Love, Inequity, and Development Policy in a COVID-era?

by , | Jun 25, 2020

All COVID-response pieces begin with a tumbling wave of “blah crisis blah opportunity blah uncertainty”. We don’t know enough to know enough. Just hold on until we get the facts. Competing scenarios. Duelling facts. Whatever your flavour – please assume that’s true of this piece as well. We know almost nothing about the first (or second, or third) best strategy. We lack the certainty that comes from interrogating historical data, arguing about lessons learned, debating the results of RCTs. Our technocratic safety blankets are threadbare.

This piece is a response, inspired by Marie Berry and Millie Lake, and their call for intimacy and to centre all of our work in a “politics of trust, empathy, love and care.” We know those emotions to be real, human, and to matter.

Accepting that charges us with this: reconceiving how we address inequity and inequality (which remain the core mission of the problematic global institutions that we both still….love) through trust, and care, and love. How can we weave these ideas into everything that international institutions do, recognising that if it’s not sewn into the ethics, it will not happen? How do we get all the staff, workers, and seemingly inanimate ‘programmes’ to let our messy, warm humanity be the focus of our work, rather than the technocratically convenient, and theoretically bloodless numerical success of ‘ending poverty’?

“Humility doesn’t mean you sacrifice your ambition to help tackle the grave problems of inequity and inequality”

More essentially for us, how do we do so with humility? Not just the necessary humility of grappling with COVID-19, where, as we’ve written, all decision making needs to be adaptive, independently reviewed, experimental, and ready to defer to learning. But a deeper humility which recognises that we simply don’t know much – and that people have to form their own solutions.

For Laura, this was made clear by monitoring the design and implementation of budget support programmes, that avoided the dramatic limitations of their antecedent structural adjustment policies, but often fell short by prioritising technocratic goals while ignoring aspects of culture or the local political economy that made those goals unachievable. For Rahul, it was the grim clarity of the systemic failure of ‘statebuilding’ in Afghanistan, that drove home how external actors can only serve, never impose. It simply doesn’t work. 

But…humility doesn’t mean you sacrifice your ambition to help tackle the grave problems of inequity and inequality – or to face them in all their terrifying complexity. Rather, it requires you to be honest about the limits of your influence on the outcomes – personal and institutional – and to find ways of working that incorporate this at their heart.

So, we’re going to offer two sets of recommendations below. One for the United Nations, and one for the World Bank. Both dreamed up because we’re trying to explore what they would look like if they were humble, if they were centred in care, if they were the real reflection of our messy humanity that their founding principles – and our global crisis – both require.

For the United Nations, we’re building on a piece that Aarathi Krishnan and Rahul wrote last week, calling for four key actions:

First, recognise our flaws. The UN has hosted Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in many countries. It’s in the middle of a process around the UN at 75. But rather than celebratory pablum, the Secretary-General should commission an independent group of external ethicists to identify where and how the organisation had fallen short of the Charter values. Prior to the report, the Secretary-General should commit to publishing an annual update on measures taken to address these shortfalls.

Then, do the same for staff. One of us has long called for a professional association of civil servants (not the toxic staff union) that represents the best of what the UN has to offer. This would be an opportunity to catalyse such work (and, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, I’m looking squarely at you).

Second, ground policies in care. What does that mean? Whether in issuing policy instructions, measuring growth, analysing and rewarding impact – let’s change the fundamental way that we do this work, and centre it around that ethic of care. This is work that has started, if you think of the gentle pace of exploring measures other than GNI. It needs an injection of rocket fuel. Here, again, ethicists might offer more value to the organisation than economists.

Third, embrace anger and grief. The planet is dying, and we’re killing it through actions and inactions. People are dying. The Charter has been squashed because it’s politically inexpedient to take strong positions. But that’s really only possible if you don’t care that much about the people who suffer as a result. That lack of concern, that tough skin, is in turn only possible if they don’t have a voice in policy and process. And that silence, that silencing, is enabled by our preference for bland blandishments. We must brandish our brand – the Charter.

Fourth, step aside. Is there an argument that having the P-5 control the big entities at the UN has kept them engaged? Sure. Here’s your counter argument: Rwanda, Srebrenica, Syria, Yemen. We’ve tried that tired trope. Set it aside and change the staffing.

