© Helvetas

How Can We Successfully Embed Economic Resilience in Emergency Responses?

FROM: Paulo Rodrigues, Bruno Husquinet, Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 28. July 2020
© Helvetas

Responses to crises need to consider rapid humanitarian programming while, simultaneously, think through the long-term implications on the local market systems. It’s simplistic to consider humanitarian responses as short-term exercises isolated from a comprehensive solution to crises.

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Our question in this blog post is: in a world of growing fragility, how can development organizations link short-term with long-term sustainable and scalable impacts?

Increased complexity and fragility

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the exposure to risks and the inability to cope with them as fragility. Fragility is about more than just economic growth, weak institutions, or conflicts. It’s also a complex term that covers different levels of inability to cope with all the above. OECD’s 2018 States of Fragility report predicts that the number of people living in extremely fragile contexts will almost double by 2050, compared to 2016.

Solutions to fragility are about more than just narrow initiatives for economic growth or for strengthening local institutions; they should also include a systemic approach that is based on a good assessment and understanding of the local context and of how external interventions influence this context.

A good assessment is one that (a) serves as a filter, starting with understanding the wider socioeconomic context and then narrowing down the focus of analysis to identify specific constraints; (b) isn’t a one-off study, but should build on continuous understanding through appropriate information to shape decision-making and informed actions; and is guided by the ‘spirit of curiosity’ by asking critical questions to identify potential drivers of change and partners for implementation.

Under increased complexity and fragility, humanitarian responses maintain (or increase) the importance they have today. Before COVID-19 gained the pandemic status, the New Humanitarian foresaw that the year 2020 would be a challenging year with increased humanitarian needs. Rapid humanitarian programming provides critical solutions to a given problem. These solutions need to be fast and fix an immediate issue, as they affect the basic needs of affected populations, be it health, food, shelter, or protection.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved the vulnerability of people and economic systems. It has brought about additional layers of complexity to already fragile contexts. The pandemic is, however, not simply responsible for the increasing complexity of development initiatives. Conflicts, like those in Syria or Yemen, increasingly show protracted nature and throw millions of people into poverty. Furthermore, every new decade, climate-induced crises are becoming more intense and frequent. All these different elements expose the vulnerability of people, take lives, and disrupt local systems.

Adequately linking short-term emergency response with the promotion of local economic activities

Pandemics, such as COVID in 2020 or the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016, have deep socio-economic consequences as they disrupt economic activities. The economic impacts of COVID are yet to be evaluated, but will certainly increase poverty and inequalities on a global scale, making the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) even more pressing.

Urgent support is needed to absorb the shock, while, in parallel, market impacts need to be assessed and long-term durable solutions gradually designed and implemented. Considering the link between short-term actions to respond to a crisis and the long-term approaches for development, Helvetas released last month a capability statement on Building economic resilience through systemic response to COVID-19.

Among the humanitarian responders, there’s the principle of ‘do no harm’, by which humanitarian actors pledge not to cause further damage and suffering as a result of their actions. This principle, although obvious, isn’t always easy to achieve. One clear example is local market vendors that may see their livelihoods affected by the inflow of humanitarian donations. It’s, therefore, critical to promote the adequate linkages between short-term emergency response actions and the defence and promotion of local economic activities.

The World Bank, in its Crisis response and resilience to systemic shocks report, identifies that emergency responses are more effective when reinforced by initiatives to develop the resilience to potential shocks proactively. In other words, emergency responses are more effective when accompanied by development initiatives.

How HELVETAS is building resilience in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Helvetas believes that interventions that use and support local markets can produce the desired short-term emergency response while promoting sustainable development. The involvement of local actors is a key factor for the long-term success of projects.

In Bangladesh, Mali and the Philippines (fragile and extremely fragile countries according to OECD), Helvetas has successfully strengthened private local service providers (LSPs). These LSPs are men and women experienced in agriculture or non-agricultural income-generating activities, living in the neighbourhoods of poor and disadvantaged producers, and motivated to provide rural advisory services as a paid profession. To ensure (long-term) sustainability of rural advisory services, payment comes from within the local market systems (fees paid by producers, commissions charged to buyers and input providers, etc.).  

The LSP model has proved particularly successful in emergency and early recovery settings (flood-affected areas in Northern Bangladesh, refugee context in Cox’s Bazar). In the context of restriction of movement like under COVID-19, the proximity of LSPs guarantees that support continues to be offered to producers, increasing the resilience of the communities. During crises, such as COVID or the recent floods in Bangladesh, a part of the rural advisory services (e.g. support in business planning after emergencies) is subsidized by Helvetas while other services, such as linking producers to traders/processors, continues to be financed by market actors. This dual model allows the system to continue to operate during crises and increases the probability that services continue to be provided after the early recovery period on a fee/commission basis, making the system sustainable in the long run.

In fragile contexts, projects often need to link short-term impacts to durable and sustainable development initiatives. Helvetas believes that this can be achieved by taking a facilitative role, stimulating local system actors to take on leadership roles on change inducing activities that combine short-term impact on long-term systemic change.

Helvetas’ projects are implemented flexibly, with adaptive management based on a culture of intentional learning that fosters continuous improvement while maintaining accountability towards clients and the people we serve. For more information on economic development initiatives by Helvetas, please visit www.helvetas.org/en/switzerland/what-we-do/our-topics/economies/economy-expert

Related readings

Advisor Market Systems in Fragile Contexts
Bruno Husquinet started his career in the humanitarian world in 2003. He worked in a large number of conflict-affected countries, holding managerial positions for the ICRC and MSF. He has provided strategic and management support to UN agencies, EU and several NGOs. Currently, Bruno is Helvetas Humanitarian Response Team Leader.
Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies