International Development Committee inquiry: The impact of Coronavirus on developing countries

Concern Worldwide (UK) submission

7th May 2020


About Concern Worldwide


  1. 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.


  1. Concern has extensive experience of Infection Prevention and Control and community awareness campaigns, including from our work during the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


  1. Every Concern in-country office has developed a specific COVID-19 response plan, in order to support vulnerable communities to prevent and/or minimise the impact of the virus. Each of these plans are relevant to their specific context as each country faces its own particular challenges. This is the first time that all of our countries of operation have faced the same threat at the same time.


  1. We welcome the opportunity to provide written evidence to inform the International Development Select Committee’s inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on developing countries around the world, and the UK’s response.


Summary of key points


  1. The primary impacts of the disease in countries with weak health systems will be severe. Equally, COVID-19 is a wider humanitarian challenge with significant secondary impacts which risk lasting even longer than the initial impacts.


  1. The pandemic exacerbates existing vulnerabilities, inequalities and tensions and will impact the poorest and most vulnerable people most.


  1. Hunger in developing countries is forecast to increase at an alarming rate, with the World Food Programme forecasting that COVID-19 could double the number of people who are acutely food insecure by the end of this year alone[i].


  1. The impact of COVID-19 on people’s livelihoods is likely to be severe and, for many, catastrophic. Immediately, the COVID-19 restrictions will limit people’s ability to move around, attend places of work and sell their goods. For many, this means losing the ability to buy food for their families.


  1. Longer-term, there will be increased food insecurity linked to a reduction in local crop production, loss of income and a loss of productive assets due to distress sale or inability to look after them (e.g. in the case of livestock).


  1. COVID-19 also has a gendered dimension as women are likely to be impacted disproportionately. Women are more likely to be in low-paid, informal jobs and, indeed, work in caring roles where they are more likely to be exposed to the virus in the first place.


  1. The UK government must prioritise those people most likely to lose what little they have – the poorest and most vulnerable people. This includes in the most fragile places and contexts.


  1. The UK government must also enable those best placed to respond to do so urgently. This will often be those people and organisations already working with communities.


Concern Worldwide’s Written Evidence


  1. This submission builds on our previous submission of 17 April 2020. In particular, we are focusing this written evidence on two of the Committee’s areas of focus as set out in the scope of the inquiry.


Inquiry scope (a): The direct and indirect impacts of the outbreak on developing countries, and specific risks and threats


  1. It is clear that the direct impacts of COVID-19 on health are likely to be severe in many, potentially all, of the countries Concern Worldwide works in. Those countries with already weak health systems are most at risk of being overwhelmed quickly when COVID-19 hits, even before any peak is reached. Many others providing written evidence will set this out in greater detail.


  1. At Concern Worldwide, we believe that COVID-19 response needs to go beyond a global health crisis. This is a humanitarian crisis and the UK government’s response should recognise this.


  1. We are particularly concerned about the secondary impacts of COVID-19 which could be catastrophic, long-lasting and cause as much – if not more – damage to people and communities than COVID-19 itself. As all too often, this is likely to impact most on the poorest and most vulnerable people.


  1. For example, we know that world hunger was already rising[ii]. Yet COVID-19 could accelerate this over the coming months. The World Food Programme recently warned that COVID-19 could double the number of people facing severe food crises, from 135 million in 2019 to 265 million by the end of 2020[iii].


  1. As the global food chain faces further disruption and food prices rise, availability and affordability will be affected. This will place more stress on the poorest families to make ends meet when they are hit by higher food costs and a drop in informal labour opportunities.


  1. The lockdown measures brought in to combat COVID-19 are having their own effects on this. Restrictions on movement are impacting the poorest people hardest - especially those in informal, insecure and low paid jobs. In urban settlements in Nairobi, 80% of respondents to a government survey in April were already reporting a loss in all or some of their income[iv].


  1. A slowing of demand in the global economy is also affecting those working in the garment and flower industries, and those dependent on tourism. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that one million garment workers suddenly lost their jobs as international retail chains pulled $2.4 billion of business[v]. While in Somalia, there has been a significant drop in remittances, as diaspora in developing countries are also being hit financially. In total, income losses as a result of COVID-19 are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries[vi].