For the World Bank – a less normative institution (it is, of course, a Bank) – we have more short-term requests, because this is where the money sits. Some of this draws upon earlier thoughts from Laura and Rachel Locke. Get fierce. Honour the voice of poor and marginalised people by centering them, amplifying them:

Budget support (development policy lending, or DPLs) is a significant part of pandemic response.  This is the moment to lean forward. Advocate with governments, to help them see that pro-equality structural change is critical to surviving the pandemic and moving forward with peace and justice. 

  • Turn DPL financing upside-down, to focus on people more than policy. Include in the wish list of policy reforms not just laws and regulations, but outcomes that prove a demonstrable shift in resources to marginalised and poor people. A policy action that could create space for positive change, but doesn’t end up doing so, doesn’t count.
  • Rebalance towards social equity and sustainability, away from a mono-focus on growth. Be more ambitious for governments who explicitly include spending for structural reforms that have measurable impact on equality and inclusion (e.g. South Africa’s pandemic budget including 10% for this type of spending); in economies driven by oil/gas/mining, this is the time to finance structural diversification towards renewables.
  • Unblock institutional ears to hear the voices of marginalised communities. For DPLs, build in a requirement for ongoing social impact monitoring done through multi-stakeholder mechanisms with process and findings publicly available: ‘open monitoring’. This would go beyond the political and social impact analysis, or PSIA, which is usually done only during design, and not disclosed; instead, ongoing ‘pulse surveys’ and on-demand open platform feedback mechanisms would create a continuous flow of information about the lived experiences of people whose better lives and livelihoods we seek to support.

Double-down on people-centred transparency in all projects, not just ‘governance’ activities. Move beyond reform of governance institutions and fiduciary monitoring focused on fund flows, to monitoring the lived experiences of people, their fears and their observations. Involve civic groups, community organisations, and journalists in monitoring, to generate data from multiple sources that can analysed, triangulated, and vetted by citizens. The World Bank uses these practices in limited ways in niche settings, but they should become standard:

  • World Bank CDD projects are monitored by community groups through default open access to implementation and budget data, and some enjoy third-party monitoring from journalists. This monitoring could be adapted for most sectoral projects, making ample use of the new Social Cohesion Monitoring Toolkit developed in late 2019 by the Bank in partnership with Mercy Corps, to regularise attention to metrics relevant to social trust, which have been under-included historically in Bank projects.
  • Projects in high threat, low-access Fragility, Conflict and Violene (FCV) settings like Yemen, northern Nigeria, and Somalia use remote sensing and social media data to both assess baselines and monitor ongoing implementation; infrastructure projects on remote Pacific islands display real-time project data including photos and satellite data on open platforms. Originally motivated by internal need for lower-cost line-of-sight mechanisms to monitor projects in fragile or violent settings, these should be made standard—and most importantly, open platform, for everyone to see.

Performance-based lending, such as the World Bank Program-for-Results (P4R), is a hybrid of DPLs and investment projects. For countries with moderate to high levels of state capacity and stable measures of trust on the part of citizens, P4Rs may play large roles in pandemic response. If so, the DLIs (Disbursement Linked Indicators) that measure their progress (and release funding tranches) should include one that institutionalises open monitoring.

Our eyes are clearer now. We are still daunted by what we know and frightened by what we don’t. We recognise that our core task is to address inequity and inequality, but we suspect that economic growth and poverty alleviation is not the superhighway that will get us there. The core vector is humanity. Human connection, people-centred policies and programmes. Inconvenient, messy elements like trust, and love. A deep humility, tempered by ambition, is rising up. It is the ethics and aspirations that animate us, not the solutions. 

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash


  • Laura Bailey retired in January 2020 from the World Bank, where she served as the Global Lead for Stability, Peace and Security, responsible for thought leadership and operation innovation to support communities grappling with the challenges of state and social fragility, conflict, or interpersonal and organized violence. She focuses now on unlocking solutions to complex challenges through positive impact using adaptive leadership approaches in finding common ground to combat the global scourge of violence. Laura’s career spans more than three decades across a diverse range of countries in all regions of the world, including in-country leadership positions in fragile and conflict situations.

  • Rahul Chandran

    Rahul Chandran was the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, and has previously worked at the intersection of peacekeeping, humanitarian, and development efforts across the globe as well as systems reform and strategic planning efforts at the United Nations. 

Prior to this, he was the Deputy Director of the Center on International Cooperation, the Director of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Programme, and an advisor to the United Nations Foundation, the OECD, the Clinton Global Initiative and numerous other institutions. He has previously worked in civil rights, in documentary film, and on a number of start-ups. He writes here in his personal capacity.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...