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Walking the Talk on Resilience Building and Adaptive Programming During COVID-19

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By Nick Beresford (Resident Representative, UNDP Cambodia), Luke Arnold (Deputy Ambassador and Head of Development Cooperation, Australian Embassy in Cambodia) and David Bloch (First Secretary, Australian Embassy in Cambodia)

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of “resilience” had become a buzzword for the United Nations and other development partners – but what does it actually mean, and how can development partners support it in practice? A joint initiative of UNDP and the Australian Embassy in Cambodia may provide some answers.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre defines resilience as ‘the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop’. Using this definition, development partners can understand our role as supporting communities to adapt to changes and seize the development opportunities they entail.

Cambodia is situated in the heart of the Indo-Pacific region, where major changes are afoot.

As UNDP and Economist Intelligence Unit described in their Development 4.0 report, the region is at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which new technologies are transforming the way economies and societies function.

Climate change is posing large challenges for the region, but also opportunities to adapt and mitigate its impacts.

The region is experiencing unprecedented demographic transitions, as described in a recent UNDP Asia Pacific Human Development Report. Improved living standards have given rise to a temporary situation in which the region can take advantage of smaller shares of young and old dependents, and larger shares of people in their productive working years who can power development.

The region has also become the ‘centre of gravity’ for contests about the future of democratic governance — which both Australia and UNDP consider as critical for the region’s long-term development.

And geopolitical dynamics are also testing the region’s resilience. As Cambodian Ambassador Pou Sothirak has explained, great power competition is putting greater demands on countries like Cambodia to adapt and strengthen its foreign policy posture to ensure it ‘provides the greatest protections… the safeguarding of its sovereignty, and the achievement of its national interests’.

Development partners have for some time now recognised that empowering people to address these big challenges – building sustainable and meaningful resilience – requires thinking and working politically. We know we need to see development problems and their solutions as being deeply embedded in local political economies, and that we need to design development programmes that respond adaptively to this reality. But how exactly can this be done?

In Cambodia, Australia and UNDP have pioneered an approach that offers some suggestions. In mid-2019, we conceived the idea of a “Resilience Fund” to support ‘support Cambodia in becoming a resilient, middle-income country’. Following a joint design process, the Australia-UNDP Resilience Fund for Cambodia was established in December 2019.

The first objective of the Resilience Fund was to continue Australian and UNDP support for ‘Cambodian Government-led efforts to clear landmines and unexploded ordinances, decreasing risks to the population and releasing land for productive use by women and men while positioning the country to achieve mine-free status’.

This stream of work built on a long-established programme of demining, working to save lives and return land to productive use along the Thai border. To date, Clearing for Results has freed 247 square kilometres from landmine contamination, helping communities covering more than one million people.

While the first objective enabled UNDP and Australia to report concrete results on activities that deliver fairly direct and immediate benefits, the second objective attempted to walk the talk on adaptive programming. This objective was to support ‘the [Cambodian] Government and other actors to address constraints to Cambodia’s transition to a middle-income country, to manage risks and externalities posed by that transition, and support greater inclusion and empowerment of women’.

The design included a budget and governance arrangements for the second objective, but no pre-determined activities. Instead, Australia and UNDP undertook to monitor the political economy and seize opportunities as they arose to support resilience-building in Cambodia, guided by the goal and objectives of the initiative.

With the WHO declaring the COVID-19 global pandemic less than three months after the establishment of the Resilience Fund, a series of such opportunities was just around the corner. And the Resilience Fund was well positioned to seize them.

As the pandemic broke in March 2020, one of the Government’s first concerns was to get an idea of the potential social and economic impact, and options for a stimulus response. UNDP and Australia already had well established partnerships with the Ministry of Economy and Finance, including through initiatives to support economic modelling and public financial management. Drawing on the Resilience Fund, UNDP’s technical assistance programme was quickly scaled up to produce the first numbers on poverty, employment and GDP. Most importantly, the work showed strong economic and social returns from stimulus measures that included social protection.

This data, combined with growing public concerns and the Cambodian Government’s positive past experience with social protection schemes pioneered by development partners such as GIZ, UNICEF and WFP, led to Government’s second request: help with an emergency cash transfer programme during the pandemic. For a decade leading up to the pandemic, GIZ and Australia had supported Cambodia’s Ministry of Planning to build up a robust digital database of poor households throughout Cambodia, called IDPoor. While IDPoor’s primary purpose to date had been to enable these households to access free healthcare, the high quality of the data led the Cambodian Government to decide to use it as the basis for providing money to the poor. However, IDPoor needed updating to include households that had recently slipped into poverty, including as a result of the pandemic, and migrant workers who had recently been forced to return to Cambodia.

Funds from the Resilience Fund provided 1,700 tablet computers and the training to go with it so this significant update could be done rapidly. Despite some initial teething problems, this was completed successfully and, as of May 2021, the system had transferred over $290 million to the poorest 2.7 million Cambodians throughout the pandemic. While ongoing work will be needed to ensure IDPoor continue to reach all eligible Cambodians, including through strengthening grievance mechanisms and community feedback loops for local accountability, this is an incredible effort for a country that had never before implemented a comprehensive national cash transfer system.

As other needs arose, the Resilience Fund had the fast and effective mechanism to respond. The programme funded essential santisation equipment for land border crossings to protect truck drivers, traders and customs officials so essential goods such as rice and vegetables could keep moving. With the Ministry of Commerce, the programme was able to scale up efforts to get more micro and small enterprises online, where they could better endure the pandemic and even prosper and grow.

The cumulative impact of these measures for poor and vulnerable Cambodians during the COVID-19 pandemic has been significant. Yet they were of relatively modest value. What the Resilience Fund demonstrates is that if we walk the talk on programming adaptively and on thinking and working politically, we can empower people to build resilience in particularly testing times.

A key lesson that the Resilience Fund implemented was that it pays to be clear about what an initiative should achieve, and who should be involved in driving it, but that it can be useful to minimise bureaucratic processes and pre-determined activities. This is of course not rocket science, but it remains a relatively rare occurrence in development practice.

On 7 May 2021, the Australian Government and UNDP agreed to top-up the Resilience Fund to enable it to continue to support Cambodia’s management and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The additional funding also includes significant resources for the promotion of human rights and democratic governance during Cambodia’s recovery from the pandemic, working closely with Cambodian journalists and human rights organisations, UNOHCHR and UNESCO.

It’s our hope that the Resilience Fund will continue to respond effectively to the needs of the people of Cambodia, while also providing a model for the UN, Australia and development partners elsewhere.