Towards a Coordinated Humanitarian-Development Response to COVID-19 Crisis: Reflections from the Arab Region with an ILO Lens

The multilateral system should support Arab countries to build on humanitarian and development mechanisms and experiences developed in recent years, in order to rapidly and effectively respond to the COVID-19 health, social, and economic crisis in the region.

Comment | 22 April 2020
By Shaza Al Jondi, ILO Senior Coherence and Partnerships Officer, Regional Office for Arab States

Three months into the beginning of the global COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic has infected over 2.5 million and claimed the lives of over 170,000 people worldwide1 (as of April 21). In addition to its severe impact on public health, the crisis is also a social and economic one with devastating effects on the world of work. A recent UN report entitled “Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19”, highlighted the ravaging impact of the pandemic on low-wage workers, small and medium enterprises and the informal sector. ILO global estimates in April indicated that working hours will decline by 6.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, which is equivalent to 195 million full-time workers.2 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries in the Arab region had been grappling with their own internal development challenges of weak economic growth, increasing poverty and inequality, persistent unemployment, particularly amongst youth and women, and weak governance and accountability, further worsened by protracted conflicts and ensuing refugee crises. As such, the pandemic with its far-reaching socio-economic consequences has put the region at a great disadvantage as it has further exposed these vulnerabilities, and exacerbated long-term structural challenges, including in the labour market. Early projections by ESCWA have estimated that an additional 8.3 million people will fall into poverty in the Arab region.3 The ILO estimated an 8.1 % decline in working hours in the Arab states (equivalent to 5 million workers) in the second quarter of 2020, a rate that is higher than all other regions.4

At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, there was a global consensus amongst member states on the need for a “new way of working” to transcend the humanitarian-development divide. Since then, the “triple nexus” – the nexus between humanitarian, development, and peace – has gained traction, including in the context of UN reform. The nexus is based on the premise that an integrated approach is needed to meet immediate needs of people, while simultaneously investing in longer-term solutions that address the root causes of conflicts and crises such as poverty, inequality, including gender equality, unemployment, and weak governance and accountability systems, as well as environmental vulnerabilities. It argues that this coherent approach reduces the likelihood and impact of future crises, while building resilience and sustaining peace; hence contributing to the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals.
Yet, despite this grim outlook, the Arab region has one important advantage in dealing with this crisis: it is the fact that its humanitarian and development actors have already developed a wealth of knowledge and experience in addressing complex crises with humanitarian, social and economic dimensions. In other words, this region has already put into practice the humanitarian-development nexus (also more recently referred to as the humanitarian-development-peace nexus or the triple nexus).

So, if the Arab region is able to build on the existing mechanisms and experiences developed in the past ten years and draw upon the lessons learned from operationalizing the humanitarian—development nexus, it stands a chance to turn this health, social, and economic crisis into a potential opportunity to produce an effective and rapid response to the pandemic. The multilateral system, including the UN organizations, multilateral and bilateral donors, and NGOs have a key role to play in supporting the government and national actors to:

1. Build on, strengthen, and adapt the existing collaborative and coordination mechanisms, partnerships, and plans between humanitarian and development actors to COVID-19 response rather than create new ones. The UN reform efforts underpinned by an empowered Resident Coordinator system at the country level can serve as an excellent basis to bring UN agencies and other actors together to develop quick and coherent responses that meet the immediate needs and address the systemic challenges concomitantly. A number of joint programming frameworks, working groups, and task forces have already been established in countries affected by crises to develop whole-of-system approaches and responses; and can easily be adapted to respond to COVID-19 crisis.

For example, the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) in response to the Syria crisis and related country plans (e.g Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) and Jordan Response Plan (JRP)) have brought together humanitarian and development actors into a single coherent plan to address the impact of a large influx of refugees and resultant effects on host communities and national development trajectories. They are currently being reviewed in light of COVID19 priorities.

Moreover, in response to COVID-19, the UN Secretary General has recently launched a Multi-Partner Trust Fund (MPTF) that in essence speaks to humanitarian-development nexus of this crisis and calls upon humanitarian and development actors to work together. It aims to “reduce human, economic and social suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the most vulnerable countries, and ensure an effective, inclusive and sustainable recovery”.

In the Arab region, UN organizations, particularly in countries where there are existing H-D coordination mechanisms such as the LCRP or JRP, UN organizations can easily and quickly organize themselves to develop joint proposals that offer immediate remedies to the crisis while addressing the socio-economic impact, particularly on those most vulnerable.

In 2018, the Government of the Netherlands launched a “Partnership for improving Prospects for forcibly displaced persons and host communities” (PROSPECTS) jointly with five agencies, namely International Finance Corporation (IFC), International Labour Organization (ILO), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the World Bank (WB) to develop a new paradigm in responding to forced displacement crises. Leveraging the expertise of the humanitarian and development actors, PROSPECTS devises collaborative and innovative approaches for inclusive job creation, education and protection in eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Horn of Africa.
2. Continue to advocate for the inclusion of women and vulnerable groups, including refugees, Internally Displaced People (IDPs), migrant workers into the national health responses, and other types of livelihoods support. Amongst these groups, special attention needs to be given to those who are particularly vulnerable such as female heads of households, and disadvantaged groups amongst youth, and people with disability (PWDs). The UN system should leverage on the wealth of experience and good practices under the 3RP and in other frameworks in the Arab region in designing programmes that specifically target these groups as well as mainstreaming them across all interventions.

