Two years of COVID-19: how have programmes adapted, what did we learn?

Over the past two years, COVID-19 has been a major influence on international development programmes. While some teams redirected their efforts to continue activities under the circumstances, others turned around to directly deliver COVID-19-related activities. These changes have also affected the programmes under the Pan-Africa Department (PD), funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

In this blog, Youngjin Kim, Consultant in our Monitoring, Evaluation, Research & Learning practice, brings together evidence and lessons across the FCDO’s Pan-Africa Department portfolio through our Third-Party Monitoring. She explains how the department’s programmes have been able to adapt to COVID-19 and the lessons we have learned since the start of the pandemic.

What does it mean to deliver international development during COVID-19? More than anything, it means programmes need to be flexible and adapt to unforeseen circumstances to ensure they are able to continue. The 18 PD programmes reviewed did just that, adapting their activities, Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning methods and general way of working during the pandemic. Let’s take a look at the main findings and lessons below.

Many PD programme teams added new activities, pivoted planned activities – or both – to adapt and respond directly to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, one of the PD programmes – Tackling Deadly Diseases in Africa Programme (TDDAP) – delivered training to address challenges around vaccine uptake and misinformation in Mali. It provided £20 million to the Africa Union’s and Africa Centre for Disease Control’s Pandemic Preparedness and Response Plan to support the procurement of medical equipment and supplies. The health programme aimed to provide global tracking of the pandemic, combat COVID-19 misinformation and provide specialist training for health workers.

Another example is AgDevCo – a dedicated African agribusiness impact investor. In addition to continuing to seek out new investment opportunities, AgDevCo prioritised protecting its existing portfolio of investees. This enabled investees to continue operating as viable businesses during these challenging times. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the AgDevCo management team rapidly developed a business continuity plan, proactively undertook a risk assessment of the investment portfolio and developed an approach for supporting existing investees through the crisis.

What we learned: Programmes demonstrated their agility in informing, supporting and responding to COVID-19. To effectively adapt to the pandemic and other outside challenges, they should coordinate closely with other donors and agencies.

Programme teams sought an alternative means by using virtual meetings and events to respond to COVID-19 – with mixed results.

Almost all PD programmes we reviewed adapted how they delivered their activities. The primary concerns associated with face-to-face events during the pandemic were movement restrictions and safeguarding. In order to comply with them, programmes shifted towards virtual meetings and events as well as conducting the same training in multiple sessions with smaller groups. These remote methods often led to a higher number of participants than anticipated, and stakeholders were able to attend virtual meetings despite travel restrictions.

However, the move to remote meetings has, in some cases, limited their ability to be effective. Programmes especially working with businesses have learned that face-to-face engagement is important to build trust and generate stronger relationships that can support follow-up activities. Furthermore, online activities are often affected by poor internet connectivity and provide limited opportunities for those with no access to it.

What we learned: Almost all programmes have adapted their activities during the COVID-19 accordingly. In order to ensure that the programmes remain effective, some form of hybrid model would be needed that combines the strengths of virtual and in-person meetings – the best of both worlds.

Aside from programme delivery, the pandemic also required programme teams and our Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) team to create new and different approaches to Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL).

We, as a TPM partner, have collected data in compliance with COVID-19 safety policies and procedures. Whether conducting interviews or doing face-to-face surveys in the field, our team was wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), providing appropriate protection against COVID-19.

Sometimes, evaluation teams and/or programme teams had to cancel the MEL activities as a result of COVID-19 and travel restrictions and introduced new approaches. For example, the African Union Support Programme (AUSP) evaluation team had to cancel field visits to project sites but were able to switch to remote interviews. While remote interviews were the most commonly used means, this also came with some challenges, especially when an interviewee lived in places with limited internet connectivity. When interviews were hampered by a weak connection, we often had to reschedule or switch to the telephone instead.

What we learned: With the pandemic still casting its shadow on international development programmes, we need to look at best practices in the use of remote MEL techniques and build them into programmes’ MEL plans. These approaches should pay particular attention to groups at risk of exclusion, including: those who lack digital literacy or access to digital technology, have lost childcare during the pandemic or have mental or physical health issues that have been adversely affected by the impacts of COVID-19.

The past two years have without a doubt been a challenge in many ways – for us, our partners and not least for the people we aim to support. As a third-party monitoring partner of the FCDO’s Pan Africa Department, we will therefore continue to look at how programmes are responding to outside challenges such as COVID-19 and what lessons can be learned for ensure programme teams keep delivering effective outcomes.