© United Nations COVID-19 Response

The COVID-19 Response Across the Humanitarian—Development Nexus

FROM: Bruno Husquinet – 02. June 2020
© United Nations COVID-19 Response

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many organizations to quickly adjust to new realities. People need extended support far more than immediate, life-saving support. Thus, the road to recovery and more resilient systems require concerted or coordinated efforts. The starting point for an effective humanitarian-development nexus is the readiness to document good and not-so-good practices and embrace learning. Staying in our comfort zone isn’t an option, or in line with the age-old cliché to ‘think outside the box’.


This blog is about sharing our learning as a development organization that has increasingly been engaged in rapid multi-sectorial responses. Helvetas is committed to acquire additional knowledge and adapt its practices to be better prepared in times of humanitarian crises.

It’s simplistic to view humanitarian emergencies as short-term events. Often, crises are the result of structural and complex socio-economic and governance issues. Developmental progress achieved so far can also be slowed, good work being quickly unraveled, or even reversed because of crises and disasters. Put differently, shocks undermine development gains and block the path out of poverty and towards sustainable development.

The pandemic: more than a health crisis

The chain reaction triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and governments’ decisions to contain the spreading of the coronavirus has generated an extremely complex environment worldwide. The pandemic has many sides. It’s reasonable to describe the pandemic as a ‘polycrisis’—a health crisis to begin with, but becoming quickly hygiene, humanitarian, political, and socio-economic crisis.

The consequences of this polycrisis are many, especially in fragile states or contexts. This requires for any response to be as much as possible inclusive and forward-looking (well beyond the pandemic). But what does this mean?

First, it’s necessary to combine tools and approaches from both the development and humanitarian sectors. This enables responses to have faster and at the same time longer results. The road to recovery requires collaborative and coordinated efforts and people need extended support far more than immediate, life-saving support.

Second, while the immediate response has mainly focused on health and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) areas, other actions are also urgently needed as the crisis is revealing some structural shortcomings. One of such shortcomings is a weak international early warning system for health issues and the high dependency on international supply for goods of first necessity.

Navigating the pandemic and its impacts  

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us in a way or another. It has forced all organizations to quickly adjust to new realities. Both development and humanitarian organizations are increasingly concentrating their efforts on guaranteeing the safety of target groups, their partners, and their staff.

Often, those who work in development and humanitarian organizations are used to respond to shocks and divert institutional efforts to support teams in a country or a region affected by a crisis. Although humanitarian organizations are usually better equipped than development organizations, Helvetas has managed to organize itself rather quickly, as our field structures are usually light and decentralized. Only a handful of international staff was relocated and the disruption in our human resources was minimal.

In the meantime, governments have been announcing various plans and implementing new measures every day. The world was living by the rhythm of restrictions while figures of people tested positive with coronavirus skyrocketed. In many of the countries where we work, citizens were very active, launching local resilience initiatives, such as the Youth organization in Benin; and we also witnessed the start of a wave of hackathons in search of solutions to a crisis of unprecedented scope.

Learning to adapt

In an ever-changing and complex environment, we were confronted with a new situation of readjusting swiftly all our operations across the world including at the head office in Switzerland. The main lesson here is the importance of having a solid information and communication technology (ICT) ecosystem. As part of regular practices in development cooperation, we have set up task forces and coordination groups within the organization and with our partners from Alliance2015.

The key was to quickly develop guidelines to ensure continuity in our most pressing delivery operations. Therefore, during several weeks between February and March 2020, we established new working modalities. In parallel, country offices reviewed their portfolio to integrate COVID-19 activities in existing projects and launch our first stand-alone COVID-19 projects, namely in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

‘Here in Nepal we have discovered just how much it is possible to do using ICT,’ says Jane Carter, the Programme Development Director of Helvetas Nepal. For Jane and her team, having regular virtual meetings between team leaders and all 85 of line managers in different parts of the country was critical. ‘We are fortunate in having an excellent IT Coordinator, Om Khadka, who has managed wonders,’ adds Jane.

Once new working modalities were put in place, the focus has shifted fully onto a global programmatic COVID-19 pivot stressing the importance of the ‘Do-No-Harm’ approach. Helvetas has been increasingly involved in humanitarian actions over the past years. Thus, it was imperative to respond strongly as such a response was also expressed by our partners. Our field offices with experience in humanitarian action mobilized quickly, such as Bangladesh where we work in Rohingya camps. Other country offices integrated the UN cluster systems and governmental coordination bodies established for the pandemic response.

Alike other development organizations, we published first projections and risk analyses to inform decision-makers. Helvetas has re-allocated internal funds and embarked on a global water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) program, often embedded in existing projects to deliver quickly on pressing needs. Activities included hygiene promotion sessions, distribution of soap, sanitizers, and protective equipment. Without a centralized logistics department, we rely upon local procurement which is ideal for small interventions.

In Benin, Ethiopia, and Myanmar for example, we rapidly organized the installation of hand-washing stations. Currently, these activities are still ongoing and are expanding sometimes quicker than we can record the data in our monitoring systems.

In all these examples, the most likely and indeed justified response to the pandemic is saving lives and supporting short-term humanitarian efforts. Many ad hoc measures were necessary to address the economic, social, and political fallouts from the pandemic. The challenge often, however, is the lack of attention to a crisis in a more systematic way with a medium to long-term perspective. This is where Helvetas is working to meaningfully contribute to minimizing the impacts by searching for innovative solutions that also bring long-term results.

In the next post, we will talk about how we designed hygiene messages by adapting the RANAS method that measures psychosocial behavior. We will also look at the linkages between water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) projects to other COVID-19 sectorial responses.

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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.