International Development Committee of the House of Commons

Inquiry on Humanitarian Crises Monitoring: Impact of Coronavirus

Submission Two: Longer-term issues, implications and lessons to be learned

Written Evidence Submitted by Search for Common Ground

May 11th, 2020


        The direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 will shape societies around the world for years to come, creating conflict-related risks, but also opportunities for enduring improvements; HMG should support peacebuilding programming to address these risks and exploit these opportunities.

        COVID-19 strains the social fabric in every community it touches; it can bring simmering divisions to the surface, result in stigmatisation of certain groups, and trigger violence.

        COVID-19 itself as well as response interventions can shift power dynamics and incentives between conflict parties, leading to escalation or de-escalation; in some contexts, cooperation on health response can bring parties together against a common challenge and build trust.

        COVID-19 can shift relations between civilians and authorities; ill-adapted responses may decrease trust, increase risks of violence against civilians, and disproportionately impact marginalised groups; inclusivity in COVID-19 response measures can improve relations in the longer term.

        Economic frustrations triggered by the pandemic can fuel perceptions of injustice, inflame tensions in communities, or increase competition for access to resources; this may increase violent activity.

        COVID-19 is likely to undermine women’s economic security and girls’ education; the pandemic may also create opportunities to promote women’s leadership in the public sphere.

        COVID-19 will likely have waves of second- and third-order impacts on conflict-affected societies; beyond incorporating social cohesion elements into programming, HMG can play an important role in building sustainable systems for ensuring conflict sensitivity.

        Where COVID-19 forces NGO partners to close or to cut staff and operations, this could mean a loss of crucial expertise, knowledge, relationship, and partners for UK foreign and development policy; HMG should support NGO partners to maintain their core systems.

        Economic contraction triggered by COVID-19 will reduce resources available to HMG, creating an imperative of ‘doing more with less’; HMG should target its COVID-19 assistance to make the most from partnerships with non-state actors.


  1. Search for Common Ground (Search) has been a global leader in peacebuilding and conflict transformation for nearly 40 years, currently implementing over 140 programmes. We have partnered with Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) to build healthy, safe, and just societies in more than 20 countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. We work closely with the Department for International Development (DFID), the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the Conflict Stability and Security Fund, as well as other UK non-profits, companies, academics, and philanthropists.
  2. Search is supporting efforts aimed at addressing the immediate, secondary, and longer-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in more than a dozen countries. This work builds on our experience implementing programmes in response to health crises in a wide variety of conflict contexts, including in West Africa and Democratic Republic of Congo during and after the Ebola crisis, in addition to experience with other illnesses including polio, leishmaniasis, food-borne illnesses, and avian influenza across the Jordan River Valley.[1]
  3. This evidence covers longer-term risks and opportunities of the pandemic, understood here as those that go beyond immediate concerns and health responses. This includes issues we expect to manifest in the coming months or beyond and impacts on conflict dynamics and social cohesion that may endure for years. It draws on the analyses of our experts, the data and learning from our teams implementing COVID-19 response programmes, our deep local ties (over 90% of our staff are based in their home countries), our long presence in the countries where we work, and innovative approaches. This evidence complements our recent submission to the International Development Committee in which we addressed a set of immediate challenges posed by the pandemic.[2]


What are the longer-term direct and indirect impacts of the outbreak on developing countries and specific risks and threats?

  1. The direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 will undeniably shape societies around the world for years to come, creating significant conflict-related risks, but also opportunities for enduring improvements if collaboration, sustainability, and inclusion are designed into longer-term response and recovery.

COVID-19 risks exacerbating existing divisions and creating new divides in conflict-affected societies.

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic is straining the social fabric in every community it touches. It brings simmering divisions to the surface and can result in stigmatisation of certain groups, triggering violence, including against healthcare workers.[3] This risk is especially acute in conflict-affected areas with fragile social fabrics. As public gatherings decline, there are fewer opportunities for positive social interaction among differing identity groups. Some countries have already seen new tensions emerging and communities turning inwards along ethnic, religious, or other identity lines. Search teams have identified this as a significant risk in places like North Macedonia, Syria, and Lebanon. For example, in Lebanon, the worsening economic situation risks aggravating tensions between refugees and host communities.
  2. Traditional and social media can be employed for rumour and hate speech management and sharing of accurate information through trusted messengers. Social impact entertainment through online, TV, and radio dramatic content like Search’s ‘The Team’ TV and radio series can be a powerful way to shift norms and foster enduring social cohesion through content that people enjoy watching or listening to,[4] especially as quarantine means people spend more time consuming entertainment media at home.[5]
  3. HMG should support peacebuilding programming to continue through innovative means, such as shifting programming online through virtual exchange practices.[6] HMG should also support initiatives that seek to promote positive social norms and relations by engaging traditional and non-traditional media.

