Written evidence for IDC’s inquiry into Humanitarian crises monitoring: impact of Coronavirus
Evidence provided by BRAC
BRAC is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in 11 countries across Asia and Africa. Our experience and knowledge gathered from the field demonstrates that COVID-19 is significantly disrupting daily life, dragging more people into extreme poverty, negatively affecting livelihoods, and causing enormous damage to the food and income and food security of households across the Global South. Our data shows that these factors have a disproportionately negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of female led households, those working in the informal sector and all those living in situations of poverty, inequality, and exploitation. The longer this crisis goes on, the more pronounced these findings will become. The international community needs to act now.
We are submitting this evidence because we believe the UK has a key leadership role to play in helping the Global South to recover from this pandemic, both from a public health, social and economic perspective.
BRAC’s Response to COVID-19
- BRAC’s vision is a world free from all forms of exploitation and discrimination where everyone has the opportunity to realise their potential. BRAC was founded in Bangladesh in 1972 by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. The organisation has since grown dramatically and is known for its frugal innovation, scale, range of work, and relentless drive to create opportunities for people living in poverty to realise their potential. Today, BRAC is a global leader in developing cost-effective, evidence-based programmes in conflict-prone and post-disaster settings. BRAC now operates in 11 countries , with a total global annual expenditure of more than $1.1 billion. The organisation’s values are: integrity, innovation, inclusiveness and effectiveness. It has a holistic approach to development focusing on eliminating extreme poverty, expanding financial choices, providing employable skills for decent work, helping people cope with the impacts of climate change and emergencies with a particular attention to gender equality, universal healthcare, pro-poor urban development and investing in the next generation.
- BRAC is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in 11 countries in Asia and Africa: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, with its headquarters in Bangladesh and a regional office in Kenya. As an organisation built on the principle of standing with the most vulnerable, particularly in times of crisis, we are committed to supporting local communities and helping them respond to the outbreak, initially with humanitarian interventions, but transitioning quickly to socio-economic rehabilitation and development programmes in the coming weeks, months, and beyond.
- Building on our existing in-country programs, we are working alongside local and national government bodies and response mechanisms, as well as the private sector, while leveraging our deep organisational knowledge of crisis-response with our established networks in each country. Building on this, we are using a four-pronged strategy  to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The impact of COVID-19 around the world
- COVID-19 has affected all BRAC countries of operation. Notably, the Philippines and Afghanistan have seen the largest number of new cases, while the rest of the countries are in the very early stages of the epidemic. In most, if not all of the countries in which we work, health care facilities are weak. As a result, a number of countries may not acknowledge or be able to identify the outbreak until it is quite advanced. This means, asymptomatic and even symptomatic cases are likely to remain undiagnosed and pose a serious threat of a large number of cases at an already advanced stage of the epidemic. The immediate effect of the outbreak is a widespread shutdown of social and economic centres to promote social distancing as a tool to curb the spread of the virus. However, this causes an immediate loss of income among a large number of families, especially those working in the informal economy, most negatively affecting those with limited financial reserves and associated coping capabilities. This causes massive psychological distress and uncertainty in families and communities where such incidences occur. These dual challenges need to be addressed simultaneously, especially for those who live in poverty and suffer from social marginalisation, including the elderly and other socio-economic and gender-based vulnerable groups.
- BRAC has been gathering data and intelligence across all our countries of operation. We are sharing this data regularly with partners across the world. All of our reports are being uploaded to BRAC’s COVID-19 response website . We encourage DFID and other stakeholders to use our data to inform their policy decisions.
- BRAC International carried out a first round of rapid food and income security assessment  in the first week of April, covering eight countries in Asia and Africa where BRAC operates. In the third week of April, BRAC conducted a second round rapid assessment  on food and income security, this time covering nine countries – Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Philippines, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The objective was to see changes in some of the key variables and get a snapshot of the current situation. A total of 2,475 randomly selected participants were interviewed over the phone using a short and structured questionnaire. The second assessment also helped to draw a comparison between the two surveys.
- The findings of the second assessment suggest that a loss of income and food insecurity are the two most pressing needs which must be tackled immediately. These interventions need to be coupled with dispute resolution and community empowerment strategies to reduce domestic or gender-based violence. Cash transfers over mobile money platforms are an effective solution, since the market for food and non-food essentials is still relatively functional.
