It was with great pleasure that I joined the fifth UK-China Development Forum co-hosted by the FCDO and the Chinese State Council’s Development Research Centre (DRC). The annual event brings together senior government officials and development experts from the UK, China and the wider international development community to discuss shared development priorities and challenges. It is always a very important event but this year, more than most, felt especially timely against a backdrop of global climate change and a global health emergency.
There was significant discussion on Covid-19 and how to encourage knowledge, mutual learning and research collaboration in order to tackle this global pandemic. From our perspective at IDS, this must start with understanding how countries have responded so far, in the light of their particular contexts and experiences, and then considering what lessons might be shared to strengthen responses elsewhere – including low and middle income countries, and the UK. Drawing on research and evidence from IDS-hosted programmes with partners including the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP) and Pandemic Preparedness Project, I identified four key areas where mutual learning between China, the UK and other countries could help support responses.
One size does not fit all
Regardless of how ‘similar’ a country’s development trajectory may seem to be, each has an entirely distinct context that is defined by social, economic, cultural and governance factors. Population demographics are fundamental with the prevalence of the disease in Europe and parts of the US demonstrating the far higher risk to older age groups with underlying health conditions. In turn, the interrelationship of these factors shape the impact that Covid-19 will have including how quickly it will spread and how far health systems will be able to treat and control the disease.
For governments, it means that any response has to weigh up the potential risk and the livelihood impact of imposing a nationwide response such as ‘lockdown’. In some countries, we saw that population ‘lockdowns’ were imposed without considering that this would force some groups into food insecurity and hunger or prevent access to basic medical care. It is thought that more than 57,000 women could die in childbirth globally by 2025 as a result of not being able to access hospital care. The broader health and livelihood impacts of public health responses need great care and attention. . The lesson is that we need to apply a proportional approach based on balanced assessment of vulnerabilities according to the country’s individual context, and the needs of particular social groups.
The effectiveness of a country’s Covid-19 response is tied to the strengths of its institutions, and the extent to which they are accountable to and trusted by its populations. Those with robust, accessible health systems where there was effective national-local coordination, such as in China, have fared better. China’s historically embedded neighbourhood grid management system has provided an architecture for the tight delivery of public health and control measures, albeit not always experienced favourably by local populations. In the UK the ‘top down’ and semi-privatised national response has been seen to be far less powerful in containing the disease. Approaches in African and Asian countries have reflected their diverse histories, institutional make-up and citizen-state relations, with trust and inclusivity often being key ingredients for success.
We have also seen that where there are gaps in the national-local response, it is civil society organisations who have provided for those in need. Examples include Muungano organisation which has been collecting essential health data in low income settlements in Nairobi, Kenya or the women’s groups that have been organising food deliveries in Kerala, India. Whether supported by government or civil society, localised responses and community engagement are crucial to finding and then embedding appropriate, sustainable responses.
Crossing the river by feeling the stones
This is a Chinese saying that nicely captures the policy tradition of setting broad national parameters, and then encouraging local public authorities to experiment and innovate, adapting along the way. This kind of approach was central to Chinese success in poverty reduction and it now offers much to the response to Covid-19. Given the radical uncertainty that surround the virus and the unfolding of the pandemic in different contexts, we have to be adaptive and experiment, however uncomfortable that makes governments and policymakers. Examples of local innovation and adaptation are springing up across the world – whether the market traders who have used informal institutions in parts of West Africa to reopen markets with safe social distancing measures, helping to secure livelihoods, or the local adaptations to the delivery of social protection measures in Bangladesh, in order to reach the most vulnerable groups.
Global co-operation and mutual learning
One of the most important themes at the UK-China Development Forum was global solidarity and the need to work together around shared mechanisms, whether for infrastructure, finance or in sharing Covid-19 health data. Covid-19 is a global pandemic and the mantra that no country will be safe until all countries are safe was a recurrent theme. For cooperation to be effective, it must be built on transparency and mutual learning where information, knowledge and understanding can flow in all directions – China to UK to African countries to Latin American countries and back again. There is much to learn from each other, including how to adapt and apply insights from a multiplicity of contexts, and from the broadest range of sciences. In tackling Covid-19, we need not just epidemiology and the sciences of public health, biology and vaccine development, but also insights from social sciences and humanities – from anthropology, geography, political science, economics, history. We need a truly global, interdisciplinary approach built on research, understanding and shared lessons for any response and recovery to be effective and to be able to build back better.
To support such collaboration, IDS is launching the Global Development Knowledge Network website, linked to our project as the UK anchor institution for the China International Development Research Network (CIDRN). We also continue to work and interact with many Chinese partners on a range of themes, facilitated by the IDS China International Development Research and Mutual Learning Hub. Our hope is to encourage mutual learning and solidarity to ensure that development, informed by research and evidence, is better positioned to tackle future disruptions and shocks, wherever they occur.