COVID-19 and responses to the pandemic will shift power dynamics between conflict parties.

  1. COVID-19 itself as well as response interventions can reinforce or weaken conflict parties’ power and political authority. In Afghanistan for example, the Taliban projects an image of preparedness to ensure effective health responses in areas it controls, including enforcing quarantines and spreading health information.[7] In Yemen, we similarly see conflict parties advancing their authority by controlling the movement of supplies or asserting local response measures.
  2. Where the direct and secondary impacts of a crisis like COVID-19 shift incentives, it may encourage armed forces or groups to press their advantage over a weakened rival as seen in Sri Lanka following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.[8] Such an approach seems to be promoted in a recent editorial of the ISIS newsletter Al-Naba encouraging attacks while targets are occupied dealing with the pandemic.[9] Alternatively, COVID-19 could motivate de-escalation, as with how the 2004 tsunami helped advance the Aceh peace process.[10]
  3. HMG should design response and recovery aid related to COVID-19 in conflict-affected countries so as to encourage collaboration and de-escalation by building upon existing local capacities for peace.

COVID-19 responses can shift relations between civilians and authorities in ways which threaten civic participation and exacerbate civilian grievances.

  1. Much of donor aid and multilateral engagement on COVID-19 has promoted a frontline role for national security services and ministries of health. However, unitary centralised deployment of state authority against a crisis means authorities may take measures that restrict civic spaces and persist after the crisis has ended, as reported by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.[11]
  2. Closure of civic space may especially affect populations with less access to political power such as youth, women, or marginalised groups. Moreover, if decision making on COVID-19 response is not perceived as inclusive - for example, where leaders, advisors, and security committees come from one ethnicity, religion, gender, or age-bracket - feelings of marginalisation and grievance narratives will increase.
  3. Where governments’ highly centralised measures yield effective results, it can send a message that non-participatory central authority is socially productive. Where centralised responses fail, state authorities could be perceived as ineffective and untrustworthy. Both messages engender risks. It is most productive to mobilise ‘whole-of-society’ engagement in longer-term response and recovery. This includes interventions where central authorities partner with sub-national authorities or civil society organisations, such as the women’s organisations negotiating health access in Kenya.
  4. HMG should support the participation of a broad range of actors, including women- and youth-led organisations, traditional leaders, local authorities, religious actors, and social media influencers, in longer-term response and recovery measures. HMG should channel funding to civil society and sub-national authorities, not just central governments. The COVID-19 crisis will be a generation-defining cultural and political moment for young people in particular. HMG should make a special effort to consider young people as partners in response and sustainable recovery. Beyond this direct support, HMG should be alert to civic space restrictions that are disproportionate, indefinite, or enforced without clear notification or specified justification.

Security-centred responses expose civilians to violence and increase insecurity in the longer term.

  1. Many authorities have relied heavily on security forces to enforce restrictions. This can put security actors in high-stress, close-contact situations with civilians for which most lack adequate de-escalation training. This immediate increase in the risk of violence against civilians can endure where power dynamics permanently shift to reflect new norms. The UN Special Rapporteur identified significant risk of civilian casualties in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw have taken on new powers in the COVID-19 response and rejected calls for a ceasefire.[12]
  2. Violent enforcement or perceived unequal treatment by security forces can create deep schisms which will take a long time to repair. Since effective security engagement rests on trust between security actors and civilian populations, worsened relations can drive future insecurity. This risk can be mitigated by appropriately training security forces and engaging them as community members, as Search has done in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[13]
  3. HMG should support civilian-led enforcement of health measures, such as municipal authorities overseeing quarantines. HMG should support initiatives that train security forces in crisis de-escalation and non-violent communication and empower them as protectors of human rights and human security in their communities. HMG should pay particular attention to building ‘whole-of-society’ partnerships around security sector engagement in COVID-19 related measures.