- The findings mainly show a sharp rise in the percentage of the population who completely lost their income or are experiencing a significant loss in their income flow. In addition to health shocks, COVID-19 has caused a severe economic shock for people living in low-income countries. The percentage of the population reporting a “complete stop” or “a lot of reduction in income flow”, has increased significantly in the period between the two assessments. The changes are most evident in Nepal, Tanzania and Liberia.
- The risk of food insecurity is rising. A comparison study between the two assessments show an increasing trend of reduction in food consumption across all BRAC countries. The most drastic change is observed in the findings from Liberia where the percentage of the population who reported “a lot of reduction” in food consumption has significantly increased from the first round (52% vs 84%). The situation is equally grave in the Philippines, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Food stocks in households are depleting. In Sierra Leone, 90% of the respondents reported that they could barely sustain a week with the available food stock. Income loss coupled with an increase in food prices (reported almost universally across all countries) makes food items inaccessible by those living in vulnerable situations.
- Female-headed households are more vulnerable to food insecurity. The findings of the first round showed that female-headed households have higher food stock than male counterparts. However, the second round of the survey reveals a contrasting picture. In Uganda male-headed households have on average eight more days of food stocked than female-headed ones. The trend is similar in the Philippines, Myanmar and Tanzania.
- People’s capacity to cope is decreasing. Borrowing money and use of savings were mentioned as the two most common coping strategies. In the Philippines, 92% have borrowed money to cope with the ongoing situation. A small percentage also mentioned selling of assets, and 21% responded they would not be able to cope at all if the situation persists.
- There are also Impacts on other aspects of people's lives. Violence seems like an emerging concern in some countries as 33% of the respondents in Uganda and 23% in Afghanistan reported increased violence the emergence of the pandemic.
The impact of COVID-19 in Bangladesh
- BRAC also conducted a rapid perception survey  in Bangladesh to capture the level of awareness among households of low incomes, and the economic impact on livelihoods. The survey comprised 2,675 respondents across all 64 districts of Bangladesh. Questionnaires were collected by BRAC staff from across all 64 districts of Bangladesh between 31 March to 5 April 2020.
- Among the people surveyed, 24% were previously living in extreme poverty (according to the World Bank, that is defined as an income of less than £1.50 per day), before the pandemic. Now more than 80% of the people surveyed can be considered to be living in extreme poverty. The average income of the total pool of respondents saw a 75% drop. While the average income was £140 per month before the pandemic, in March, the figure stood at £36. Almost all the respondents (92%) have had their incomes affected. Approximately two-third (72%) have lost their jobs and are currently unemployed. People living in rural areas are losing out more on their monthly income than people living in cities, which may be explained. Rural areas may be feeling the brunt because of the mass migration that took place after the lockdown. The excess number of returnee labourers have significantly lowered wage rates.
- Participants were also asked what the future holds for them. More than a third (36% of the respondents) said they do not have a plan on how to cope if the crisis continues. The survey finds one-fourth of the respondents (23%) expect public relief. Others plan to cope by taking credit (19%), or by selling their assets (4%).
- BRAC will continue to gather data from our field activities and share it with stakeholders such as DFID. We have a number of research studies planned, including more rapid assessments and an analysis of the impact of BRAC’s cash transfer programme in Bangladesh, which provided immediate cash assistance to over 198,000 families.
The UK’s response to COVID 19
- The UK Government is one of BRAC’s earliest and longest standing partners. This is particularly the case in Bangladesh, where over 35 years ago, it supported BRAC to establish a comprehensive rural development programme. In 2011, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), alongside the UK (DFID), entered a Strategic Partnership Arrangement (SPA) with BRAC in Bangladesh. The UK provided £223 million over 5 years as core support to BRAC’s development programmes, which provided basic services (health, education, water and sanitation) and supported the livelihoods of some of the poorest and most marginalised people in Bangladesh. The partnership has achieved incredible results, so much so that a second SPA was agreed in 2016 and is due to end in 2021. We shared more information on the partnership in our written and verbal evidence to the committee during the inquiry into Bangladesh, Burma and the Rohingya Crisis in 2019.
