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COVID-19: Should Europe embrace frugality?

COVID-19: Should Europe embrace frugality?

The Covid-19 pandemic, emerging in the aftermath of the recent global financial crisis, ...

‘I cannot understand your question’: challenges and opportunities of including persons with disabilities in participatory evaluation

Participatory evaluation has been praised for engaging vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities (PwD). However, the inclusion of this group can be challenging and even self-defeating if carried out incorrectly. Despite the challenges, evaluators and researchers can follow some strategies to make the evaluation process with PwD as inclusive as possible.

Disability and participatory methods

For a long time, persons with disabilities (PwDs) were socially ostracized and confined to special schools and health centers. Growing pressure from disability rights organizations made possible a shift from an individual and biological view of disability towards a social and inclusive model that focuses on the interaction between individual impairments and social and environmental barriers (Shakespeare, 2006). Since then, international progress has been made to recognize the right of PwDs as full and contributing members of society; the formation of the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an example of a step in the right direction on this front.

In previous decades there has been a shift in research and evaluation methodologies in academia as well. Criticism of the ineffectiveness of the positivist paradigm to include vulnerable groups in research has led to the rise of participatory approaches in which PwDs and other marginalized groups play an important role in shaping research agendas and outcomes (Parry et al., 2001). The alternative bottom-up methodologies became known for challenging power relations and giving voice to marginalized groups, including PwDs (Chambers, 1994).

As a result, participatory methods have been crucial for engaging PwDs in more active roles in the processes of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and not only as simple research subjects. For instance, many evaluations now involve PwDs organizations in the role of advisers where they can choose data collection instruments (Robinson et al., 2014) and use their expertise to interpret results and provide feedback (Olshanska et al., 2016). Increased participation has been praised for improving the validity and general outcomes of the evaluations (Brandon, 1998).

The challenges of inclusion

Despite recent achievements, many challenges lie ahead for greater inclusive participation of PwDs in program evaluations. One of the most overlooked aspects is the design of inclusive evaluation instruments (surveys, focus groups): evaluators tend to regard PwDs as a homogeneous group. Therefore, the instruments fail to take into consideration the diversity of disability, especially in terms of communication styles.

This creates an under-representation of the least advantaged within the target group. A study of 31 peer-reviewed articles in ten top-ranking evaluation journals shows that people with intellectual and development disabilities were less likely to participate in evaluation processes than people with any other type of disability (Jacobson et al., 2012). Even if they do participate, their answers in most of the cases might be biased or incomplete (Ware, 2004) since they communicate differently than their peers or experience psychological barriers such as low self-esteem.

Conducting evaluation activities in venues with physical barriers or far from the beneficiaries’ houses can hinder the participation of people with a physical disability. Therefore, ineffective M&E planning and instruments could not only bias the results, but also could end up creating negative unintended consequences such as exclusion and disempowerment. However, even if considering the linguistic and cognitive heterogeneity, what are the best alternatives to engage PwDs in participatory evaluation processes? Is inclusive participatory evaluation more time consuming?

Lessons learned: How to overcome the obstacles?

From my experience working with women with disabilities in Nicaragua[1], when it comes to disability, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Nonetheless, there are low-cost alternatives that can improve the overall level of participation. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Learn about your target group. An overview of the type of disability and some social variables is crucial to balance participants in focus groups, disaggregate data by categories, and prepare in advance for special requirements (e.g. the use of a sign interpreter, ramps for wheelchairs). It is also key to better understand power dynamics within the group. For instance, women face more discrimination than men, even if they have the same disability.

Be flexible. PwDs have different limitations, but also different sets of skills. Take advantage of the preferred method of communication and be open about the methodology.  For instance, photographs have proven to be effective to communicate with participants with physical, hearing or development disabilities (Jurkowski, 2008). This is an example of an alternative that requires small adjustments and can be easily triangulated with other methods.

Listen. When in doubt, ask the participants what methodology makes them feel more comfortable. Participation is also about listening and learning from others, and PwDs hold the key to understanding what suits them best.

Create capacities. Strengthen the M&E capacity of disability organizations. This will help to develop the organizations and build and share bi-directional knowledge. As a development practitioner, also invest some time educating yourself more about disability. For instance, learn some basic sign language to integrate yourself with people with hearing disabilities.

Be aware of trade-offs. Programs face time constraints, and full participation is not always feasible. Identify the phase of the evaluation that can be participatory and that can also have the most benefits for the participants. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to consider that digital tools might not be accessible to some PwDs. Therefore, outcome should be interpreted taking into account the selection bias.

PwDs are one of the most vulnerable groups according to the World Report on Disability; they experience higher rates of poverty and are more likely to be unemployed (World Health Organization, 2011). Thus, PwDs should have the opportunity to have a voice in the evaluation of programs and policies that impact their lives and communities.


