Balancing crisis response with sustainable impact: Seven questions to ensure learning, ethics and accountability amid Covid-19

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Balancing crisis response with sustainable impact: Seven questions to ensure learning, ethics and accountability amid Covid-19

Pact staff and community members in Tanzania take part in a workshop before the Covid-19 pandemic to gather ideas for improving Pact’s programming. (Photo: Maggie Dougherty/Pact)

Crises bring many things to light: how prepared you are to respond and adapt quickly, how you apply lessons from past experiences while adopting new practices, how you manage uncertainty and more. All of this is a testament to our existing practices and attendant systems.

How we respond also sets us on a path toward our future systems. This is especially true in international development, where we implement large, complex projects hand in hand with the people and communities we serve. They are part of much larger, highly complex living systems. Development projects have ripple effects throughout these systems well beyond our immediate goals, which is why interventions are planned with great care. For example, a straightforward literacy program can affect community engagement practices or domestic violence levels in positive or negative ways depending on how the project is implemented. Part of the Do No Harm promise of our sector is to be accountable for weighing and mitigating potential negative outcomes. This is why ethics are a significant part of our work, and why we are so concerned with sustainability.

In our rush to address the here and now of the Covid-19 crisis, we will certainly create ripple effects beyond our imagining, such as unintentionally institutionalizing undesirable processes. Besides our new activities, we should also consider ripple effects that will not happen as we repurpose existing programs to meet emerging needs. More than ever, this is the time to take the long view. Even in this crisis, we need to think beyond the short-term and be accountable for the lasting impacts of our actions.

One way is to regularly evaluate what we are doing, how we are doing it, and the results, to be accountable and to learn to improve – even when it is difficult to make the time for this. “Evaluate now, before it’s too late,” renowned evaluator Michael Quinn Patton recently warned. Developmental evaluation and other designs that enable nearly real-time learning and evidence-based adaptation are essential processes for programs wishing to navigate this complexity.

While evaluation practitioners can play a leading role, everyone in the development sector must shoulder this responsibility. Pact, for example, has engaged in learning across our projects and globally to ensure we are accountable to all those we serve. This includes intentional processes to adapt and improve as part of our Covid-19 response.

Here are seven questions based on principles that guide evaluators that we should all be asking ourselves as we respond to Covid-19. Tackling these questions will ensure that we learn from our actions and that our inevitable ripple effects minimize harm and serve communities first.

What negative impacts might arise from our interventions? Oftentimes, far from a sprint, a crisis can turn into a marathon: Refugee crises can become multigenerational settlements, for example. Our actions will affect how that marathon plays out, so we must consider all outcomes. For example, might we create new problems by disrupting local markets or spark tensions among groups based on identity in our rush to help? To determine whether the good outweighs the potential bad, a useful technique is to build on past learnings and engage in negative program theory mapping exercises, a conceptual method that maps pathways and causes of the undesirable rather than the desirable. Often we find that many undesirable results could have been avoided with even a simple exercise.

Are we working to break the “extractive data syndrome”? As a result of Covid-19, we have greatly expanded our digital solutions in projects that previously relied on face-to-face interactions. This has greatly increased the quantity of data we collect and store on individuals. This also increases the chances of unintentional data violations. We must ensure that our processes and systems are built to enable and protect; that we are doing all we can to minimize the data burden and to weigh the potential costs against the actual benefit for those we serve; and to share back to those who generously shared their data – their metrics, their perspectives, their stories – with us. Providing tailored access to databases is low-hanging fruit, and involving those we serve in project designs and decisions – including decisions over data needs and utilization – will ensure that data are used by those who generously provided them.

Are we accommodating potential changes to an individual’s consent? While we have long recognized that informed consent is not a check-the-box activity of a moment in time, we should broaden our understanding and perceive consent as a lifelong relationship. Acknowledging that today’s consent is a factor of multiple interacting parts – existing context, personal interest, the structures of rules and opportunities that constrain and enable us, the ideas we hold about roles and rights – is also acknowledging that our interactions with affected populations may change over time, and what was once “informed” or “consent” could be neither in the future. We should consider whether all data collected – numbers, opinions, photos, videos – are strictly necessary, make use of secondary data whenever possible, and assess the implications of a future change in consent on the valuation of today’s Covid-19 data priorities.

Are we working to reach individuals and communities equitably? The costs of Covid-19 are not falling on everyone equally. For example, as we have significantly increased our dependence on remote technologies, many cannot be reached because of limited connectivity, resources, language barriers, literacy and more, creating a “digital divide.” This tends to affect those already underserved or marginalized the most. Rapid participatory assessments can be used in a timely manner to design remote systems or non-tech solutions that work to reach all equitably, rather than relying on preexisting assumptions.

Are we intentionally working to promote empowerment at a time when so many are feeling and experiencing disempowerment? As executive governing powers have expanded globally to institute emergency health measures, many are now living under greater restrictions in all aspects of their lives. This has led to increased challenges, from an uptick in domestic violence to limits on freedom of expression. We can and should leverage “empowerment” and “transformation” evaluation designs that serve equally as interventions themselves, build evaluative thinking, and put the articulation of criteria of success in the hands of those we serve, thereby democratizing our work.

Are we protecting the right to refuse treatment or service? An important component of informed consent is the right to decline participation or refuse treatment. In a moment of crisis, when an individual faces bodily harm, emergency civil restrictions or the fear of being denied access to other critical services, can this right truly be exercised? How does this affect an individual’s sense of personal control and therefore empowerment? On the flip side, what about the right of development practitioners to exercise that same choice? How do we balance the risk of providing services with risks to individuals if we do not serve them? These decisions affect how communities perceive our role, and also our own expectations therein. Stakeholder feedback mechanisms as part of regular monitoring systems can be extremely helpful in assessing changes in participant views and needs and should become integral components of Covid-19 responses.

What about our Covid-19 adaptations should be continued, halted or modified in an uncertain future when we are back to a “new normal”? While some projects were remote from the start, many depend on face-to-face interaction to achieve desired outcomes. We need to intentionally collect evidence of whether our adaptations are successful to decide what should be continued into a “new normal” or halted altogether. Just because we can do something does not mean we should. The wrong lesson is that because we have been able to rely on remote methodologies during Covid-19, we should continue to do so when it is no longer strictly necessary. Much of development work depends on relationships. Relationships may be able to be maintained digitally, but they cannot always be catalyzed digitally. We must determine what is working better than in the past to ensure our systems are resilient and capable of better future responses and local ownership. We must learn, today, before it is too late.

A version of this article is also published on USAID Learning Lab

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