- The UK Government, through DFID, has also been a strong supporter of BRAC’s programmes outside of Bangladesh. For example, in Afghanistan DFID has funded BRAC to run community based schools as part of the Girls Education Challenge, ensuring secondary, higher secondary, technical and vocational education for over 49,000 girls. In Uganda, DFID is co-funding a disability-inclusive ultra-poor graduation programme in Northern Uganda, which BRAC is running in partnership with Humanity & Inclusion and NUWODU, a Ugandan Disabled Persons Organisation. That project is helping 2,700 people aged 15 - 64 who are living in ultra-poverty. Of those, 15% are people with disabilities and 70% are women.
- DFID has provided crucial support in providing rapid funding. As a result, BRAC was able to leverage our network of 50,000 Community Health Workers to rapidly deliver increased public awareness messaging on maintaining personal hygiene, social distancing and respiratory etiquette, all of which are essential in preventing transmission of the novel coronavirus.
- However, countries outside of Bangladesh have received much less support. We have observed an unequal response to COVID-19 across the Global South. A number of countries are receiving very little support, particularly South Sudan and Sierra Leone. DFID could continue its role as a leader in development and advocate for other countries to ensure no country gets left behind.
- DFID should also acknowledge the important role in the global response played by Civil Society Organisations (CSO’s), especially in the Global South. So far the funding that has been made available for NGO’s, for example, is £20 Million through the Rapid Response Framework and a yet to be announced commitment through the UK Aid Direct funding stream. CSO’s are vital in filling the gaps left within Government responses to the Pandemic as they can usually mobilise responses more quickly. Their large networks of Community Health Workers and ability to embed within local communities, for example, could be utilised to scale up Government responses and it is clear that CSOs are being underfunded at the moment.
Lessons learned from previous crises
- Since its founding in 1972, BRAC has been building community-level disaster preparedness, resilience building, and related institutional capacity building. BRAC is the largest civil society responder in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where the world’s most populous refugee camp is located. BRAC was also on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Though Ebola is a different disease, there are many practices to stop its spread which are similar to COVID-19, like frequent handwashing and practicing social distancing. We have learned from case studies  published by the Global Delivery Initiative on BRAC’s microfinance response to the Ebola outbreak, and findings from the World Bank  on how our youth empowerment clubs helped adolescent girls be resilient in the wake of Ebola. Our experience in West Africa has taught us that our clients and participants are incredibly resilient in the face of a crisis.
As it considers it’s long-term strategy in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, DFID should prioritise the support of existing prevention, healthcare and income support programmes in the Global South. We are particularly concerned about countries where the Government or the UN has not stepped up to provide support during the response, either from a public health or an economic perspective. The UK must show leadership and enable the international community to enact balanced, packaged interventions that actively promote locally led actions, champion local leadership, and listen to local expertise as we strive for collective empowerment, not only to face the challenges of today but to be ready for the challenges of tomorrow.
DFID can also play a key role in advocating with host governments, sharing its learning and promoting best practice in responding to the crisis. Governments across the Global South are acting differently. DFID can also work with Civil Society, especially in the Global South, to ensure that the situation on the ground is shared with policy makers. Many other Civil Society Organisations are extremely connected with communities and therefore well placed to share what is going on at the community level. BRAC, for example, is actively sharing our data and intelligence with DFID, which we have gathered through our large networks of community health workers.
Once the initial response phase is over, it will also be vital that DFID and the international community supports the Global South to stimulate economic and social recovery. In particular, DFID can focus on supporting Governments to build stronger social protection systems which will enable populations to be more resilient in the future. This will be especially necessary if lockdowns and social distancing become ‘the new normal.’
As this submission shows, our rapid assessments have shown a sharp rise in the percentage of people who have completely lost their income. The international community needs to act to prevent this situation from deteriorating further.
 BRAC’s Strategic Response Framework
 BRAC’s Global COVID-19 website
 BRAC International Rapid Assessment 1
 BRAC International Rapid Assessment 2
 BRAC Bangladesh Rapid Perception Survey
 Global Delivery Initiative case study on financial inclusion post Ebola Crisis
 World Bank research on how Ebola impacted the lives of adolescent girls