Brandon, P. R. (1998). Stakeholder participation for the purpose of helping ensure evaluation validity: Bridging the gap between collaborative and non-collaborative evaluations. American Journal of Evaluation, 19, 325–337.

Chambers, R. (1994). Participatory rural appraisal (PRA): Challenges, potentials and paradigm. World development, 22(10), 1437-1454.

Jacobson, M. R., Azzam, T., & Baez, J. G. (2013). The nature and frequency of inclusion of people with disabilities in program evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 34(1), 23-44.

Jurkowski, J. M. (2008). Photovoice as participatory action research tool for engaging people with intellectual disabilities in research and program development. Intellectual and developmental disabilities, 46(1), 1-11.

Olshanska, Z., van Doorn, J., & van Veen, S. C. (2016). My Story My Rights: how individual stories of people with disabilities can contribute to knowledge development for UNCRPD monitoring. Knowledge Management for Development Journal, 11(2), 43-62.

Parry, O., Gnich, W., & Platt, S. (2001). Principles in practice: reflections on a ‘postpositivist’ approach to evaluation research. Health Education Research, 16(2), 215-226.

Robinson, S., Fisher, K. R., & Strike, R. (2014). Participatory and inclusive approaches to disability program evaluation. Australian Social Work, 67(4), 495-508.

Shakespeare, T. (2006). The social model of disability. In L. J. Davis (Ed.), The disability studies reader (2nd ed., pp. 197–204). New York: Routledge.

Ware, J. (2004). Ascertaining the views of people with profound and multiple learning developmental disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 32, 175–179.

World Health Organization. (2011). World report on disability. Malta: World Health Organization.

[1] The author worked as M&E officer in a project of empowerment of women with disability in Nicaragua from 2018 to 2019.

About the author:

Gersán Vásquez GutiérrezGersán Vásquez Gutiérrez is an economist and holds a master’s degree in governance and development. He works as an M&E officer in a regional irregular migration prevention program in Nicaragua. His main areas of interest are impact evaluation, migration, and local development.


COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world, says ISS researcher Dorothea Hilhorst, who recently participated in a webinar organized by Humanitarian Knowledge Exchange platform Kuno to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled and what could be done differently. Here’s what she had to say.

Covid Checks in IndiaCOVID-19 is sweeping the globe and widely triggers top-down and centralised emergency measures. I don’t recall another crisis that has created such a response, even though the actual numbers of people affected have been very modest compared to many of the other crises we have in this world, including the lack of access to clean water, resource competition in mining areas, conflict and refugee problems, and climate change. In the beginning, I often found myself thinking if only the world would muster the courage to also address these other crises, and give them more priority than short-term economic gain.

However, it is also clear that there are strong limitations to the bold and robust responses of top-down emergency management. Firstly, I really resent how we seem to conflate the hazard of COVID-19 with subsequent risks. Yes, COVID-19 is a nasty and infectious virus. But it is not a virus that dictates that it should lead to widespread food shortages or increased marginalisation of the poor and vulnerable populations. These are spillover crises that relate to but are not directly caused by the virus.

These spillover crises are not just happening, they are let be by policy. When we signal the risk of food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19, I see agencies jumping to raising funds and stockpiling to feed the world. However, why don’t we talk about preventing this crisis? Why not focus on diplomacy to continue food exports from surplus-producing countries? Why not ensure that markets stay open and continue to function? Why not give peasants free range to go to their fields (at distance from other human beings) instead of locking them down in their houses?

Secondly, we have to be really aware about the many instances where governments have instrumentalised COVID-19 for other purposes, such as to curb the freedoms of civil society, to silence the media, or to undermine political opponents. Hungary is a case in point, where the government, under the pretext of misinformation about COVID-19, has closed critical media outlets. Authorities in many areas are seen to instrumentalise COVID-19 to increase surveillance and control, at the detriment of human rights and civil society, with rumours increasing the mistrust between people and their state.

Thirdly, while there is no doubt that top-down policies and expert knowledge is required to address the crisis, there are also indications about the limitations of this approach. Top-down approaches may ignore, stifle, or expire local coping capacities, social networks, and small-scale formal and informal institutions. Based on previous experiences and research, this may have grave consequences and render the COVID-19 response counter-productive:

  1. Local institutions are people’s first and very often only line of defence against crises. Where top-down policies don’t reach out to communities to provide services and when people cannot rely on local institutions, they become increasingly vulnerable. Why close schools instead of mobilising teachers to help spread messages about personal hygiene in relation to COVID-19?
  2. In areas where state-society relations are already characterised by mistrust before the crisis, there is a high risk that people will not believe the messages about COVID-19 coming from the authorities and will try to circumvent policies aiming to prevent the spread of the virus. A notorious example was found when the Ebola pandemic erupted in Sierra Leone: people sometimes hid patients to avoid their hospitalisation.
  3. One-sided top-down policies can contribute to spillover crises at the local level, including crises of livelihoods and food security. This can lead to adverse coping mechanisms that actually increase the risks of COVID-19. There are signals that some women in the Eastern DRC who are prohibited to cross the border with Rwanda for their petty trade now resort to transactional sex to feed their families.

