Emergency ethics and accountable aid: how the global COVID-19 response must put people first

22 April 2020

The world is experiencing a global humanitarian emergency. Social distancing measures and travel restrictions imposed to fight COVID-19 have disrupted many of the ways humanitarians work. Faced with huge operational challenges, how can we ethically engage with affected communities and remain accountable to them?

These questions were posed to an expert panel at the CHS Alliance webinar held on Thursday 16 April examining the role of ethics and accountability in the response to the pandemic. Hugo Slim, co-founder of the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights, was joined by panelists Eva Niederberger, Global Public Health Promotion Team Leader, Oxfam, and Jonas Habimana, Executive Director of BIFERD and Sphere focal point in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The webinar was moderated by Heba Aly, Director of The New Humanitarian, and was co-hosted with our partners Sphere and Groupe URD.

Accountability in COVID-19

Heba Aly started the discussion by asking Hugo Slim what does accountability look like in the context of COVID-19? He stressed the importance of being honest about the choices that are made, the need for effective two-way communication between government, communities and humanitarians, and equity.

A fair response is important, stressed Hugo. “We know already from Chicago that about 70% of deaths are from the African American and that’s because they are more vulnerable. So we have to find ways to design a more equitable response that reaches out fairly across all parts of society.” We don’t have equity at the moment, but we need to recognise its importance and learn as we go.

The risk of exclusion and stigmatisation of vulnerable groups was a central concern for Eva Niederberger. For Jonas Habimana, COVID-19 has created real challenges around community engagement and how to ensure feedback given by the community is implemented. Responding with local capacity is essential.

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Should aid workers be staying home during COVID-19?

During the pandemic, is it better for international aid workers to remain in the field or should they return to their home country? How can we assess if their presence will do more harm than good? 

For Hugo, aid workers should try to stay and deliver as much help as they can, while recognising the need for those on the front line to be extremely careful in protecting themselves and others (such as wearing appropriate gear). He also stressed the importance of a “culture of consent around humanitarian workers” that should recognise that accidents are inevitable, but negligence is wrong.

Crucially, he argues that for humanitarians it is “impossible to do no harm – but we have to limit it as much as possible by being very careful”. This will require a low blame culture.

Community engagement in the age of social distancing

As aid workers face difficult choices about prioritising resources, how can they ensure the community informs or participates in decision making?

For Eva, this comes back to the importance of asking the community what they need, facilitating the right support instead of making assumptions on their behalf. During the pandemic, encouraging and supporting community-led solidarity strategies will be vital. This includes finding options for isolating high-risk groups and at the same time ensuring that access to basic services such as food and water is maintained

Community engagement can be especially challenging when people cannot gather and access to technology is limited. To overcome this, says Eva, it is important to undertake an initial information mapping at community level to understand how information flows to enable everyone to have access to the right information. This can be done for example by working with existing community focal points, equipping them with phones and communication credits or radios and keeping them informed.

Running complaints mechanisms remotely can also pose huge challenges, because generally people prefer face-to-face interactions over formal hotlines or SMS. During COVID-19 it is important to use multiple channels, use local languages and ensure staff are trained.

“Access shouldn’t be any excuse for not upholding accountability principles,” said Eva.

Economic realities: Are you going to feed us?

Jonas Habimana has many years’ experience in community engagement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His organisation BIFERD recently conducted a survey of 200 households in Goma about attitudes and behaviours towards COVID-19.

The survey revealed households ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic.

  • More than 50% of households surveyed don’t have soap or handwashing facilities.
  • Many people lack information about COVID 19. Information sharing normally takes place through schools and churches, but they are closed, and some households don’t have radios.
  • Some people don’t believe COVID-19 exists.
  • 98% don’t have enough food in their homes.

Not running out of essential supplies is a key concern for people being told to stay home by the government. “People are asking are you going to give us food? Are you going to bring us water for drinking? Are you going to give us disinfectant materials? How are you going to support us during this hard period of COVID19?”

In response, BIFERD is working with the WHO to influence them to be more flexible in their programming and to influence the humanitarian cluster system.

As Heba pointed out, in some countries, the rural poor are choosing between dying of hunger (because they have to stay home) or dying of infection (because they risk going to work).

To address this challenge, Jonas proposes that cash transfer should be a solution for people who don’t food in their homes. In Goma, more than 50% people are not employed, and people need to go outside to survive. Humanitarian programming should therefore focus on livelihoods and resilience. “Economic issues and livelihood issues should be a solution to prevent COVID19 in Goma city.”

Responders must integrate the economic and livelihood needs and concerns of the community in the response to COVID-19, Jonas argues. If they don’t, it will be a catastrophic situation for many people in the region and it will lead to the loss of many lives.

Accelerating localisation

This crisis has also produced many opportunities for accelerating the localisation agenda, said Hugo, who believes now is the time for formal aid agencies to get behind local networks and mutual aid schemes, as communities define their own responses.

At the same time, standards are more important than ever as we face this truly global humanitarian emergency. The Sphere Standards and the Core Humanitarian Standard, with its Nine Commitments to people affected by crisis, provide a vital road map for responders whatever the country and are integrated into some UN Humanitarian Response Plans.

Ultimately, COVID-19 will prove a key test for how well we put people at the centre of our response, led by communities themselves.  Hugo draws a parallel with the great plague of the 14th century that contributed to the abolition of the feudal system in Europe and asks whether this pandemic is a great disruptor that could reshape and produce new power structures within the humanitarian system.

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