  1. The impact will be severe amongst both the urban poor and those in rural areas. Many migrant workers are returning to rural villages from urban centres, further increasing economic strain and food insecurity within households. Increasing rates of infection and widespread fear of infection, coupled with restrictive social distancing measures, are affecting agricultural input and yields. In some places, for instance Pakistan, travel restrictions are making it difficult for farmers to get perishable foods to market in time.


  1. As approximately half the world’s population does not have access to a safety net[vii], the impacts will be quickly felt. Without support, there is significant risk of negative coping strategies such as distress sale of productive assets and high-risk income generating activities (such as child/early and forced marriage or sex work).


  1. And there is a significant, and still under-reported, gender dimension to COVID-19. Women make up a higher proportion of the informal sector in urban areas (street/market traders, domestic work, cleaners etc.) and are likely to feel economic impacts more severely. Women also make up the majority of front-line health workers - 70% globally[viii] - and are therefore at higher risk of contracting the disease. Women also tend to be responsible for care-giving at home and it is likely that this workload will increase due to ill-health of family members or the closure of schools.


  1. Social distancing, isolation and lock down could also lead to increased social exclusion of the extreme poor who are often marginalised and lack social networks. Financial stress due to a loss of income or personal stress due to restrictions on movement can lead to an increased tension within households and therefore increased risk of domestic violence, including gender-based violence. The UNFPA estimates that if the lockdown continues for 6 months, 31 million additional gender-based violence cases can be expected. For every 3 months the lockdown continues, an additional 15 million additional cases of gender-based violence are expected[ix].


  1. Spiking food prices could also lead to social unrest and instability, as was the case during the food crises of 2007-2008. In Central Sahel, where there is ongoing conflict, it is expected that 5.5 million people will need urgent food assistance this year during the lean period of June to August[x].


Inquiry scope (b): The UK’s response, bilaterally and with the international community, to the spread of coronavirus to developing countries 


i) Enabling those best placed to respond as quickly as possible


  1. Communities and local NGOs are the first responders in most disasters and ensure a timely delivery of humanitarian aid. COVID-19 is no exception to this. In fact, due to travel restrictions and lockdown measures in place in many countries, their role is even more crucial.  


  1. For example, in Pakistan, the community structures set up and strengthened through the DFID-funded Building Disaster Resilience in Pakistan programme enabled a rapid and coordinated response from the community and local NGOs. This included:  


  1. Communities and local NGOs need to be supported by the global response to COVID-19. To move quickly, existing relationships need to be leveraged – NGOs like Concern have direct links to communities and organisations on the front line of response. 


ii) The need to balance programme continuity and flexibility


  1. As we have had to change our activities in order to respond to the new context within which our programmes operate, there have been necessary changes in contractual agreements with donors. To enable response, it would be helpful for donors to provide maximum flexibility for existing fund holders – grantees and contract suppliersto adapt existing programmes during the pandemic. This would include:


  1. However, it is also critical that, wherever possible, existing programmes are enabled to continue safely during the pandemic. For many of the people and communities that Concern works with, COVID-19 is just one of a number of challenges they face. The coming months will also see locusts, continued conflict and displacement, flooding, droughts and other extreme weather. The impacts of COVID-19 will undermine their ability to deal with these multiple shocks. If important activities are put on hold, the development gains already made will be reversed. Clearly this could have short- and long-term impacts on vulnerable communities.


  1. Enabling programmes to continue will also benefit the COVID-19 response. In many instances, Concern’s programmes provide a route in which to engage with communities and disseminate COVID-19 health and hygiene messages. For example, when parents attend a nutrition clinic, they can also be checked for symptoms of COVID-19. If farmers attend a demonstration on digging irrigation channels to prevent flooding, they can also be instructed on the importance of handwashing.


iii) Ensuring COVID-19 response does not do more harm


  1. We must also ensure that COVID-19 response does not compound existing crises. East Africa is at the epicentre of the locust crisis, with Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda among the affected countries. The worst desert locust infestation in 70 years is already devastating crops, posing a grave threat to food security and livelihoods. In the affected countries, almost 25 million people are already experiencing severe food insecurity. COVID-19 restrictions are delaying the delivery of pesticides and equipment to control the locusts. With flights cancelled, shipping costs have reportedly increased by 300%[xi].


