2020)

[7] GBV AoR  (2020) Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action [Online Resource]  ; Guidelines:

[8] Wanqing, Z (2020) ‘Domestic violence cases surge during COVID-19 epidemic’, Sixth Tone [Online Resource]

[9] Kutty (2020) Nearly two-thirds of global workforce in the ’informal’ economy - UN Study, UN News [Online Resource]

[10] Kelly (2020) Garment workers face destitution as Covid-19 closes factories, Guardian [Online Resource]

[11] During the Ebola outbreak, gender stereotypes and societal expectations meant women and girls shouldered increased unpaid care burdens within the household, while economic pressures disrupted their lives. CARE (2020) Gender implications of COVID-19 outbreaks in development and humanitarian settings, [Online Resource]

[12] Lewis (2020) The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism, Pandemics affect men and women differently, The Atlantic [Online Resource]

[13] Evidence shows that when women have less decision-making power than men, either in households or in government, then women’s needs during an epidemic are less likely to be met – discussed in Evans (2020), How Will COVID-19 Affect Women and Girls in Low- and Middle-Income Countries? Centre for Global Development [Online Resource]

[14] Bond Network, A survey of 550 charities in the UK undertaken by NCVO, Institute of Fundraising and the Charity Finance Group with 37% of respondents being international charities.

[15] Bond’s survey of its members undertaken on 27-31 March and completed by over 15% of the total membership

[16] Bond’s survey shows that 15% of its members have funds only sufficient to survive for the next three months, 45% have sufficient reserves to survive between 3 and 6 months, with only 40% of members with sufficient funding to survive beyond 6 months, without the input of further new funding.