Let’s stay alert, or as we say nowadays, let us be ‘woke’ about these consequences of responding to COVID-19. The virus is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world. Top-down measures need to be linked up with bottom-up initiatives and coping mechanisms to effectively deal with the crisis.

Hilhorst’s discussion was part of a webinar titled ‘How COVID empowers local civil society organizations’. Other speakers included Hero Anwar, Program Director at REACH Iraq; Gloria Modong, Executive Director, Titi Foundation South Sudan, and Deputy Chair, NGO Forum South Sudan; and Feliciano Reyna, Executive Director and founder of Accíon Solidaria in Venezuela and representative of Civilis.

The entire webinar can be (re-)watched here: https://www.kuno-platform.nl/events/kuno-covid-cafe-how-covid-empowers-local-civil-society-organizations-in-the-south/

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

Thea Hilhorst

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

Title Image Credit: Gwydion M. Williams on Flickr

The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to investigate and quash corruption in the UN’s aid agencies by Avagay Simpson

More than 100 million people across the world living in war zones and other emergency settings are dependent on humanitarian assistance facilitated by the UN. These populations are likely to be profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and require support now more than ever. The UN that in recent years has been fraught with corruption incidents and has witnessed the siphoning of humanitarian aid funds by aid workers now faces two choices. It can either fail to adequately monitor aid allocated to the fight against the pandemic that can allow corrupt practices to continue, or it can seize the opportunity the crisis presents to boldly fight corruption by reviewing and rethinking its aid allocation practices.

In 2018, ten years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, I wrote a blog article here asking where the money allocated to humanitarian aid in Haiti had disappeared to. This article raised questions about the accountability of aid workers and the lack of transparency in international aid. Fast-forward to today and these questions are even more potent. An undercover investigation by the CNN revealed that dozens of areas in war-torn Yemen were receiving aid on paper but, in reality, war victims were not being helped. It also highlighted that the UN in 2018 found that 1% of aid allocated globally was going missing.

On 5 August 2019, AP in an article titled ‘UN probes corruption in its own agencies in Yemen aid effort’ reported that a WHO worker had tipped off Houthi rebels about ongoing investigations of the UN’s aid in Yemen for fear that her theft of humanitarian funds would be exposed. This resulted in the Houthi rebels confiscating computers with critical information before investigators could board a flight to Yemen.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and has been going through a civil war since 2015. This civil war has been named the worst humanitarian crisis of our time: “more than 3.3 million people have been displaced; and 80% of the population need assistance and protection, including 10 million now reliant on food aid.”[1] Despite Yemen’s situation having been labelled the worst humanitarian crisis at present, the UN, whose mandate it is to solve international humanitarian crises, is failing to help the Yemeni people. This case illustrates that some UN representatives have strayed from the core mandate of the organisation and have instead opted for rent-seeking activities pursued in their own interest. It is alleged that billions of dollars were deposited in the personal accounts of UN staff in Yemen with suspicious contracts with monies not reaching the Yemeni people. How is this possible?

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the UN Secretariat is responsible for coordinating responses to emergencies and is supposed to manage, monitor, and deliver effective aid. But how robust are these monitoring systems? What mechanisms have been put in place by the UN to safeguard the transfer of money to the field, particularly to emergency zones?

Over the years, the UN has taken the initiative to address transparency and accountability issues in its organisations. In 2007, the United Nations Transparency Accountability Initiative (UNTIA) was launched to ensure that the billions of dollars contributed to aid would be delivered to those who need it most. Other initiatives preceding the UNTIA focused on enhancing the effectiveness of aid; some strategies include the development of codes of conduct, policy manuals on finance, complaint mechanisms, staff rotation schedules, resource tracking systems, and supply chain management.

These mechanisms are evidently not working, as in 2019 there were several other reported cases of corruption in humanitarian aid. These include the disappearance of US$18 million in aid funds from the UN, the EU and Saudi Arabia in Somalia. The Somalian Government received the funding, but the monies did not make it through the Central Bank’s treasury account. Similarly, in May 2019 it was revealed that the UN in 2018 found that millions of dollars had been stolen in Uganda. A whistle-blower in the government made the report and subsequent investigations by the UN European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and Uganda’s government revealed that the number of reported refugees was exaggerated and the additional resources intended for these people stolen.

