What does the future look like for international aid charities?

As NGOs face unprecedented challenges to maintain their operations in the UK and overseas in the light of Covid19, there is a need to put in place measures that not only protect beneficiaries and staff, but also the vital functions required for organisational growth and development.

Such measures can avoid crisis management and allow time for reflection, consolidation, and development of the ‘new normal’. The coronavirus pandemic has inevitably put risk management to the test with many charities of different sizes put to task over their ability to stay afloat.

In the international development arena, there is the double-edged sword of keeping donors on board, whilst adapting programming to respond to the emerging humanitarian crisis. This is in addition to international travel restrictions, keeping staff safe, and reduced income from fundraising. With major agencies like Oxfam forced to make significant staff cuts and shutting down operations in key locations, there are already signs that international NGOs are seeking enduring solutions to their operations that will go beyond the current crisis.

Recently social enterprise DEVEX reported that the World Health Organisation (WHO) categorized African nations into priority groups based on transport connections between those countries and China. Across the continent, these comprise Algeria, Angola, Cote D’Ivoire, DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. A major concern is that if the virus were to spread into dense urban areas in countries where populations are already malnourished and suffering the effects of disease – including HIV/AIDS – then health facilities would not cope, and the need for food would take over health preservation within communities.

Fortunately, governments in these countries and other nations are used to health emergencies and have learned through experience. The HIV/AIDS pandemic that ravaged developing nations is a continuous reminder to those in power, that health is wealth and prevention is better than cure.

For this reason, NGOs working in the international sector have already begun to adapt programming to include information on how to reduce the risk of Covid-19 for beneficiaries and frontline staff. For those NGOs already adopting prevention strategies in communities at risk of HIV, cholera, and other diseases, combining Covid-19 prevention is a natural way forward.

Building resilience in the sector is key to recovery. Fortunately, overall, international charities are risk-averse due to the nature of the work and the changing needs and environment of beneficiaries. Risks that often need to be managed range from safeguarding, financial transparency, health emergencies, travel logistics, funding, civil unrest, and maintaining quality standards from a distance.

International charities will need to review risk management in light of Covid-19 and its mutations. This will include funding preparedness and ensuring future programme development considers the need for prevention strategies for Covid-19, adapting funding propositions to demonstrate that community engagement can help combat false information and stop early transmission. Early and consistent engagement with funders to inform them of changes and why those changes are needed is crucial.

At a local level, international communication systems will need to be robust and effective. For example, fundraising propositions could include tangible items such as a generator for a local partner if power cuts are frequent.

After all, if it is not possible to travel so frequently, it will be even more important to have clear and regular communication with local partners and frontline workers. This will be a necessity not just for convincing funding propositions, but also for effective programme management.

A crisis need not be viewed as a disaster, but rather a push and a nudge in another direction – almost pointing out flaws so that the business can adapt and hopefully improve. Whilst it is difficult to not be driven by funding, it is also vital to not see this in isolation.

Fundraising is often siloed in charities, but in international development, it should work hand in hand with programming. A convincing funding proposition is only possible if there is a good understanding of the proposed outcomes, the need, and context of the environment where the project takes place.

The ‘new normal’ may therefore be reviewing internal structures to ensure that the right skills and experience fits the function required. Whilst the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis that is beyond anybody’s control, it is how we respond to the crisis that will make the difference between some NGOs just about keeping their heads above water, and those that will learn, grow and develop through careful navigation of the challenges ahead.

Cheryl Hooper is CEO of Cecily’s Fund and co-founder of Global Changemakers Oxford.

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