Submission to the IDC ‘Humanitarian crises monitoring: impact of coronavirus’ inquiry
International Alert has worked with partners in conflict prevention and peacebuilding for more than 30 years in over 20 countries and disputed territories around the world. Our work involves addressing the underlying drivers of conflict, while building community, state and international capacity to manage conflict peacefully. It takes a variety of forms, ranging from work on reconciliation; community security; gender, peace and security; and preventing violent extremism; to encouraging greater political inclusion and trust between citizens and the state; climate and security; as well as peaceful management of natural resources and work with the private sector. We also have a track record of working with the humanitarian community in contexts such as, Lebanon, Nigeria, Nepal and the Philippines and work closely with the UK government including DFID and the FCO in various conflict-contexts.
What are the direct and indirect impacts of the outbreak on developing countries, and specific risks and threats?
- The impact of Covid-19 will be felt more in deeply divided, fragile and conflict-prone societies, where governments’ ability to manage the interlinked public health and economic crises will be limited. The crisis is highlighting even more acutely the absence of functional and responsive state institutions in conflict-affected countries. This is leading to more civilian grievances that will be felt long after the pandemic is contained. It is compounding existing root causes of conflict such as political and economic exclusion, weak governance and absence of basic services, lack of trust in government and resource competition, increasing the chances of violence and making the public health response more challenging.
- The crisis will also disrupt the delivery of humanitarian assistance to people already living in conflict, while pre-existing conflict itself will restrict access for those seeking to respond to Covid-19. IDPs and refugees are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, living in congested camps, with limited access to hygiene facilities and where social distancing is not possible.
Compounding the state-citizen divide
- The lessons from Ebola highlight how a lack of state-citizen trust can fuel tensions and hamper crisis response. International Alert’s research in Liberia after the 2014–15 Ebola virus outbreak showed that trust in the government was very low – a legacy of unaddressed grievances following the civil war – with 81% of respondents angry at the government’s perceived slowness in responding. In 2018-19 in DRC, mistrust in the government, misinformation and elevated tensions increased violence, reducing access to humanitarian assistance, aiding the spread of the disease.
- The Covid-19 pandemic is presenting its own challenges to citizen-state trust. In Africa, where 60% of urban residents live in crowded slums, the same governments that are perceived to have failed in efforts to provide adequate housing and running water are telling citizens to practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently and threatening sanctions if they do not. Because of a lack of adequate health infrastructure, emergency units are being created which are not up to standard making many fear coming forward for testing and isolation. In Kenya, people who are quarantined are forced to stay in government centres at their own cost which is more than the cost of weekly rent for many people. This has led to frustration which inspired a mass escape from one centre. A lack of bureaucratic infrastructure means very limited capacity to provide social safety nets for the most vulnerable and where they do exist, corruption often undermines delivery. In highly conflict-affected contexts, where malign non-state actors are already involved in providing public goods, the rule of law and security, the pandemic is likely to make central authorities appear even less credible.
- Some states are using securitised approaches to enforce social isolation measures, which could fuel pre-existing tensions and increase social unrest. On April 16th 2020, Nigeria's National Human Rights Commission, a government-linked agency, published an alarming finding: the death toll from security forces acting to enforce coronavirus lockdown measures was higher than the deaths officially recorded by the virus. In Kenya, after a spate of sometimes deadly incidents, President Uhuru Kenyatta apologised to citizens for security force excesses.
- The U.N. Human Rights Office has observed a range of human rights violations in the context of Covid-19 exceptional measures imposed by several states, across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, prompting the UN Secretary General to note that ‘heavy-handed security responses undermine the health response and can exacerbate existing threats to peace and security or create new ones.’ This is particularly problematic in conflict-contexts where violent armed groups regularly use state abuses as a means of recruitment and basis to sow division between the state and citizens.
- Similarly, shutting down civil society space and muzzling media outlets (e.g. in Tanzania TV stations were sanctioned for fake news on coronavirus but it only came after they criticised President’s response), enhanced surveillance measures (e.g. in Kenya, tracking people through phones without their knowledge), delayed political processes (e.g. August election in Ethiopia delayed indefinitely without consultation with opposition, in Kenya the Building Bridges Initiative aimed at political reconciliation delayed) all threaten to erode confidence in the state and bring on the consequences that come along with that.