Clearly, despite the UN having several measures to improve accountability, the results are not supportive. While humanitarian crises are very complex, with vast, changing resource levels creating opportunities for corruption, sufficient emphasis on corruption prevention could help to nip it in the bud.

Rebecca Affolder (2017) in an analysis titled ‘An Accountable United Nations Development System for the 21st Century’ noted that the UN for the past 40 years has been consistent in developing proposals and blueprints to improve transparency and accountability but has failed to implement these sufficiently. She emphasised that the UN’s failure to implement reforms has resulted in ‘trust’ issues within the UN, between organisations, member states and civil society.

A 2008 report by Transparency International on preventing corruption in humanitarian assistance highlighted that even though mechanisms and policies exist to ensure transparency and accountability in humanitarian aid, these oftentimes are not put into practice. The report also indicated that complaint mechanisms are often not readily accessible to the public and in some instances only exist for staff.  The report also indicated that the majority of the staff interviewed from these participating agencies did not rate corruption prevention as a priority of their agency.

Given the nature of humanitarian aid, one may argue that it is difficult to focus on transparency and accountability when the primary aim is to save lives. Some may even go further to say that putting greater emphasis on corruption prevention may divert well-needed human resources require to help the needy. But think about how many could have been helped if there had been better accountability. The UN needs to rethink its approaches to humanitarian aid and implement measures to ensure that these accountability mechanisms are working as they should.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 million people are living in war zones and other emergency settings who depend on UN humanitarian assistance.[2] The OCHA is mandated to protect the people living in these areas and to ensure that they are receiving the intended aid and protection. This pandemic has created an environment ripe for corruption, but also presents a window for the UN to increase its fight in the war against corruption. Now is an opportune time to review, rethink, and act.

The UN is an important player in world humanitarian relief but needs to take a bold step in the fight against corruption. Its failure to act now means that sooner rather than later its legitimacy will be questioned—to the detriment of those in need of assistance.

[1]BBC News (August 1, 2019) “Yemen war: Has anything been achieved?” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49179146
[2] https://www.unocha.org/story/un-calls-global-ceasefire-combat-%E2%80%98common-enemy%E2%80%99-covid-19

About the author:

Avagay SimpsonAvagay Simpson is a graduate of the International Institute of Social Studies with a master’s degree in Development Studies specialising in Governance and Development Policy.  Her research interest are the governance of international humanitarian aid, non-profit governance, anti-corruption, and Public Policy. She also holds a master’s degree in International Relations and currently works as a consultant in Jamaica.

Image Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino on Flickr.


COVID-19 | “Stay safe” conversations that illuminate the glass walls between her and me by Mausumi Chetia

Disasters are lived in different ways by different classes of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the differential impacts of disasters lie in the blurred spaces between populations fortunate enough to focus on ‘productivity-during-lockdown-times’ and others who focus on ‘providing-food-for-their-children-and-having-a-home-during-lockdown-times’. For generationally disaster-prone or disaster-torn populations of India, this global pandemic is only widening the class gaps that have characterized local realities for the Indian society for centuries.

My husband and I recently witnessed thousands of daily-wage workers and families marching towards a bus terminal near our home in Delhi. From there, they would take buses to their hometowns. Many were travelling on foot, too, trying to make their way to their homes hundreds of miles away from Delhi after the entire country was placed under lockdown from 25 March. This involuntary exodus of workers from India’s many cities that has continued despite fatal consequences is an oxymoronic act that seems to oppose the social distancing measures prescribed by the WHO and related suggestions from developed nations. It is not that these workers are unwilling to keep safe—it is simply that a substantial part of India’s population, including these workers, cannot afford to do so, as has been emphasized repeatedly.

My current research looks at the everyday lives of families facing protracted displacement due to the disaster of riverbank erosion along Brahmaputra River in Assam, a state in India. The families I engage with for my research source their income from daily wages. As economic activity suddenly ceased in March, the small stream of income stopped. Consequently, many of the workers were not able to travel back to their families, as they usually would when on leave or a break period. Many male members of these families are currently trapped in the towns within Assam where they work. They were unable to travel to their homes, many miles away, not only because of the physical cost of walking or taking a bus home, but for a different set of reasons as well.

Conversations on care and health that are classes apart

Pic 11
Rita and her friends after collecting firewood for cooking from a neighbouring paddy field. February 2020

A few days after the Delhi exodus, calls from concerned families I work with increased significantly. “You should have just stayed back here with us,” Rita Saikia, a regular caller, often quips. “Come back to the village whenever you can.” Megacities like Delhi have much higher infection rates than rural places, as many of the rural inhabitants I work with recognize.