Economic crises triggered by the pandemic will drive longer-term instability.

  1. The International Monetary Fund predicts that living standards in at least 170 countries will fall this year, with a best case outlook of partial recovery in 2021, and the World Food Programme has warned that COVID-19 could double the number of people facing a food crisis.[14] In Afghanistan, Myanmar, and throughout the Middle East, we expect the second-order effects on food supply chains and unemployment could be significant. Ineffective service provision compounds this risk.
  2. In regions where people lack access to key resources or have fewer economic opportunities, economic frustrations can fuel perceptions of injustice, inflame tensions in communities, or increase competition for access to resources. The economic impact of COVID-19 may thus increase illegal and violent activity such as accelerating recruitment to extremist groups. Even once economic recovery begins, alleviating newly aggravated conflict dynamics will likely require dedicated action.
  3. Addressing the economic impact of this pandemic will include many of the same risks for relations between authorities and civilians as addressing the pandemic itself. Civilians’ economic grievances will often be directed at their authorities, and trust in authorities will be weakened in particular by any signs of mishandling, corruption, and unequal protection or support for different groups. Transparent and inclusive design and implementation of economic protection and recovery measures can help alleviate this risk.
  4. HMG should engage with international financial institutions and multilateral platforms to mitigate economic fallout and support eventual recovery through inclusive and transparent measures. HMG should support civil society-led peacebuilding initiatives to address new challenges triggered by economic disruption.

COVID-19 is likely to undermine gender equality, but may also create opportunities to promote women leaders in the public sphere.

  1. The pandemic is significantly disrupting many majority-female market sectors in fragile countries, such as domestic services, hospitality, and petty trading. This threatens women’s economic security in the longer term, especially if women recover financially more slowly than men as following Ebola-related disruption in West Africa.[15] Restrictions on markets and border crossings interrupt informal trading that is frequently women’s only path to financial independence. Women traders may be at particular risk of building up unpayable debt that can close off possibilities for recovery.[16]
  2. Temporary school closures disproportionately impact girls’ education and their longer-term socio-economic prospects. Girls are far less likely to return to school after income cuts leave families unable to afford schooling for all of their children. School closures and economic stress also puts girls at increased risk of early pregnancy and early or forced marriage.[17]
  3. COVID-19 creates challenges and opportunities for women’s political participation. In Sri Lanka, new electoral quotas have resulted in newly elected women whose leadership is easily dismissed. COVID-19 is an opportunity to support such women, ensuring more gender-sensitive responses as well as firmly establishing women’s crucial role in politics. In Liberia, Search has supported the civic and political participation of women leaders. When those women were included in community decision-making around Ebola response, their vital contribution in and beyond the immediate crisis was recognised. As Sri Lanka’s newly-elected women navigate both responding to COVID-19 and overcoming regressive gender norms, Search will be working to support them through capacity-building and driving forward positive media narratives.
  4. HMG should ensure economic relief and recovery is sensitive to gendered impacts of COVID-19. Dedicated support should target initiatives that mitigate the economic disruption to women and support girls’ education. HMG should support women’s political participation through and beyond this pandemic including initiatives that identify, highlight, and support valuable contributions of women in COVID-19 response.


What lessons have been identified and learned from previous experience with infectious diseases (for example, Ebola)?

If responses are not sensitive to local dynamics, they can harm both vertical and horizontal cohesion in the longer term.

  1. Where governments’ initial responses to the Ebola epidemics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and West Africa were poorly adapted to local dynamics and public opinion, the immediate fight against the disease was hindered and relations worsened between authorities and communities in ways that persisted beyond the health crisis. During the Ebola epidemic, communities in northern Sierra Leone believed they were unfairly targeted by government measures as ‘payback’ for voting for the opposition in the previous election, reducing trust in the ruling party further and contributing to violence against police officers following the opposition party electoral victory in 2018. In West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mistrust and rumours around official responses to Ebola outlasted the epidemic in ways that made people reluctant to visit health centres. To restore trust in the health system, Search has used tools such as community scorecards, bringing users and providers together to discuss challenges and improvements in health service delivery.
  2. Responses can also inadvertently shift socio-economic relations in ways that create grievances within and between communities. During the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the arrival of response teams, notably from Kinshasa, has led to tensions between locals and ‘outsiders’, especially where the relatively well-resourced response teams are perceived as not respecting local financial modesty values.  The funding that accompanied these teams has also generated animosity towards locals who have profited from what was labelled ‘the Ebola business’ and grievances around increased housing prices.
  3. HMG should support responses in partner countries that are sensitive to local dynamics, including through aid interventions that are inclusive and conflict-sensitive. HMG should consider how to engage local partnerships in all interventions. Where it is necessary to bring in outside actors, HMG should support the involvement of trusted messengers to foster local understanding of this necessity, as well as mechanisms for bottom-up communication of local needs and opportunities.

