Through flattening curves, eyeballing six-foot distances, and brushing up on vaccine trial standards, the pandemic has made amateur statisticians out of all of us. As I began my TAI fellowship – remotely – this data-rage influenced my work from day one. As I assisted with the tracking and analysis of COVID-19-related content over the course of the summer, I began thinking about how we might change the way we talk about data in the long term — particularly when the health crisis wanes and the economic fallout drags on.
The amount of money to be injected in the global economy to mitigate the crisis in the coming year will not be in billions, but trillions. Most of this economic relief funds will come in form of government spending or bilateral aid. Governments will be pressured to bring results quickly, perhaps cutting accountability corners in favor of speed. The anxiety and uncertainty in our societies can prove fertile ground for corrupt activity. As a result, it is a time for governments to take extra steps to ensure the wellbeing of their people. Civil society should also step up to ensure an accountable and trustworthy response. Here, philanthropy can play an important role, like the unusual steps taken by some foundations to redirect funds to civil society-led COVID-19 responses and generation of new resources. One example is the over $1 billion in social bonds launched by two TAI members and other philanthropy organizations.
While the scope of the COVID-19 crisis resists comparison, perhaps the closest is the Ebola outbreak, which rocked West African nations six years ago. During the Ebola outbreak, local civil society organizations recognized the unique role they could play in the fallout. For instance, a 2014 joint statement from an array of West African civil society organizations pushed for a regional monitoring mechanism to continue after the epidemic, to assess the longer-term impacts and progress of affected communities and economies. This time around, with a globalized crisis, civil societies and funders who support them will need to play a more active role. From this experience, we might bear three lessons in mind as we continue to monitor the response.
Data can be a lifesaving tool
In 2014, during the Ebola crisis, Sierra Leone struggled to implement reliable systems for aid disbursement tracking. One-third of public money meant for fighting Ebola could not be unaccounted for. Given the enormous numbers of COVID-19 related aid, this proportion of loss in a much-needed recovery package could have devastating consequences. Although economic risks could be perceived as less threatening than the COVID-19 virus itself, they will also take lives
National lockdowns are cutting off agricultural production and disrupting supply chains, leaving many without a food supply and many more without incomes. An estimated 265 million people may face starvation in 2020 and will rely on timely and accountable aid. Given the stakes, the urgency of open and reliable data to help assure that scant revenues are targeted to public needs is clear.
Equally crucial as data accountability is a reliable information dissemination structure to support it. In Liberia, community radio played a critical role in informing and educating the public on the evolving Ebola outbreak – revealing another key inroad for civil society organizations to support response measures. If target citizens lack access to lifesaving medical and economic information, any response package may be compromised. In crafting their support to communities in the COVID-19 response, funders must have a keen eye for supporting data integrity, particularly in the targeting and volume of relief funds.
The risk of corruption from actors on the ground should not distract funders from continuing to assess their own practices with a lens of accountability critically. This practice was critical in the Ebola response as well. Despite the billions mobilized to fight Ebola, local hospitals and frontline workers consistently reported missing or incomplete payments from aid organizations. Government officials in Sierra Leone also questioned elements of the World Bank’s aid disbursement practices. In other words, funders must make their projects transparent from the top down. Transparency of funding information is crucial to ensuring accountability, and anything less can undermine their impact.
Optimizing the information flow is key
Reliable data flow is crucial to influencing people’s behavior and mitigating the public health crisis. Public trust can have life-saving impacts as well. Identifying trusted intermediaries is a key way to facilitate the spread of information, and the most effective means for information dissemination may not be the traditional ones. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a politicized response sowed widespread distrust in government motives – rumors circulated that the virus was a concocted scam for aid money, among other theories. This perception of corruption can negatively impact public willingness to follow critical health advice coming from authorities.
Far away from West Africa, the Ebola outbreak was met with racist language from several prominent voices. With the surge in global populism that divides 2014 from 2020, we should not discount its potential to weaken recovery initiatives. Thus facts, and not perceptions should inform the recovery process. All the more reason to invest in making recovery data more widely available and reliable.
Navigating data gaps require tailored, creative solutions
Impacts of COVID-19 have been felt differently by different societies, and governments have had varying levels of response. Further complicating the recovery, data gap persists in the Global South in 2020 as it did in 2014. Many local economies lack robust systems for ensuring timely and accurate data. This gap will be an obstacle to the economic response, just as it has been to the public health response.
Rather than universalize response measures and inevitably be disappointed by glaring gaps, data access must be thoughtfully tailored to individual countries. For example, when aid funds failed to reach healthcare workers on the frontlines of the Ebola outbreak, UNDP funded information management resources and technical advisors to facilitate the flow of aid. Recovery measures must emphasize access to technologies to empower citizens to participate in the data flow. Investing in data infrastructure on the ground will help channel funding to areas and populations most in need. Where hard data is scarce and challenging to gather, information on the overall well-being of a society can be useful, including qualitative monitoring of livelihoods and quantitative assessments of supply chains.
As the world continues to watch the recovery process unfold, an emphasis on data generation, availability and use will serve us well. A variety of institutions have roles to play. The IMF, for example, maintains a tracking tool related to COVID-19 financial assistance and debt relief funding. Research-driven initiatives like J-PAL are researching new ways to improve data use in the recovery, from using digital financial services to disseminating healthcare advice. Such efforts built around transparent information can help rebuild trust — a trust that is at a notable low point in many societies right now. But data transparency is about more than satisfying a curious public or an abstract ideal. It concretely impacts the effectiveness of recovery policies. I hope funders – TAI members and beyond – continue to reinforce its integration into the pandemic response.