Besides the exchange of well-intended thoughts and mutual worries, these telephonic conversations are constant reminders of the class differences in the everyday lives of people that surround us, beginning with those of the researched and the researcher. Ironically, despite my power position over the families I work with for my research, they offered me what they thought I did not have in Delhi: a sense of safety they felt in the countryside. Here, thus, they were able to close the distance between the researcher and the researched. Nevertheless, the challenges that these families are facing are colossal in comparison to those I am facing, such as not being able to travel to my university in Europe or being anxious about my inability to work on my dissertation as effectively as I would have liked to from home.

Rita[1] is from one of my host families in one of the villages where I spent time conducting research. With no other choice, she has been managing the household and two children all by herself this entire period. Ajeet, her husband, is a construction worker surviving off daily wages. He is currently stuck at one of his work sites, around 100 kilometers away from his family village. For now, the family is surviving from its meagre savings. Rice has been provided by the children’s school and another one-time ration (of rice) provided by the local government. Quietly hiding away from the eyes of authorities, Rita, along with other women from her village, regularly goes to collect firewood behind their village in the dry paddy field. Refilling the cooking gas cylinder from their savings is a luxury they cannot afford right now.

Ajeet had left the family’s only mobile phone at home, so he calls his family once every three days from his co-worker’s phone. Last night, their younger child of four cried himself to sleep because his father’s call was disconnected before the child could speak to him. The mobile credit had probably run out. The older child of six years smiled and casually said to me, “you know pehi[2], Deuta[3] will not come home now even if the virus dies, but only later. He needs to bring the money home.” This understanding of the daily realities and hardships, and the acceptance of the hardships of life, contrasts sharply with how more privileged people experience the coronavirus pandemic, like any other disaster.

Amidst all of this, the annual season of extreme winds in Assam has begun. Homes of three of the research families have been battered by these winds. The families plan to complete the rebuilding process once the lockdown is relaxed, unable to do so during the lockdown. In addition, come June, the monsoon will make its appearance, inviting the annual visit of the floods, erosion of the banks of Assam’s rivers, landslides and associated socio-economic insecurities that are now compounded by those the lockdown has brought about. A slowing economy post-pandemic and consequential decrease in sources of income, along with exposure to the said disasters, will significantly push these already displaced families further to the brink of poverty.

Living through the intersections of inequalities

Poverty is both a driver and a consequence of disasters[4]. The year 2020 could become one of the most barefaced examples of this. Many socio-economically and politically insecure populations elsewhere in India and in the neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia etc. are also disaster-prone or -torn. Once the world gets back on its feet post-COVID-19, these populations are set to face increasing human insecurities in their everyday lives arising due to the pandemic and its after-effects, like the families in Assam.

A society’s many aspects are unclothed in the aftermath of a disaster[5], which continues to reinforce social inequalities[6]. Disasters, therefore, including the current pandemic, hardly manage to break the walls of class structures – political, economic, social, and so forth. If anything, they increase the height and depth of these walls – between societies within a nation, between different nations, and, most definitely, between the researcher and the researched.

Pic 1
The Brahmaputra River at the backyard of one of the families’ home (from the research). January 2020

[1] All names of research participants have been changed
[2] Assamese word for paternal aunt
[3] Assamese word for father
[4] https://www.preventionweb.net/risk/poverty-inequality
[5] Oliver-Smith, Anthony, and Susanna M. Hoffman, eds. The angry earth: disaster in anthropological perspective. Routledge, 2019.
[6] Reid, Megan. “Disasters and social inequalities.” Sociology Compass 7.11 (2013): 984-997.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.

IMG_20200215_155647About the author:

Mausumi Chetia is a PhD Researcher at the ISS. Her research looks at the everyday lives of disaster-displaced people in Assam, a northeastern state of India.

COVID-19 | Revaluing essential workers by Karin Astrid Siegmann

This year we are celebrating Labour Day in a very different way—the world we live in has changed dramatically over the past few months because of the COVID-19 pandemic and our collective and individual responses to it. As economies are shut down, many people are for the first time realizing that essential workers keep the cogs of societies oiled and turning. Yet many essential workers remain underpaid and underappreciated. We should realize that these workers are nurturers and deserve living dignified lives that can only be achieved if our economic system is critically examined and transformed.

A new hero has emerged in the wake of measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus: the essential worker. A global crisis like the one we are facing now raises our awareness about how essential care and food are for human flourishing. The underlying logic is very simple: essential workers are life-making rather than product- or profit-making. Care and food workers therefore top the list of occupations whose work is critical to the COVID-19 response that many governments have published.