Public health challenges are an opportunity to bring people together across dividing lines.

  1. Where divisions and mistrust are high, health issues are one of the few topics that can bring people together across dividing lines. Effective responses to public health crises require broad collaboration and unity against a common challenge, offering an opportunity to build trust among adversaries and reduce violence. Although lasting progress will not come without international support, ceasefires and collaboration to facilitate COVID-19 response such as in Yemen offer promising signs.
  2. Well-designed official responses can improve trust between authorities and civilians. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the creation of a new Presidential Task Force on Ebola response led by the well-respected Dr. Muyembea represented a major improvement in relations between the central authorities and communities affected by Ebola. There are opportunities now to foster collaborative relationships between governments and civil society on issues like effective service delivery around COVID-19, including in places where those relationships have been highly fractured and adversarial. Such collaboration could support longer-term social cohesion by creating healthy practices around things like access to services and information.
  3. Cross-border cooperation in the response to COVID-19 has created new opportunities for trust-building. The Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance (MECIDS), created by Search in 2002 and recently supported by DFID, brings together Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian authorities to promote coordinated early infectious disease detection, control and response capacities.[18] It is one of the only regular government-to-government contacts between Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Search is now developing a cross-border emergency response to COVID-19 with these health professionals.
  4. HMG should leverage its diplomatic and international assistance tools to support coordination efforts that endure beyond COVID-19 response. In particular, HMG should explore state-civilian collaboration on effective service delivery and consider how the MECIDS format could be engaged for confidence-building in other contexts.


What is the role of the UK in responding, bilaterally and with the international community, to the spread of coronavirus to developing countries?

Interventions should take a longer-term perspective and seek to build resilient response systems.

  1. The risks and lessons identified above point to the importance of UK humanitarian and development aid being conflict-, context- and gender-sensitive. HMG should continue its support for peacebuilding interventions since community resilience and reconciliation are critical elements of a post-crisis recovery process. HMG can also mitigate risks by incorporating violence prevention and social cohesion elements into programming aimed at addressing the impact of COVID-19. However, considering the likely waves of second- and third-order impacts of COVID-19 on fragile and conflict-affected societies, HMG can play an important role in building sustainable systems for ensuring conflict sensitivity.
  2. HMG should invest in conflict sensitivity infrastructure, including programmes such as the DFID-supported Yemen Conflict Sensitivity Platform and South Sudan Better Aid in Conflict Programme that provide conflict analysis and conflict sensitivity resources as ‘public goods’ across aid implementers and sectors. Such infrastructure is proving its value in relation to COVID-19 responses, such as the rapid production of conflict sensitivity guidance for COVID-19 responses in Yemen. Similar initiatives would be beneficial in many other contexts. HMG should also design its aid so as to facilitate coordination, cooperation, and learning across health, socio-economic, and peacebuilding sectors on what works in responding to public health crises in conflict affected and fragile contexts.

What is the impact of the outbreak on UK aid funding in the longer term?

COVID-19 and the associated economic slowdown could force UK aid implementing partners to close down or significantly reduce staff and operations, resulting in lost expertise and relationships.

  1. A recent survey of Bond member organisations paints a stark picture of the threats facing UK-based non-profit partners of UK development assistance. Only 37% of respondents reported that they could survive past September 2020 without new funding. 60% reported staff reductions, while a further 25% said reductions were likely. 86% reported scaling back operations or considering doing so.[19] Similar concerns can be expected among UK international aid partners in other countries.
  2. Where implementing partners are forced to close or to cut staff, this could mean a loss of crucial expertise, knowledge, and partners for UK foreign and development policy. Where operations are curtailed, this can mean a loss of long-standing relationships with communities, especially important for advancing conflict transformation.
  3. HMG should explore how it can provide structural support for non-profit partners to minimise the impacts on their core systems and preserve the important capacities these partners bring to the foreign and development policy of HMG.