- The UN Secretary General has warned that with ‘rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a push back against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic.’
- Covid-19 is being exploited in a variety of forms by both state and non-state actors. Factions in Yemen are using Covid-19 to recruit (‘it is better to die a martyr than of Covid’). It is also being used as a political tool. The Syrian regime and allies are asking the UN to lift sanctions to enable it to fight the disease, while in Libya, forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar have attacked medical facilities to advance their territorial control. Reports have suggested Israel is conditioning the provision of ventilators to Gaza on the return of two prisoners held by Hamas.
- In Lebanon, political parties are mobilising resources independent of the state to serve their own constituencies. In Ukraine, President Zelensky has asked oligarchs to invest in the country’s pandemic response, allocating them regions in which they are to coordinate efforts; while in the Philippines, there have been reports of corruption in the provision of testing and medicine.
Impact of economic deprivation on conflict
- Both Covid-19 and the measures taken to control it will increase economic stresses, competition over resources and pressure on livelihoods. In eastern DRC for example, Alert’s office reports that prices of vegetables, wheat, sugar etc have gone up significantly due to the border closure. There are already examples of virus prevention measures turning violent, for example an administrator of one of the North Kivu territories had stones thrown at him when he asked the motorbike drivers to limit the passengers to one person, curtailing income that drivers depend on.
- The informal sector is probably the most combustible, as most of these occupations are dependent on day labour. Those relying on the informal sector for their livelihoods have no or very little savings to be able to stock up on food supplies to survive through social distancing measures. This group represents a significant proportion of the workforce in many developing countries (e.g. 83.6 per cent of the total workforce in Kenya). Without relief, economically deprived communities and those in the informal sector may be forced to contravene social distancing making them vulnerable to state violence. In some contexts, there are risks that they could also be pushed towards securing resources through engagement in shadow economies such as illegal drugs, illegal guns, kidnap-for-ransom, or guns for hire.
- The impact on the large youth populations of many fragile and conflict-affected countries will also need to be anticipated especially in relation to the possibility of a global recession. The World Bank forecasts that growth in Sub-Saharan Africa will fall sharply from 2.4% in 2019 to -2.1 to -5.1% in 2020, resulting in the first recession in the region in 25 years. The 2018 ‘Independent progress study on youth, peace and security: the missing peace’, highlighted that young people were already experiencing a loss of confidence in economic systems that excluded them as key stakeholders, and that reflect growing levels of inequality. For many young people who participated in the study, economic inclusion manifested primarily as fair access to meaningful and reliable employment. In conflict-affected countries already experiencing high-levels of unemployment or underemployment the compounding nature of Covid-19 could have serious political, social and economic consequences.
- Remittances constitute a huge source of income and investment in developing and conflict-affected countries. Remittance flows to Sub-Saharan Africa alone are expected to decline by 23.1 percent in 2020, recovering just 4 percent in 2021. Ordinarily, remittances represent a source of resilience for conflict-affected communities but shutdowns in the economies from which these remittances flow, undermine this role.
- The Covid-19 crisis also has the potential to spark a destabilising food security crisis in Africa, with the World Bank forecasting agricultural production to potentially contract between 2.6% in an optimistic scenario and up to 7% if there are trade blockages. Food imports could decline substantially, as much as 25% or as little as 13%.
Divisive narratives and misinformation
- Narratives about COVID-19 can deepen existing fears and make it easier to target minority and vulnerable groups, particularly those seen as outsiders – a common feature of many conflicts.
- Several countries have reported violence against Asian communities, while in the Lebanon tensions between Lebanese communities and Syrian refugees are reported to have worsened during the crisis. A wave of hardening tension along sectarian lines across the Middle East has is also receiving coverage.
- Specific to those involved in the Covid-19 response, Alert has also heard reports in Kenya, Nigeria and DRC that communities suspect INGO aid workers (especially foreigners) of deliberately introducing Covid-19, perhaps to increase their funding. In humanitarian settings a number of cases were first detected among INGO workers, which is fuelling the disinformation. Long-term, if such a narrative spreads, it will limit credibility of aid interventions and access to communities.