Amidst collective clapping for nurses and radio spots praising the role of domestic workers for containing the coronavirus, it is easy to forget that today’s essential workers were the precariat of the old normal. Around the world, care and food workers find themselves at the bottom rung of wage and social hierarchies. In Pakistan, for instance, earning the minimum wage remains a distant dream for the vast informal workforce in agriculture and domestic service. For female workers, this income poverty is aggravated by a wide gender wage gap. Female community health workers called ‘Lady Health Workers’ have been recognised as key to the improvement in maternal and child health indicators in rural Pakistan since the 1990s. Yet, for many years, these vital medical professionals were paid ‘stipends’ at half the minimum wage and not offered regular contracts like other public employees.

This pattern is not much different in a rich country like the Netherlands where I live. Here, the majority of farmworkers are migrants from Central and Eastern Europe on zero-hour contracts. Their hard work in horticulture has turned agricultural export income in the Netherlands into the world’s second highest. Yet, their employment contracts provide neither work nor income security for themselves. Many domestic workers who raise their Dutch employers’ children and care for elderly persons are undocumented migrants whose precarious legal status prevents them from realising the few rights to social protection that they are entitled to. The status of their work is the tail lamp of common classifications of occupational prestige. Only sex workers fare worse in terms of social stigma, while their work satisfies the human ‘skin hunger’ that has turned into a veritable famine in the context of corona-preventing quarantine.

Thus, while symbolic and literal applause for essential workers reveal a level of cognisance of their importance, in fact, the coronavirus crisis even aggravates these workers’ precarity. More often than not, the additional workload for medical personnel and domestic workers to provide quality emergency care to infected persons and prevent further spread of the pandemic through cleanliness and hygiene is not balanced with overtime work compensation. Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers have even seen cuts in their anyway meagre compensation.

In addition, many migrant domestic and sex workers have lost their jobs, but their legal status and/or their occupation’s stigma imply that they are not entitled to government relief packages. Migrant food workers face a cruel choice between infection at work, in crammed transport or accommodation quarters where social distancing is impossible, or the loss of their job and livelihood. Leyva del Río and Medappa hit the nail on the head when concluding that: “The ‘heroes’ of this crisis, those who are sustaining our lives, are barely able to sustain theirs.”

While many observers now demand a revaluation of essential work in a new, post-corona ‘normal’[1], the examples above demonstrate that this is unlikely to be an automatic consequence of the new symbolic recognition of the importance of food and care for our wellbeing. In contrast, they flag that the ongoing crisis is likely to further erode life-sustaining activities. How can this revaluation be achieved, then?

Historically, higher wages, better social protection and more recognition have resulted from workers’ collective struggles. Falling through the cracks of government support in rich and poor countries alike, that’s what today’s essential workers are doing, too. In the Netherlands, for instance, organised migrant domestic workers and sex workers have set up emergency funds, called on clients to continue to support them for as long as the crisis continues, and demanded social security independent of immigration and employment status from the Dutch government.

Given the commonality of their concerns, if networked, these struggles have huge potential to shape a post-corona future that provides essential workers with the recognition they deserve. The call to listen to and take on board essential workers’ own insights in reforms towards greater labour justice and more nurturing societies is the shared starting point of many food and care workers’ organisations. They typically agree that the intersecting hierarchies of gender, race, sexuality and immigration status that condition the precarity of their work and lives need to be addressed head-on in moves towards greater rights and respect. Last but not least, a choir of diverse, yet, united essential workers’ voices is more likely to add volume to their demand for recognition, decent working conditions and inclusive social protection for all workers – and evoke positive public responses.

These suggestions are not some unworldly utopia, but reflect existing, encouraging practices. A few years back, I asked a Mexican domestic worker from Texas why she had travelled all the way to Ohio to join the rally of an organisation demanding justice for Florida’s migrant farmworkers. Her answer was: “They support our struggles, we support theirs.” The demand to value people over profit unites them.

These are some starting points for how the ongoing coronavirus crisis can teach our societies whose work matters most for nurturing humans. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

I am grateful to Thierry Schaffauser, STRASS for his thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.
[1] It is encouraging to witness that a diverse group of colleagues formulates and shares similar ideas (e.g. Ebata et al. 2020, Jaffe 2020, Koebe et al. 2020, Leyva del Río and Medappa 2020, Mezzadri 2020). The ideas outlined here are also in line with and specify the demands of broader visions for sustainable post-Corona scenarios (see e.g. https://www.degrowth.info/en/feminisms-and-degrowth-alliance-fada/collective-research-notebook/ , https://www.gndforeurope.com/covid and https://braveneweurope.com/manifesto-for-a-more-sustainable-and-fairer-netherlands-after-corona ).

