How can development institutions adapt stakeholder engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Development institutions including the World Bank Group are mobilizing resources to support governments’ responses to the health and economic crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, some of the most effective forms of communication and consultation with communities and project stakeholders are not feasible. We propose some ideas on how the World Bank Group and other institutions can adapt their engagement practices during this crisis.

Due to the current global pandemic, development institutions including the World Bank Group (WBG) are mobilizing resources to support governments’ responses to the health and economic crises. Much-needed emergency funding is moving through accelerated due diligence and approval processes at the World Bank Group and other institutions in the form of health systems support projects, direct budget support, and debt relief. Some existing projects are being restructured to redirect funds to support critical health services and procure necessary equipment.

Meanwhile, citizens and communities who have a direct stake in how funds are directed and utilized are being asked not to gather and to remain at home in order to slow the spread of the virus. In this extreme situation, some of the most effective forms of communication and consultation with communities to engage with them around potential project risks and benefits are not possible. 

In such a crisis situation, informing and consulting stakeholders on development projects is still just as, if not more, critical as operations move forward more quickly and with many limitations on normal procedures. The poorest communities, and the most marginalized groups among them, are likely to be the hardest hit and most at risk of not having access to critical services. 

So how can the World Bank Group and other development institutions continue to seek out stakeholders’ voices and share vital information about projects given current restrictions? The types of engagement that can happen in this crisis will not be normal, and they won’t be ideal. But we propose below some ways that the Bank, and other institutions, can adapt their efforts to engage with stakeholders around critical fast-moving projects given the current crisis. 

1. Keep context in mind. There won’t be a one size fits all solution to stakeholder engagement in an environment when many of the usual and trusted approaches are not safe or feasible. In addition to drawing on international resources including guidelines put forward by the World Health Organization, the Bank can draw lessons from previous experiences in more restricted environments, such as conflict settings, and can rely on local experiences and existing structures to know what types of alternative engagement are appropriate for different regions and communities. For example, in some communities, contacting community leaders might be a good way to reach out to an entire community or group. In other communities, local, grassroots civil society groups may be more appropriate interlocutors. It will also be critical to connect with and take direction from local health care workers who are most directly in touch with communities’ needs and realities. 

2. Seek out interlocutors where communities are harder to reach directly. Civil society organizations (CSOs) often take on the important role of calling attention to the needs and elevating voices of populations that might otherwise be less visible and at risk of being left out of consultation efforts and project design. The Bank should interface with key local civil society organizations, human rights advocates, community leaders, disabled persons’ organizations, and representatives of marginalized groups at the country and community levels. When time and space to conduct broader outreach is limited, getting input on project design from key interlocutors who are entrenched in issues affecting the most marginalized in the local community can help prevent these communities from being harmed or excluded. 

3. Be diligent about information dissemination. Making information available as early in the process as possible, in different, accessible formats and in local languages is particularly critical when in person consultation is not an option. It will again be important to take direction from local civil society groups as to what formats for sharing information will be most appropriate and trusted in different communities. In Uganda, for example, decentralized government task forces have partnered with civil society organizations to share health information with local communities. Civil society organizations are utilizing local radio, connecting with cultural leaders, and sharing information on social media to reach their networks with accurate information and to dispel rumors.

4. Call on expertise to protect the marginalized from being left out. The World Bank Group has invested in recent years in building its internal expertise and capacity in social development. This means that it has many more specialists who are experts at looking at how projects might impact women, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, refugees, children, ethnic minorities, LGBTQI people, and others who might face marginalization in the project context, differently. The WBG should be sure to call on this expertise to design projects that are inclusive of all. This is particularly important in a crisis where marginalized groups are likely to experience increased vulnerability.

5. Utilize technology—but be aware of its limitations. Because in-person consultations are not possible or advisable due to efforts to control the spread of disease, technology can offer an alternative. Virtual meetings, online surveys, SMS feedback, and phone calls are some alternative ways of establishing critical two-way communication with stakeholders. Phone or SMS notices, online postings or emails are alternative ways of sharing project information with stakeholders. Civil society organizations in Uganda have set up their own toll-free call lines to receive reports from communities on potential human rights abuses and requests for services. 

At the same time, the Bank should be sensitive to the fact that each form of communication runs the risk of excluding some groups. It will be important to be conscious of who might be excluded from participation in online forums due to lack of internet and technology access (especially when virus-related restrictions mean that people have different access to technology than usual, for example if internet cafes are closed and data signals might only be accessible in certain areas outside of the home), or from phone or written notices that might not be accessible for persons with disabilities. In addition, it is important to rely on local knowledge to know what forms of communication are most used and are most trusted and culturally appropriate for different communities. Multiple alternatives should be made available when possible, and communities’ preferences should take precedence in formulating communication and engagement plans.

6. Take steps to protect human rights defenders. Human rights defenders and human rights activists are more at risk when governments and security forces are empowered to impose additional restrictions on communities. Tracking measures, including collecting anonymized data on community movement, have been proposed to monitor and curb the spread of disease, but these systems, once in place, can also be used to track and surveil individual activists and opposition figures. The World Bank Group, in line with statements against reprisals made by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, should include in its discussions with governments a clear indication that retaliation against individuals for any reason, including raising concerns about specific projects, is not acceptable.

7. Put in place a strong grievance mechanism. Where up front and in person consultations are not feasible, it is even more critical to have a strong grievance process for people to share concerns so that corrections can be made along the way. The grievance mechanism should be predictable and reliable, have transparent procedures and results, and should be accessible and made known to project stakeholders. In this crisis period it is especially important that there are multiple ways to access the grievance mechanism, including through the use of technology and in writing. It should also be publicized widely and throughout the project cycle, as community concerns can arise at every stage of a project.

8. Prepare to support and encourage governments to return to normal engagement practices following the crisis. Once this crisis is over, while the Bank may have developed some new tools to add to its repertoire, it will be critical to return to more robust engagement, including in person meetings and consultations, once it is safe to do so. While the alternatives that are developed may prove to be effective, and many forms of engagement may not be possible during the crisis, the Bank should be ready to support governments to return to using broader forms of participation and engagement as the world returns to normal.