Economic contraction in the UK will mean reduced resources for international aid.

  1. The COVID-19 response and its secondary effects will profoundly shape the world just as the United Kingdom is repositioning on the world stage after Brexit. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s recent reference scenario for the potential economic impact of COVID-19 considers a 12.8% fall in real GDP over 2020 as a likely outcome of a three-month lockdown.[20] This economic contraction will reduce resources available to HMG, creating an imperative of ‘doing more with less’. If this results in a proportionate reduction in UK Official Development Assistance, pegged at 0.7% of Gross National Income, the effects could be devastating for many low income, fragile, and conflict-affected countries, especially as the COVID-19 crisis increases assistance needs. HMG will need to consider how best to channel its assistance while considering the threats and opportunities identified above and the UK’s other global priorities.
  2. HMG should target its COVID-19 recovery assistance to make the most from partnerships with civil society and other non-state actors. This would be especially useful to fill the gap left by many other donors whose aid is primarily channelled to central governments and particularly difficult for local civil society to access.

[1] Search for Common Ground, “Tackling Epidemics: Our Approach”, March 2020 (link).

[2] Search for Common Ground, “Submission One: The current situation, immediate risks and threats.

Written Evidence Submitted by Search for Common Ground”, Inquiry on Humanitarian Crises Monitoring: Impact of Coronavirus, International Development Committee of the House of Commons, 17 April 2020 (link).

[3] Kirk Semple, “‘Afraid to Be a Nurse’: Health Workers Under Attack”, New York Times, 27 April 2020 (link).

[4] Search for Common Ground, “The Team”, webpage (link).

[5] Figures already available have 87% of consumers in the USA and 80% in the UK reporting increased media consumption linked to COVID-19 (GlobalWebIndex, “Coronavirus Research Series 4: Media Consumption and Sport”, April 2020 (link)).

[6] Search for Common Ground, “Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange”, webpage (link).

[7] Ben Farmer and Sami Yousafzai, "Protection or propaganda? Taliban swaps weapons for disinfectant in coronavirus public health video", The Telegraph, 14 April 2020 (link).

[8] C. Bryson Hull and Bill Tarrant, "Tale of war and peace in the 2004 tsunami", Reuters, 18 December 2009 (link).

[9] International Crisis Group, “Contending with ISIS in the Time of Coronavirus”, commentary, 31 March 2020 (link);  Ted Reynolds, ”Seeing COVID-19 as an Opportunity”, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 3 May 2020 (link).

[10] Bryson Hull and Tarrant, op. cit. (link).

[11] Doug Rutzen and Nikhil Dutta, “Pandemics and Human Rights”, Just Security, 12 March 2020 (link).

[12] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Myanmar: “Possible war crimes and crimes against humanity ongoing in Rakhine and Chin States” – UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee”, 29 April 2020 (link).

[13] Ben Shepard and Patrick Mugula, "The Missing Piece in Security Sector Reform: Lessons from the Democratic Republic of Congo", Search for Common Ground, November 2018 (link).

[14] Kristalina Georgieva, “Confronting the Crisis: Priorities for the Global Economy”, International Monetary Fund, April 9, 2020 (link); United Nations Food Programme, “COVID-19 will double number of people facing food crises unless swift action is taken”, 21 April 2020 (link).

[15] Alisha Haridasani Gupta,  “Why Women May Face a Greater Risk of Catching Coronavirus”, New York Times, March 12, 2020 (link).

[16] United Nations, The World Bank, European Union and African Development Bank, “Recovering from the Ebola Crisis”, contribution to the formulation of national Ebola recovery strategies in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, 2015, p. 96 (link),

[17] Stefania Giannini and Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, “Covid-19 school closures around the world will hit girls hardest”, UNESCO and Plan International, 31 March 2020 (link).

[18] Search for Common Ground, “Promoting Health, Stability, and Security in the Middle East”, 15 December 2015 (link).

[19] Bond, “How is Covid-19 affecting NGOs’ finances and operations?”, 8 April 2020 (link).

[20] Office for Budgetary Responsibility, “Commentary on the OBR coronavirus reference scenario”, 14 April 2020, p. 10 (link).