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.

photo-KarinSiegmann-fromISSwebsiteAbout the author:

Karin Astrid Siegmann is a senior lecturer in gender & labour economics at ISS.

COVID-19 | Driving transformative social change through an internationalist response to COVID-19 by Lize Swartz

A recent webinar organized by the Transnational Institute and partners brought together activists from all over the world to brainstorm how to make social justice central to our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The main message? Stand united instead of divided, let empathy inform context-based responses, and start thinking of changing what’s broken, including our healthcare systems. These principles should also guide our collective efforts to enact transformative social change that starts with our responses to the crisis and ends in a sustainable, just and resilient future—one in which no-one is left behind.

We find ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff with an abyss in front of us, left with three (or more?) choices: build a bridge to reach the other side, which is unknown territory; become engulfed by the darkness of the abyss and stand paralyzed; or retreat from the edge of the cliff to deceptive safety. This metaphor symbolizes the critical juncture[1] we’re currently at and the pathways we can choose: a radical transformation (the other side representing an unknown future, hopefully a sustainable and just one), paralysis (do nothing and watch the crisis run its course, whatever the consequences), or many steps in the opposite direction (further away from each other, creating a new normal that is worse than the one we had before).

Never before has the opportunity for real, comprehensive change been greater, never before has it been as necessary, and never before have the stakes been higher. But we have to start now―the window of opportunity is closing. There is some progress on this front as activists and thought leaders gather forces to fight for change. A webinar held recently by the Transnational Institute (TNI), in collaboration with the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) and Focus on the Global South, brought together roughly 600 participants to brainstorm how to build an internationalist response to COVID-19 in light of the crisis of deep global inequality.

Current responses to COVID-19 will shape future trends in how crises are tackled, and it is imperative to 1) prevent further injustices and inequalities arising from current responses that build upon already-existing inequalities and divides, and 2) start to enact radical change to prevent a return to the old normal or the adoption of a new normal that may be manifold worse. Thus, our responses show which of the pathways we choose now that we have reached the critical juncture, and responses should mirror the future we desire.

This seems like a mammoth task, but there are many energetic fighters across the world that are eager to get started. The webinar was a starting point to discussions and strategies for enacting change collectively. Discussions centered around not only humane responses to COVID-19, but also the need to critically discuss the state of our healthcare systems and to transform them. The crisis has clearly highlighted that healthcare systems in the Global North and Global South alike are woefully unprepared to deal with pandemics, not even providing universal healthcare services in non-crisis times. Mazibuko Jara, founder of the Treatment Action Campaign and currently Deputy Director of the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education (both in South Africa), emphasized the need for healthcare to be seen as a fundamental human right—a public good, which would change how it is approached.

Many are not focusing on building up (improving health systems), however, but on breaking down (fighting the virus and fighting each other). Sonia Shah, award-winning investigative science journalist who authored the book ‘Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond’ (2017), noted during the webinar that diseases and viruses are framed as external, prompting the closing of borders and the closing of minds as we distance ourselves from these ‘alien entities’[2].

Rather, what she calls a ‘microbial xenophobia’ arises as the disease is blamed on China and cultural practices in Asian countries. This process of ‘othering’ entrenches racism and xenophobia, enacted both by individuals and countries, preventing a collective global effort to transformative change and leading to increasing isolation as countries shut their borders and global geopolitical divides are strengthened. A strong counternarrative to this militaristic imaginary of ‘being at war’ with the disease and with each other urgently needs to be created.

Several discussants highlighted the inadequacies of current responses. Even if stringent measures can prevent the spread of the virus, which has yet to be proven by evidence, the authoritarian measures lack humaneness, further threatening the survival and dignity of already vulnerable populations without access to basic human rights. A one-size-fits-all approach, such as a national lockdown, does not work in contexts where such lockdowns can hasten the spread of the virus and lead to suffering due to loss of income and hunger, for example.

Thus, keynote speakers at the seminar concluded, we need an internationalist approach that:

  • Is based on solidarity and empathy so that responses are context-specific and do not create new injustices or inequalities that place an additional burden on vulnerable people
  • Creates a strong counternarrative to the xenophobic, militaristic narrative that is driving defensive and authoritarian responses, with a central emphasis on human rights and a common humanity, shown in how we communicate and how we act
  • Are based on health as a human right, a public good and working toward transforming the health system to this end
  • Recognizes that we are facing a supercrisis, that standing crises of poverty, inequality and climate change are interacting with biological crises such as COVID-19 and cannot be viewed in isolation
  • Counters growing authoritarianism and fundamentalism at all levels of society that are threatening to deepen social divides and split the world apart.