3. Build on existing selection, identification and payment mechanisms put in place to address the needs of the most vulnerable groups, including those affected by crises. Different criteria have been set over the years by the UN and other humanitarian and development actors to define and target the most vulnerable amongst refugees and host communities. Furthermore, multiple databases and case management systems and transfer delivery systems have been developed by both humanitarian and development actors in the region for the purposes of targeting the most vulnerable to receive cash assistance or benefit from livelihoods interventions.

4. Continue to advocate for strengthened alignment between humanitarian support and national social protection systems. Social protection coverage in the Arab states has always been one of the lowest in the world. As part of the H-D nexus approach in countries hosting refugees, the ILO has continued to advocate and provide policy advice to align humanitarian interventions with national social protection systems with an end objective to have a more inclusive social protection framework that includes nationals, refugees, and PWDs and progressively realize the vision of universal social protection floors. This work serves as a basis for finding different mechanisms to extending both social assistance and social insurance mechanisms, including unemployment benefits, wage protection, and health insurance for all workers.

5. Scale up interventions initiated prior to COVID-19 to support job retention and business continuity. In Lebanon, for example, some of the UN and international organizations, including the ILO, had introduced interventions in 2019 to alleviate the impact of the dismal financial situation on micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs). These included injection of funds (in the form of grants or loans) and roll-out of assessment and training tools to support business continuity and job retention in MSMEs. Considering the catastrophic impact that COVID-19 has been inflicting on small businesses and workers, these interventions can be adapted to the current crisis and lockdown measures, scaled up in Lebanon, and replicated in other countries in the region. Multilateral organizations have a key role to play to reallocate funding from their existing programmes and mobilize additional resources to implement these much needed interventions.

6. Scale up and replicate employment intensive investment programmes post COVID-19– Over the past few years, the scale of cash for work and employment intensive programming has increased significantly in the Arab region, particularly in countries affected by crises and hosting refugees. With structures already in place in countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, these types of programmes can be easily scaled up and replicated in post COIVD -19 responses; and are ideal for providing an immediate source of income for the most vulnerable. 

7. Adapt livelihoods programmes and promote occupational safety and health to COVID-19 context. Within the framework of the H-D the 3RP and local response plans, the ILO has consistently advocated for ensuring decent working conditions and promoting labour standards in livelihoods programmes targeting both refugees and host communities. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) for decent work and safe working conditions were developed for different types of livelihoods interventions and adopted by different humanitarian and development actors in their interventions. As a first step, these SOPs need to be adapted to the COVID 19 context in livelihoods and employment intensive programmes in such a way that protect the health of workers and reduce the risk of contracting the disease. This includes, inter alia, putting in place teleworking arrangements and preventing discrimination and exclusion, and expanding access to paid leave.

8. Continue to promote social dialogue amongst Government, employers and workers. The protracted crises in the Arab region have reinforced the importance of maintaining dialogue between employers and workers to ensure workers’ rights and foster stability in the labour market. For example, various sectoral tripartite committees, including in the agriculture and construction sectors were established with ILO’s support as part of the response to the Syria refugee crisis in Jordan. These committees can be used as a basis for tripartite dialogue on finding ways to control the virus at the workplace and beyond, and to avoid massive job losses in the short and medium term.

9. Promote social cohesion amongst the vulnerable communities. COVID-19 crisis is threatening social cohesion within countries, with deep-rooted impacts on societies. An important lesson from refugee response interventions is that for them to succeed, they also have to address the needs of the most vulnerable and include an awareness raising component that work on building and boosting social cohesion between different communities (e.g refugees and host communities). This experience is invaluable in response to COVID-19 and building whole of society approach.

10. Leverage the regional inter-agency collaborative platform and issue based coalitions for policy advice and cross-country exchange of experiences in COVID-19 response. As part of the UN reform efforts of the Secretary General at the regional level, the Regional Collaborative platform has recently established eight Issue-Based Coalitions (IBCs) to address collectively the most pressing issues for the Arab region. One of the IBCs is specifically focused on humanitarian development nexus, while all of the others have included specific deliverables in their workplans related to COVID-19 including production of policy briefs and advice to government in this region to respond to this crisis. These IBCs can serve as regional platforms for south-south exchange of knowledge and good practices and provide timely and quality advice to the Arab states and UN Country Teams on developing and implementing COVID-19 response interventions that are inclusive and leave no one behind.

1. Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science Engineering; https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
2. ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Second Edition: Updated estimates and analysis, 7 April 2020
4. ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Second Edition: Updated estimates and analysis, 7 April 2020