COVID-19 and Humanitarian Access: How the pandemic should provoke systemic change in the global humanitarian system

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I. Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the world. With over 103 million cases reported as of February 2021 and over 2.2 million deaths worldwide, it is the deadliest pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu.1 It has disrupted societies in a number of ways: over 400 million jobs lost in the first few months, widespread food insecurity, national and local lockdowns, hospitals overwhelmed, education reduced or postponed, and travel grinding nearly to a halt.2 The pandemic has had an especially acute impact on vulnerable populations receiving humanitarian assistance.

Widespread loss of income, massive drops in remittances, and limited access to social safety nets have combined to drive larger numbers of people into vulnerability while worsening the conditions for many already receiving assistance.3 At the same time, international organizations have had to scale back the number of international staff in field locations as they managed travel and quarantine restrictions, often placing even greater burdens on local partners as well as resident staff to undertake delivery. In some settings, governments and armed groups have placed additional restrictions on the ability of humanitarian organizations to access populations in need. And, more broadly, the global economic downturn has contributed to widespread funding shortfalls for humanitarian aid, in a context of increasing need and growing inequality.

This report explores the impact of COVID-19 on humanitarian access in the initial months of the crisis, including both the delivery of assistance and performance of protection activities. It examines the varying crisis responses, including the shift to a more localized approach in certain cases. The analysis draws on case research from Colombia, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen, as well as on wide-ranging interviews with humanitarian practitioners and experts from around the world. The research was conducted between August – November 2020. It does not make claims about the legitimacy of government decisions to restrict access – indeed, in many instances, there appeared to be a clear objective of limiting the spread of COVID-19 – but instead focuses on how access limitations have affected the delivery of aid.

While covering principally issues of access and humanitarian space, the study also describes how the pandemic has altered the relationships between international and local humanitarian organizations, deepening inequalities in terms of access to services, and requiring a global attempt to prioritize programming amidst financial shortfalls. More broadly, the pandemic response has accelerated a debate regarding the extent to which the commitments made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit – especially the demand to shift to a more equitable model of cooperation among donors, the UN, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and local civil society organizations (CSOs) – are being adequately met.

The paper contains six sections: (1) an overview of major access challenges preceding the pandemic; (2) an analysis of how COVID-19 responses adopted by governments, local authorities, and humanitarian organizations themselves have affected issues of humanitarian access and delivery; (3) a review of the primary and secondary impacts of these measures on the humanitarian sector; (4) a description of innovations and responses by the UN and its partners; (5) the main challenges to adapting in the current context; and (6) recommendations for governments, INGOs, local CSOs, and donors.

The paper concludes with the following ten recommendations for governments, donors, the United Nations (UN), and local non-governmental organizations on improving access and prioritizing in a crisis moment:

  1. Revisit the standard humanitarian response 2. Recommit to the 2016 Grand Bargain with tangible, system-wide steps for addressing inequalities across international and local service providers. This could include:

a. Giving even greater priority to the most vulnerable.

b. Pre-arranging finance.

c. Pooling resources.

d. Demanding transparency.

e. Equalizing contracts and increasing multi-year funding.

f. Investing in consortia and twinning approaches.

g. Adding chairs to the table.

  1. Improve the provision of equitable duty of care or “occupational safety and health” for all personnel, regardless of nationality or contract status.

  2. Invest in monitoring capacities of local staff and local partners.

  3. Develop a coherent and consistent approach to humanitarian exemptions.

  4. Define “life-saving” activities in coordination with humanitarian actors.

  5. Prioritize protection activities related to sexual and gender-based violence.

  6. Invest in information campaigns.

  7. Look for opportunities in crisis.

  8. Build a coherent, multi-scalar approach to risk.