Covid-19 reveals flaws in development practice: tackling inequality requires transformation

Published on 18 February 2021

Ahead of World Social Justice Day (20 February), IDS researchers Melissa Leach, Hayley MacGregor, Ian Scoones and Annie Wilkinson review the lessons from Covid-19 for development practices in a new journal article and why political, economic and social transformations are needed to tackle injustices and inequalities, and prepare for the future.

The pandemic has highlighted the intense fragilities of systems that assure health and wellbeing, food supplies, sustainable livelihoods and resilient economies. Covid-19 has had far deeper impacts on those already experiencing poverty and inequality, with the effects of the health crisis felt unevenly across geographies, income bands, gender, ethnicity and age. The assertion that ‘we’re all in this together’ is truly a myth, as highlighted in a recent Oxfam report.

As leaders look ahead to rebuild from Covid-19 and to occasions for global collaboration on universal development challenges, including COP26 and the G7 summit, there is a clear opportunity to reset outdated approaches that the pandemic has shown are no longer fit for purpose.

In the just-published World Development journal article discussed at a recent seminar (watch below), IDS researchers outline the case for challenging mainstream approaches to capitalist development that prioritise economic growth, market liberalisation, globalisation, and carbon-intensive industries. Instead, a case is made for six principles that development researchers and practitioners must apply in order for there to be lasting positive post-pandemic transformations globally.


1. Find solutions rooted in local solidarities, not just in ‘top-down’ measures

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw the application of standardised approaches to preparedness and response dictated from the ‘top-down’. Yet, the pandemic proved that effective preparedness and response came often from local solidarities.  Positive citizen-led responses, both to disease and to mitigate its wider impacts, were driven by neighbourhood networks, local civil society, diaspora networks, religious organisations, and sometimes local business associations.

For example, in low-income settlements in Nairobi local groups have supported health service access and the provision of aid and food to people. Crucially, this has had greatest impact in countries where such ‘bottom-up action’ has been supported by the state. Bangladesh illustrates how such inclusive, multi-level approaches to development, in this case established through poverty reduction and climate change adaptation over decades, can be successfully mobilised to respond to Covid-19 – as discussed in a recent Sussex Development Lecture.  In the future, national and local government decision-making should adapt to consider supporting local responses, both with recognition and legitimacy, and also with resources.

2. Re-build trust in citizen-state relationships

During Covid-19, we have seen that for states to be able to implement lockdowns and public health controls they must have trust and be accountable and inclusive of all citizens. The UK provides a good example of how that trust can be easily undermined when political leaders are shown to be flouting the rules they imposed on others.  We saw during the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, in Sierra Leone and in Guinea, that trust and a reliable social contract was deeply lacking because of a long-term legacy of slavery, colonialism, conflict and failure of state provisioning in previous decades.

In many current settings, authoritarian states, closing civil society space and deep local divisions prevail and have often been exacerbated through the Covid-19 response. While challenging, addressing these dynamics must now be a development priority. Building trust in state power that is necessary for nationwide health responses requires tangible action, including open dialogue and relationship building. Understanding changing state-citizen relationships in particular contexts and taking long-term action to build trust should be a priority for all political leaders and at the forefront for academics and NGOs working in these spaces.

3. Re-shape economies around resilience

The pandemic has shown that we need a fundamental reorientation of priorities for a different type of economy.  Pandemic control measures significantly affected those that relied on informal economies; for example, in India where labour migrants suffered significantly when they returned to their rural villages. Informal economies have long been considered ‘peripheral’ and yet can provide key services like waste disposal and food provision. We need to think how economies can be organised around labour and not just around profit. In particular, consideration must be given to key and essential workers who are so crucial to pandemic responses, yet are often in highly precarious jobs and are disproportionately women, ethnic minorities and migrants.

We need an alternative to the globalised neoliberal economy that is dominated by the pursuit of risk and reward, profit and growth. This needs to prioritise resilience, with the ability of economies and states to respond to shocks and uncertainties and protect all populations, including the marginalised.

4. Recognise a wide range of expertise and perspectives, including uncertainty

In the UK, we are all now familiar with the mantra of ‘follow the science’, but it is more important to consider what science is being followed and how.  For example, at the beginning of the pandemic the UK advisory group of scientists (SAGE) was dominated by a narrow science field – especially epidemiological modellers – with no social scientists or economists. In the US, there was an active side-lining of science advice, whereas in East Asia, science-policy discussions and engagements were more successful due to the experience of SARS in 2003.

For preparedness and response measures to be effective, leaders must recognise expertise from different sources and include diverse perspectives. A wide range of science disciplines needs to be valued, but also advice drawn from local knowledge and expertise. Using real-time expertise grounded in lived realities will lead to more informed, context-specific, policy decisions. Syntheses of existing social science research, as provided by the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform, can also provide valuable insights about cultural logics, social difference, histories and political economies that are relevant to responses.

5. Address long-established power imbalances and injustices

The racial and gendered dimensions of disease are well-known and have been vividly shown through the Covid-19 pandemic. Differential disease risk for example is evident in the case of Zika in Latin America, where it was those living in low-income neighbourhoods with poor sanitation, inadequate drainage and high mosquito populations who were most affected. In the UK, the US and other parts of the world, black and minority ethnic groups have died from Covid-19 at higher rates than others.

Covid-19 illustrates vividly why addressing inequalities and injustices must be centre stage in development, along with addressing the power imbalances that underpin them. As we seek to re-build from Covid-19, this also invited further deconstruction of the colonial assumptions and power relations that have long beset development studies and practice themselves. This is a moment to shift to a more decolonised, diverse and equitable sharing of knowledge and resources, supported by critical challenging of historic embedded power dynamics. The example of the current challenges to achieve vaccine equity are a powerful reminder of entrenched global power imbalances and that no country is safe until all are safe.

6. Recognise global development challenges as universal to all

The effects of Covid-19 have been felt in different ways but have affected the entire globe. The pandemic makes clear that there is much need for learning by dominant northern powers, including the UK and the US, from the global South. The experience up-ends a north-south hierarchy that has dominated for too long, with the pandemic underlining the need for global solidarities and mutual learning. A universal, and decolonised approach to development is critical in tackling the global challenges ahead from health to climate change. This moment presents a hope that the universality promised by the UN Global Goals could finally come of age.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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