As of this month, over a million people have lost their lives to COVID-19. More than 35 million are infected. In every part of the world, the poorest are suffering most, and the World Bank’s recently released Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report estimates that global extreme poverty will rise this year for the first time in a generation. Furthermore, the impact of COVID-19 is not just affecting the extreme poor, but lockdowns and sudden cessations of economic activity and mobility have had a broader impact than previous crises. The faces of the “new poor” are more likely to be urban and educated and to be engaged in informal services and manufacturing, rather than agriculture; and middle-income countries will be significantly affected. Women are also more impacted, as they are twice as likely to lose their jobs compared to men. They also bear the brunt of family care under lockdown, and many are “skipping meals” as a response to reduced incomes.
The report also looks at the 3C’s that are driving this setback.In the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, extreme poverty rates nearly doubled between 2013 and 2015, then again between 2015 and 2018, spurred by the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. While 37 of the fragile and conflict-affected states account for 10% of the world’s population, they account for 40% of the world’s poor. In addition, climate change could push between 68 and 132 million people into poverty by 2030, posing a particularly grave threat for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These regions are the hot spots where most of the world’s poor are concentrated.
These are dire assessments based on evidence, and they highlight the challenges, as well as the areas where we need to prioritize swift and significant actions to help the hundreds of millions of people most in need. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Shona Banu Begum from Bangladesh, who is 55, lives with her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. She has worked in a brick kiln, while her son can’t perform heavy labor due to a heart condition. But the pandemic and recent cyclone took away her working opportunities, forcing the family to struggle to make ends meet.
Another example is M’Balu Tucker, a 17-year-old student from a village in Sierra Leone, a post-conflict country. She is also a participant in an IFC-funded advisory program that is teaching girls how to make soap, as a livelihood and to help protect communities from the coronavirus. “When I grow up, I want to work in a bank and help my family members, make money flow into my country and assist my people,” she said. We all ought to work together so students like her are able to reach their potential and help their communities recover.
How the world responds to this crisis will have a direct impact on the lives of people like Shona and her family, M’Balu, and millions of others. But while the pandemic poses unique challenges, history shows the world can overcome seemingly insurmountable crises when we cooperate and coordinate.
“The steady decline in extreme poverty over the last 25 years is a powerful example of what the global community can achieve by working together.”
As we respond to this extraordinary convergence of COVID-19, conflict, and climate change, the first priority should be to save lives and restore livelihoods. Some of the policies needed to achieve this are already in place, such as social protection systems: so far, more than 55 countries, such as Brazil and Indonesia, have moved fast to expand their government-to-people cash transfer programs. In other cases, we can help countries tailor a response to their distinct needs: in Haiti, for example, the World Bank has provided financing to improve testing and treatment as well as prevent food insecurity by safeguarding agriculture production.
While we are humbled by the challenges ahead and navigating many uncertainties, we need to move forward, recognizing the need to be flexible and adapting our approaches, including by self-correcting when needed. This is what we are doing at the World Bank.
The Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report provides evidence-based assessments by region and country, acknowledging that the priorities will differ between countries and regions. We have responded quickly and boldly to the global pandemic, with financing and knowledge work that helps guide policy responses in our client countries, as they undertake emergency health and economic relief programs. There are four interconnected takeaways to date, which we hope will better inform and accelerate our collective actions – from the World Bank Group, governments, partners and stakeholders – moving forward.
- First, enhancing learning and improving data: Amid the uncertainty triggered by COVID-19, governments and their partners must rapidly identify and scale up effective responses. Countries need to learn as they go and share results as they emerge by capturing, curating, and sharing data openly. This builds trust among the public and supports innovation and implementation of sound policies. Making high-quality data publicly available is always important, and especially during crises. It will also lead to better identification of the beneficiaries and the types of programs needed to ensure that vulnerable groups such as women are addressed, as well as assessments whether the programs are effective.
- Closing the gap between policy aspiration and attainment: Too often there is a wide gap between policies as articulated and their attainment in practice, and thus between what citizens expect and what they experience daily. Attention needs to be given not just to getting policies right but to building the capacity of the administrative systems that are tasked with implementing them. For instance, with social protection, there is an opportunity to strengthen and adapt the programs to anticipate the next crisis, not just to deal with this crisis. We can also help improve delivery systems, such as through more use of digital payments.
- Investing in preparedness and prevention: COVID-19, conflict, and climate change underscore the need to invest in comprehensive preparedness and prevention within countries and across borders. An example of successful international cooperation is the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System, which now coordinates the warning centers that five countries – Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand – initially set up separately after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. And Africa faces COVID-19 in a stronger position thanks to lessons learned from Ebola outbreaks, with cooperation led by regional agencies, such as the Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement Program (in West and Central Africa) and the East Africa Public Health Laboratory Networking Project.
- Expanding cooperation and coordination: During crises, cooperation and coordination are vital to nurture solidarity in affected areas and ensure that governments’ decisions are both trusted and trustworthy. As countries’ strikingly different responses to COVID-19 have illustrated, an emphasis on cooperation and coordination is especially important to ensure decisive collective action from the outset of a crisis. Coordination and cooperation need to happen between development partners and the country in question; across the whole of government – national governments, national and local governments; and the whole of society, governments and the non-government sector – private sector, CSOs, and community-based organizations.
With Shona and M’Balu as well as millions of others in mind, we are committed to act swiftly and boldly to help countries save lives, protect livelihoods, bolster efforts for resilient recovery, and help countries get their development agendas back on track.