Is Covid-19 reshaping our approach to development research?


Today marks the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic. The announcement represents a historic moment in which the WHO called on nations to take coordinated global action to tackle a truly global challenge. Whilst the distribution of the vaccine remains contentious, it does offer hope. The pandemic has also resulted in the global development community working collaboratively in innovative new ways and posed questions about how we carry out research that we can learn a great deal from.

With over 2.5 million deaths globally and so many more seriously affected, we have a constant reminder of how many lives have been affected by the disease. Much has been written about how Covid-19, and the measures taken to try to combat the spread of the virus, have had the greatest impact on those who are most vulnerable and least resilient. The pandemic has exposed the deep structural cracks in society and demonstrated the inadequacy of many existing mechanisms, institutions and systems to engage with the magnitude of the unfolding crisis. This is the very reason we need to ensure that research projects exploring some of the most pressing Covid-19 related development challenges are funded and supported adequately.

The implications of Covid-19

At the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), we have been reflecting on how the implications of Covid-19, and the responses to it, continue to evolve alongside constant waves of anxiety and uncertainty. Some impacts of the pandemic have been felt immediately, creating urgent needs which health, economic and social systems have struggled to respond to. Longer term challenges and opportunities are also emerging. In our Co-editors’ Introduction to a special edition of the IDS Bulletin to be launched on 23 March, Mary McCarthy (Irish Aid) and I pose questions that we have found particularly troubling: ‘How can a shared future for the world’s citizens be collectively and equitably shaped – and even transformed – in the light of experience of Covid-19?’What is the pandemic revealing about ambitions and possibilities for systemic transformation – or ‘building back a better world’? What will be the features of a world that, in the future, will be different to the one that is experienced – in so many different, and unequal ways – today?’

The answers, like the questions themselves, are inevitably complex. We know how important different, complementary, sources and types of evidence, knowledge, data and collective action are if we are to have a chance of addressing future social, economic or environmental challenges. This awareness was a key driver for the launch of the Covid Collective research platform in October 2020. Instigated by IDS, FCDO RED, and collective partners, the platform offers a rapid social science research response. It aims to address urgent and emerging needs, drawing on the experience of social science in the Ebola response, as well as looking forward to longer-term transformations.  Work is currently underway in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Iraq, Kenya, Malawi, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Senegal, Somalia, South Sudan, South Africa, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Carrying out research during a pandemic

Although the Covid Collective has been underway only a few months, we have already learned a great deal from the research and engagement carried out by its members. We have seen evidence emerge of how the pandemic has changed the development community and how we carry out research. Many organisations have needed to react rapidly to demands for evidence that responds to very specific challenges, creating increased expectations for rapid, sound data. A Covid Collective helpdesk paper on Southern Research Organisations Providing Rapid Evidence-Review Services revealed the importance of having strong, joined-up, coherent research systems in place in every national context.

We have also learned a great deal about Covid-19’s influence on how research is actually carried out – particularly in terms of methods and engagement with communities on the ground. The pandemic has brought with it a host of changes for development researchers. In many cases, fieldwork has been replaced with remote research methods, ranging from third-party data collection to phone interviews and SMS surveys. Whilst remote methods are improving, there are some clear gaps in the existing literature and discussions on the subject. Anna Strachan’s blog for example highlighted how little attention has been given to including persons with disabilities when using remote research methods.

Innovations in data collection

We are also seeing some very important, and exciting innovations in synthesising and making sense out of a vast array of Covid-19 data and evidence that is being generated in real time. In a blog on “Visualising the world’s response to Covid-19 through online trackers”, Devanjan Bhattacharya and Anne Funnemark describe an effort by the University of Edinburgh and partners to help inform peace and conflict research at a time of rapid and often unparalleled change. The Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP) has developed the Covid-19 Library of Trackers, a curated selection of trackers that trace developments during Covid-19 in a wide variety of areas – such as border controls, human rights and freedom of speech – which may impact peace and conflict processes across the globe.

As the pandemic evolves, we will hopefully see successes and progress continue. Vaccination programmes are rolling out, albeit unequally, and lockdowns are gradually being lifted. But the consequences – social, economic, political – will be with us all for a long time to come. Urgent needs for evidence, data and analysis will continue to emerge, and will have to be met. This reinforces the importance of strengthening and supporting the development of strong, robust, responsive research systems in countries where these continue to be weak.

IDS is working closely with collaborators and partners in many countries around the world in processes that embed mutual learning and sharing of knowledge and experience. The time also seems right to really push beyond minor adjustments and tweaks to development concepts and practices. We now have an opportunity, globally, for a radical, re-imagining of what is possible as we build forward differently. The Covid Collective, through its growing array of relationships, collaboration and shared vision, seeks to be a vital part of that process.

Peter Taylor
Director of Research