How the pandemic changed the world's humanitarian response

What has the pandemic taught us about humanitarian action?

If something can be said of the effect of Covid-19 on the humanitarian sector it is this: never on a global scale has the need to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity been this actively pursued.

There have been so many dimensions to the pandemic. Across the world people in the humanitarian line of work have seen and responded to a range of fall-outs, from the impact of Covid-19 on women and youth, the increased need for safe housing in conflict areas, to communities requiring access to hygiene products; humanitarian action has and must continue to respond to challenges in order to meet the needs of those suffering the most, in times of crisis and during the recovery stage.

During the course of the pandemic, our approach at Alwaleed Philanthropies has been to address the needs of the most vulnerable communities, exploring awareness levels, access to resources, the economic impact of the pandemic and assessing the level of physical and mental health support that was needed.

The pandemic has highlighted the cracks that exist within our communities – unequal access to health care being just one of the limitations of our institutions and infrastructure. We are, however, seeing organisations, philanthropies and governments adapt to new approaches and collaborate to lead humanitarian action and achieve better outcomes.

Governments, philanthropies and NGOs across the world have committed to building back stronger and healthier communities. This will have the potential to safeguard us from future crises. The lessons learnt during the pandemic are important not only for people who work in the humanitarian sector but for every member of society.

Empowering people on ground

From hospitals to schools, the pandemic has affected every part of society. Getting back on our feet will require a community approach for which it is vital to empower people on the ground. There is no longer a clear distinction of who a "humanitarian" is; healthcare workers, volunteers and transport professionals have been at the frontline and must be included in our economic recovery plans.

Humanitarian action must explore the diverse needs of each community. Localisation of response has been one of the most significant changes in the humanitarian approach during the pandemic. We have seen shortages of products in some countries, which has highlighted the need to have stronger local capabilities and connections to withstand these affects.

As part of our Covid-19 response, for example, to provide vital hygiene products across Africa we partnered with the Rabat-based Islamic World Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Humanitarian responses also need to adapt to more long-term strategies with a focus on empowering people. Besides addressing urgent needs, we also need to recognise the need for investment in employment infrastructure. People need jobs to afford protective products, housing and to guard themselves against future health crises. The loss of employment because of the pandemic ultimately weakens communities and makes them more susceptible to crises.

To overcome this, we have engaged with women and youth on the ground to reskill them, to promote entrepreneurship and strengthen local capabilities.

Digital and data-driven response

Digital solutions have gone a long way to protect and enable people and industries throughout the pandemic to have access to health care. Although digitalisation has already transformed the humanitarian sector, the pandemic accelerated its adoption globally. Digital solutions, such as tele-medicine have the advantage of reaching a wide audience and remote areas where doctors and hospitals are not easily accessed.

For community empowerment, even beyond medicine, digital solutions have the potential to provide discretion and information anytime, anywhere.

For example, we know how important it is for women in Saudi Arabia to have greater access to legal information. This resulted in the Waeya Legal Initiative, which includes an interactive legal resource for women on a variety of legal issues, including women’s issues and domestic violence.

The pandemic has highlighted the cracks that exist within our communities – unequal access to health care being just one of them

Digital platforms provide greater discretion and enable direct engagement with communities. We anticipate that the humanitarian sector will further use digital components when tackling both immediate crises and challenges ahead.

Additionally, the lack of access to data and information continues to be a barrier in global pandemic responses. Misinformation can increase instability. Through our own experience, at Alwaleed Philanthropies, we have been able to receive and share information with our partners during the pandemic. The importance of sourcing accurate data cannot be understated. In fact, reliable data must play a larger role on humanitarian agenda. Recognising this this will allow organisations to have a better understanding of what is needed and act faster.

Global collaboration, local mobilisation

With travel limitations and social distancing, it may feel as though communities are distant from one another. But it has actually been the opposite. We have seen a growth in community support and spirit. People are reaching out to their neighbours. Some businesses have shifted and are producing essentials such as hygiene products to meet demand. This trend for a community to be connected and support each other on-ground can result in greater mobilisation and action during future crises.

Additionally, the increase in the number of partnerships between organisations is set to be sustained through the recovery period. There have naturally been quicker response rates from philanthropies, NGOs and government institutions to meet the needs of the most vulnerable communities. This has set a precedent for collaboration.

Ultimately, the pandemic has illuminated the cracks within the humanitarian sector. It this has led to the accelerated transformation on both the local and global scale. We must enable emergency and long-term responses, while simultaneously laying the foundations for prevention and development.

There isn’t one solution to ensuring a healthy pandemic recovery and we cannot compartmentalise the challenges; we live in a complex network and we must work collectively to rebuild a healthier and more inclusive future.

Rana Alturaifi is the manager of global initiatives and Najla Aljeaid is the manager of local initiatives at Alwaleed Philanthropies