Scholars have extensively written about the role and the relevance of civil society in democracies. They are an integral part of a functioning democracy. They offer the ‘third space’ of possible association beyond the state and the market. A space that fosters public trust and stimulating social cohesion while promoting opportunities for advocacy and expression. 

Organisations depend on resources, i.e. financial resources and/or volunteers for their functioning and survival. These different forms of resources are usually found outside the organisations and are built on a relationship of credibility with their constituency. Development organizations are often quite specialized in their focus as well as strategies. They accomplish their goals with the resources available to them. Covid-19 has challenged traditional development organizations in their ability to deliver against their goals both towards their funders as well as their constituencies.

2020 was the year of the pivot for civil society organizations and I posit it is the year the international aid community must pivot to different approach of funding them. Building a resilient civil society organization that can withstand the demands that have been put on them in light of Covid-19. This is not to say that they need to transition into a humanitarian organization but that they should be supported to pivot when a change in their external environment demands so that they can continue to provide for their constituencies.

As we look at ‘recovering better together’ we need a ‘whole of society approach’. This includes, while supporting the government and institutions we must also invest resources in building capacities of civil society organizations that are also implementing on the ground and often hold their local officials accountable to delivering for those furthest behind. In this case the beneficiary is the organization itself – the ability for the organization to transition so that they can continue to service the communities they work with.

Recognizing that often CSOs are funded just for running programmes that leaves little resources for them to equip themselves with the necessary digital technology, structured organisational and strategic capacity to ensure that they can continue to deliver during a development emergency.

CSOs need resources so that they have the capacities to counter disinformation and fake news, and promote access to reliable information on development emergencies and its impact on communities. This has to be contextualized in the long term implications of mis/dif-information that has been experienced in the face of Covid-19 response across different contexts around the world. This mis/dis-information will need to be countered by those who are trusted and are closest to the ground. Its not just in Covid-19 response but also in the vaccination roll out that this mis/dis-information can continue to wreck havoc in societies.

Lastly, supporting CSOs to strengthen their capacities to build consortium, network/exchange and cooperation amongst them to build on their niche/ areas of expertise/focus. Finding and building these networks/consortiums during a development emergency is not possible but investing in them as part of the resilience strategy going forward is an essential component to them being available to be activated when needed.

The recent Interim Report, Comparative Covid Response: Crisis, Knowledge, Politics rightly says: “The emergence of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in 2019 presented the world with unprecedented challenges. Faced with fast-moving events, scientific and social uncertainty, and tight coupling of public health and economic systems, decision makers struggled to avert catastrophic outcomes.”

In my view, in response to Covid-19, the use of evidence and data in decision making for development has thrown in sharp relief two key aspects:

A) The crucial relationship between evidence and policy decisions during times of crisis.

B) When evidence is uncertain, emergent and evolving, yet policy decisions must be made rapidly, and revised frequently all in the context of heightened social, economic and political impact.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the process of “what works” and “decision making” a simultaneous process of co-production. There are many aspects of the COVID-19 crisis which make it a complex policy problem.

If the last 10 months have shown why mis-information and disinformation thrived in the face of the Covid-19 response has been – one lesson for me has been the need for humility.

Humility in saying what can work and why and recognizing that might change.

The Covid-19 response involves and involved many types of uncertainty, data limitations; issues around immediacy; lack of consensus among experts and variations in expertise; the possibility of over and under reactions; and different levels of trust in government, technical know-how, political support for certain kinds of interventions, among many others.

This high level of uncertainty opened up more discretion in the political and official responses to expert advice than would normally be the case for crises with better-known causes and outcomes. This discretion combined with the inconsumable amount of data people were confronted with on a daily basis which changed before they made sense of it.

In development, we have to reckon with this new reality: that unambiguous evidence in situations of complexity that are also evolving is an impossible ideal. Therefore, development practitioners must orient themselves towards intervention development using multi-dimensional data sources, continuous data triangulation, participation of local communities and non-health experts in societal consequences in both the evidence generation and the policy design.

They need to be at home with the idea of “evidence-enough” for iterative decision making in-the-now. Development policy making, now more than ever, has to embrace methodological pluralism, pragmatic intervention design, and understand health wholly in its local social, cultural and economic situation.

This is not the first time development practitioners have confronted this. Following the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa a systematic review highlighted the value of methods such as Rapid Assessment models, outbreak science for identifying and addressing context-specific issues, acting as a guide for resource allocation, and providing data to plan long-term assistance.

So what can we learn from this?

The International Journal of Drug Policy in 2000 had an instructive article that makes the case for not just moving quickly from ‘assessment’ to ‘response’, but to recognize that the process of assessment as the beginning of the response itself.

This is the first sign of embracing that humility and non-deterministic approach to evidence and decision making for policy advice. We start with acknowledging that the assessment is the first step of response, which means that during the assessment we make choices that will change as the assessment progresses. We cannot wait for the completion of the assessment to give policy advice as the cost of that delay is unacceptable in a situation such as we confront with Covid-19.

In some ways the UN’s Socio-Economic Response Plans (SERPs) at the country level and the analysis underpinning their development, when done in a truly participatory manner, are the steps towards this approach. They indicate some priorities based on an assessment that will support the response and recovery from the pandemic. But they also are the harbingers of a new approach to not purely rely on knowing “everything” before recommending a course of action.

The UN SERPs offer the opportunity to open up evidence and expertise by making evidence and intervention design happen as an ongoing dialogue between experts, decision makers and communities to articulate the responses in-the now. Recognizing that the evidence is evolving about the disease itself and therefore the policy recommendations must evolve. This adaptive evidence-making and intervention design offers ways to address the uncertainties, but do so in a manner responsive to an emergent and evolving situation country by country.

Another sign of humility comes from the kinds of ‘solution’ or ‘solution mix’ that are available. A recent study looked at the dataset compiled by the OECD (2020) which provided the breadth of policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic across wide range of policy areas. These include fiscal and monetary initiatives, employment and social initiatives, health policy, science and innovation policy, and tax policy, even though data on some of these is limited to OECD countries it offers the full gamut of policy actions available to decision makers.

Each country has to identify and adopt a combination of policy initiatives in a variety of policy areas – social, health, medical, economic – rather than just a single tool. Especially because, the response from one country to another varies not only in the composition of the policy mix but also in the timing of policy adoption as well as in the ‘stringency’ with which various tools are deployed – from compulsory quarantines to voluntary ‘lockdowns’ and social distancing measures.

Humility in responding is the recognition that those in the room first are not necessarily the ones with all the answers. The evidence and lessons from peace, disaster and private sectors suggest that lack of diversity and failing to leverage women’s expertise in decision-making limits an effective response. Women are users of health services, and they are agents of change in health, making critical contributions as parents, front-line responders, health promoters, influencers, researchers, scientists and decision-makers.

Learning lessons from this pandemic is up to each of us, each of our disciplines and institutions we are associated with. The long road ahead in mass inoculations is providing us an opportunity to learn the lessons we didn’t learn early on with Covid-19 response.