  1. The second wave of this outbreak, which is currently arriving after seasonal rains, is estimated to be 20 times the size of the first. This wave of locusts will wipe out farmers’ livelihoods and food supplies, which will have a knock-on effect on food prices and availability. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation has called the locust outbreak, caused in part by climate change, “an unprecedented threat” to food security and livelihoods[xii].


  1. It is further important to take a contextual approach to any response. More than half the world’s population live in urban areas[xiii], with many of the world’s poorest people living in high-density poorly serviced urban settlements or formal and informal camps for displaced people and refugees. Social distancing is a useful tool to flatten the curve to enable health systems to manage the crisis, but realistically, very difficult in communities where families live in confined spaces.


  1. The more severe lockdown approaches in place in many Northern countries are only possible if supported by broad and inclusive social protection systems to protect families and individuals whose livelihoods have been disrupted.


  1. In countries where physical distancing is ineffective due to the high density of population and the government is unable to provide social protection for all its citizens, these sudden and possibly extended lockdown measures have the potential to be catastrophic.


  1. In Malawi, the proposed three-week lockdown was suspended for seven days to allow for measures to be put in place to prevent hunger when large food markets were closed[xiv]. As COVID-19 evolves, so too must responses, moving from blanket approaches to more flexible, contextually feasible strategies. The design of ‘flexdowns’ rather than absolute lockdowns may be a more effective approach, a pro-poor model of social distancing, especially for highly vulnerable groups with limited resources and resilience.


iv) Investing in food and nutrition security


  1. Experience from previous crises, shows the significant impact of movement restrictions and disease containment efforts on food production and access, and the importance of maintaining and upscaling humanitarian food security interventions for the most vulnerable populations. Early response to the ongoing locust infestation is essential to minimise the impact on countries in the Horn of Africa of multiple shocks on food security.


  1. Undernutrition puts children at greater risk of dying from common infections, increases the frequency and severity of such infections and delays recovery[xv]. Nutrition programming must be recognised as a priority service to protect the health and welfare of children under 5, pregnant and lactating mothers and other vulnerable groups.


  1. Millions of children are losing out on essential nutrition with schools closed, and many families cannot afford to feed their children as they have lost their income. Providing families with the means to feed their children must be a priority to prevent children from becoming malnourished and to protect their health. Cash assistance to urban communities with no other means of earning a living should be prioritised in countries where no state social protection system exists.


Concern Worldwide UK’s Recommendations


  1. Given this, we have the following recommendations for the UK government’s response:


Recognise COVID-19 is a humanitarian crisis:


a)      COVID-19 should be treated as a global humanitarian challenge, going beyond a solely health-specific response.

b)      In the face of this global humanitarian crisis, the UK must continue to provide humanitarian aid in places prone to conflict, political instability or climate change wherever possible.

c)       Life-saving humanitarian activities such as the distribution of food and cash should be considered essential services and exempt from restriction or impediment by authorities.

d)      Ongoing support to existing programmes for the most vulnerable people and communities should be maintained wherever possible.


Respond in ways which match the context:


e)      The UK’s approach and programming must be context-specific with no one-size-fits-all approach. Some measures which can be applied in the UK, for example social distancing, will not work in complex settings such as camps, high-density urban settlements and situations of ongoing conflict.


Respond as quickly and effectively as possible:


f)        The UK should enable those best placed to respond, and to respond quickly. This should include new and additional funds to meet both the primary and secondary impacts of COVID-19.


We would be happy to provide further written information or attend an oral evidence session to further inform the Committee’s inquiry.


Rachel Hickman

Concern Worldwide UK


[i] World Food Programme


[ii] FAO, State of Food Security And Nutrition in the World 2019


[iii] World Food Programme


[iv] Kenya: COVID-19 Knowledge, Attitudes, Practices and Needs:




[vi] UNDP, COVID-19: Looming crisis in developing countries threatens to devastate economies and ramp up inequality


[vii] World Food Programme


[viii] World Health Organisation


[ix] UNFPA


[x] World Food Programme


[xi] FAO


[xii] FAO


[xiii] UN 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects


[xiv] FT