Gender based violence and deepening inequality
- The lack of access to social networks, protection and economic opportunities brought on by COVID-19 as well as restrictions on movement, have dramatically increased the numbers of women and girls facing Gender Based Violence (GBV), so much so that it has been dubbed a ‘shadow pandemic’.
- Redirected funding and increased demand for support may crowd out women’s organisations ability to respond to GBV while continuing to work on structural inequality. International Alert/Oxfam research in the Middle East and North Africa region, ‘Now is the time’, showed that women’s rights organisations in conflict contexts were repeatedly told that now is not the time to advance the gender equality agenda and instead were pushed to work on crisis response.
- To the contrary though, experiences with Ebola and Zika emphatically demonstrate that failing to address structural gender inequalities in crisis response further compounded those gender inequalities. Research conducted by International Alert, 'Building back better or restoring inequalities?' following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal also highlighted how responses to disasters often entrench inequalities.
Suspension of peace programming
- More countries are experiencing violent conflict now than at any time in the past 30 years. This trend is unlikely to be arrested but rather exacerbated by further instability wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even if the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire was heeded, without simultaneously addressing the drivers of those conflict, ceasefires would not hold.
- Much peacebuilding work relies on continuous engagement and trust-building. Conflict dynamics, stakeholders and interests shift over time and there is a need for peacebuilders to continue to connect with and through their networks to ensure they can continue to effectively interpret and respond to the conflict context. Long-term suspension of projects will not only begin to erode peace gains but also undermine peacebuilders credibility where they are absent. For example, important dialogue work in DRC has been partially suspended due to government directives (e.g. cannot assemble more than 20 people) putting a recently negotiated ceasefire in one eastern DRC province at risk.
- There is a need for donors and peacebuilding organisations to pursue creative work-arounds to maintain the momentum of peacebuilding interventions and the networks and relationships that support them.
Views about the UK’s response, bilaterally and with the international community, to the spread of coronavirus to developing countries
- Where assistance is being delivered in fragile and conflict-affected contexts there is a need for an approach that integrates healthcare responses with peacebuilding action, beginning with a clear and nuanced understanding of the conflict dynamics in each context.
- Peacebuilders have both a role in helping others to deliver assistance in a conflict sensitive way as well as a role to play in directly preventing increased violence that has the potential to manifest as a result of Covid-19 in the short and long-term.
Conflict sensitive approach
- There is a need for DFID and the FCO to ensure that a ‘conflict-sensitive’ approach is being applied by all partners. An increasing number of humanitarian organisations are cognisant of the need to work in this manner but require practical support and advice to ensure its application. It is vital that this practice does not slip during the emergency response and that it is further extended to those still to adopt this approach.
- If delivered without understanding conflict dynamics, stakeholder interests and relationships, aid could fuel tensions or even lead directly to violence. In DRC, despite large amounts of aid for screenings and vaccinations, the Ebola crisis worsened in 2019, highlighting the need to build community trust. In Nepal, the earthquake response in 2015 saw remote and marginalised communities left out of assistance efforts, sharpening political divides that drove the conflict.
- Peacebuilders can play a role in providing contextual analysis, helping humanitarian agencies monitor the impact of their work on conflict and anticipate the impact of conflict on their work, facilitate the inclusion of marginalised voices in decision-making around pandemic response and recovery and play a role in mobilising existing grassroots networks, including women’s groups, to support the pandemic response in the short and long-term.
- For example, in Lebanon, International Alert is working with healthcare NGO Amel Association, supporting health and social workers to deliver services in a way that contributes to social cohesion. Alert’s Nigeria Technical Assistance programming has briefed Kaduna State Government in partnership with the Kaduna Peace Commission, on conflict sensitive COVID-19 responses plans. In the Philippines, Alert’s Critical Events Monitoring System (CEMS) and Early Response Networks (ERNs) was reengineered to include monitoring of incidents related to the COVID-19 and is enabling deeper analysis on how the health crisis and government responses affect conflict dynamics and therefore need to be adjusted. Meanwhile The Water, Peace and Security Partnership (consortium) has been asked by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to look at how it can use its tools, which track resource, economic and disaster-related data, to assess the impacts of COVID-19 and help design effective responses.
Addressing the potential for violence
- There is a need for both DFID and the FCO to ensure that humanitarian assistance is being adequately matched with peacebuilding assistance to counter the potential for Covid-19, and responses to it, to escalate existing conflict and further restrict efforts to tackle the disease.