Participants agreed that solidarity and empathy should drive responses to COVID-19, but I argue that we need to go further than just responding. Our recognition of the root causes of injustices and inequalities should drive a multi-pronged strategy to not only prevent the spread of the virus and prevent unjust responses to it, but also to enact radical transformation through our responses to ensure that the inequalities the crisis feasts on are eradicated and that no-one is left behind as we move on to a future we can only dream of.

Without the recognition that the crisis requires a collective global response, we will get nowhere. And central to this is questioning the underlying structures and institutions that have created the breeding ground for the virus and the disaster that it has brought along with it, and changing them through intense and enduring collaboration based on a sense of shared humanity, or what especially Buddhist monks have called interbeing.

[1] Thank you to Duncan Green for mentioning the term ‘critical juncture’ that perfectly sums up the thoughts that I’ve had since the pandemic broke out in February.
[2]She also highlights the failure to recognize that pathogens or microbes become pandemics due to humankind’s encroachment on wildlife habitats.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


About the authors:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.

COVID-19 | Europe’s far right whips out anti-migrant rhetoric to target refugees during coronavirus crisis by Haris Zargar

The explosion of the coronavirus has dramatically brought about fresh challenges for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. With countries adopting stringent measures to contain this pandemic, including rigid border controls, the outbreak will not only have a huge impact on those driven out of their countries by crisis situations, but may create another refugee tragedy that may be worse than what has been experienced before.

The global response to the spread of the virus formally known as COVID-19 has been shaped by the complexity of national political interests and hardened immigration policies. Xenophobic rhetoric about how migrants and refugees are potential carriers of the deadly virus and pose a health threat has already become a central theme for right-wing populists in Europe, who advocate for cracking down on immigration.

As Steven Erlanger aptly noted in an article for The New York Times, COVID-19 is not only proliferating, but is also “infecting societies with a sense of insecurity, fear and fragmentation”. The possible outcome in the aftermath of the pandemic, therefore, may be a further polarization of societies and ‘othering’ of refugees and migrants.

This will likely jeopardize their rights and future course, setting in motion a new wave of xenophobic and racial politics bolstering far-right groups in many countries as a result. And this global health emergency may allow governments to implement temporary immigration and health-related measures that could systematically target refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants on the pretext of containing the spread of the virus.

Politicians across the European Union (EU) have already begun to exploit the COVID-19 outbreak by levelling suspicion at refugees and migrants. Ultra-nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán blamed migrants for the spread of the virus in Hungary: “We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”

In Italy, currently the most affected European country with the highest death toll outside China, right-wing political leader Matteo Salvini whipped up anti-immigration rhetoric by suggesting that migrants from Africa may have brought the virus with them. Greece’s nationalist government has cited the risk of COVID-19 infection as its reason for pressing ahead with a contentious plan to build “closed” camps for asylum seekers trapped on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios.

In the Balkans, Croatian Health Minister Vili Beroš said migrants represent a ‘potential’ risk of spreading the virus, while Serbia’s far-right parties have threatened to expel about 6,000 migrants who are residing in the country. Far-right groups in France, Germany and Spain have called for suspending the Schengen agreement that allows passport-free travel among 26 member states in the EU. Border closures and tighter travel restrictions have been used as preventive measures during previous public health emergencies. Following the outbreak of diseases such as the Zika virus in 2016, Ebola in 2014, and H1N1 influenza in 2009, many countries imposed tight travel restrictions.

The World Health Organization has warned that trying to tighten border security will not work and may even impede the global fight against the spread of COVID-19. “We cannot forget migrants, we cannot forget undocumented workers, we cannot forget prisoners,” said WHO executive director and public health specialist Michael Ryan. “The only way to beat [coronavirus] is to leave no one behind.”

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) has also urged Greece to immediately evacuate refugees and migrants from overcrowded camps on its islands owing to the high risk of COVID-19 spreading swiftly among people living in squalid conditions. The organization said that it would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings and that it had not yet seen a credible emergency plan in case of an outbreak.

Recent humanitarian situations such as the ongoing civil war in Syria have highlighted how the destruction of critical healthcare infrastructure in a country can contribute to the emergence of infectious and communicable diseases. With fears growing over the excessive strain on public healthcare services owing to the coronavirus outbreak and an inability to cope with the rising number of infected people, the health implications for refugees may be profound.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here. This is a shortened version of an article originally published by New Frame.

HarisAbout the author:

Haris Zargar is a PhD researcher looking at links between land reforms, social movements and armed insurgencies in Indian-controlled Kashmir. He has been a journalist for the past nine years, writing on the intersection of politics, conflict and human security. He worked as a political correspondent based in New Delhi with leading Indian new outlets including The Press Trust of India and The Mint. He holds degrees in Journalism and Development Studies from the University of Kashmir, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Image Credit: EYE DJ on Flickr