- Peacebuilders can use local knowledge and networks, and their role as trusted partners to bring governments and citizens together to find common ground, and to help people voice their concerns over COVID peacefully. In Tunisia, we are looking at ways to adapt work on health governance in border regions, which supports citizens to advocate towards government for health service improvements, to COVID-19.
- The UK should also be supporting peacebuilders to play a role in identifying and countering divisive narratives. In Nigeria Alert is using media programmes to provide accurate information and to give citizens a platform to voice how the pandemic is affecting their lives, while encouraging government officials to provide accurate information and explain the need for containment measures. In the Philippines Alert has worked to address the stigmatisation of Muslims in Metro-Manila who died as a result of Covid-19 and were refused burial. Alert engaged national and regional governments resulting new protocols from the government’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Infectious Diseases for the internment of Muslims.
- The UK needs to be more active in addressing, through bilateral and multilateral channels, abuses by government and state security forces that deepen distrust between citizens and the state and create space for malign actors to take advantage of this disconnect. In its interventions, there is a need for the UK (and broader international community) to move beyond sanctioning such actions to proactively reinforcing relationships of mutual trust, accountability and collaboration. For example, security forces in Nigeria and Mali are undertaking community consultations to collaborate on issues like setting up temperature control checkpoints and transporting sick people to hospital for testing/treatment. Generally, but particularly where security forces are involved, there is a need for mechanisms for citizens to be able to input into response strategies, or at least feedback on the effectiveness of the strategies.
Gender-based violence (GBV)
- Governments must make GBV prevention and gender equality a key part of their pandemic response and remain cognisant at all times about structural inequalities that affect and are affected by the delivery of aid. Stimulus packages must be sensitive to the needs to women and other vulnerable groups, directing money to those that need it the most, paying attention to unpaid care that keeps communities functioning. The voices of women on the front lines of the response, such as health care and social workers and of those most impacted must be included in disaster response planning.
Shore up local and international NGO peacebuilding capacity
- Even as there are immediate urgent lifesaving needs to be met, peacebuilding must continue to be at the forefront of our considerations when it comes to fragile and conflict-affected contexts. An expansion of, or relapse into, violent conflict will make efforts to address the current pandemic as well as prevent future ones, impossible in many parts of the world.
- With trust being the currency of peace, peacebuilding NGOs have cultivated relationships with communities, local and national governments and civil society often over decades. This is what gives them unique access to affected communities, the ability to mobilise their networks and partnerships with local civil society quickly and, being closer to the ground, the capacity to monitor and respond to highly complex and evolving dynamics. This unique capability will take significant time and investment to rebuild if lost and set back peace agendas by decades in some contexts.
- It is important that the UK continue to support the operational costs of NGOs, particularly national partners, where projects have been suspended to ensure their continued viability (and capacity to maintain some level of engagement with conflict-affected communities) during and after the pandemic. Supporting local networks becomes even more important when travel is restricted and localised understanding of community/social dynamics is key.
- In the UK, the INGO sector risks being left out of charity funding support, at the same time as it steps up efforts to deal with a global pandemic. For example, in the UK, just 10% of £200m allocated by DFID to fight COVID-19 in developing countries went to INGOs (the rest went multilateral institutions).
What will be the impact of the outbreak on UK aid funding in the longer-term?
- As bills come due for domestic COVID-19 responses, pressure to divert or reduce aid spending will increase. Additionally, a likely global economic downturn may see GDP, and therefore, UK ODA shrink.
- There will be a temptation to skew international aid, including that intended for the SDGs, towards recovery of healthcare systems and economies. This is a false economy in conflict-affected contexts as failure to simultaneously invest in peacebuilding means healthcare interventions are unlikely to be sustainable where conflict persists or re-emerges. Failure to address ongoing conflict will mean potential pockets of virus remain. Given the regionalisation of many conflicts, and porous borders in many conflict settings, this creates scope for a global resurgence in the virus.
- The crisis will not only impact on donor funding but also national government spending. Following the aftermath of the Ebola crisis, a 2017 UN evaluation noted that the largest impediment to the sustainability of Peacebuilding Fund interventions was the lack of fiscal space within Liberia’s national budget to carry on the programmes. The international community will need to look to counter such contractions.