How to maximize the U.S. global pandemic response

In the United States, Europe, and East Asia, the spread of COVID-19 is slowing, and many communities are beginning to emerge from weeks of lockdown. But in much of the developing world, the effects are beginning to be seen, and the human and economic toll could be enormous. Left unchecked, the spread of COVID-19 in these regions could threaten the sustainability of our own tentative progress toward recovery — outbreaks abroad could easily lead to new outbreaks in the United States.

It is vital that the U.S. spearhead a strong international response to the pandemic in order to mitigate the destabilizing economic and political effects of the virus, save lives, and preserve long-term U.S. investments and gains in global development. This is an opportunity for our country to showcase American leadership at a time when other nations less committed to self-reliance, local ownership, and human rights are enthusiastically stepping in.

U.S. leadership requires a commitment by Congress and the administration to channel significant funding to fight the pandemic overseas. Foreign assistance, effectively designed and administered, has the potential for enormous impact. But effective assistance in these highly uncertain times means more than just money. As the Afghanistan Papers revealed to the country last year, and as any aid worker would tell you, simply increasing spending alone does not necessarily lead to better results. Long-term, sustainable impact — not the dollar amount pushed out the door — should be the metric we use to measure the success of assistance spending on the pandemic.

Global development experts have highlighted how assistance during the pandemic can continue with maximum efficiency. This means, among other things, getting money and resources directly to communities with speed and flexibility, avoiding “burn rate” as a metric for success, and avoiding contingencies or attaching strings to pandemic aid.

Global travel restrictions limiting the arrival of international aid workers magnify the need to equip local institutions — including government, business, and civil society — to address the pandemic in their communities. The U.S. Agency for International Development should fast-track and continue to prioritize contracting with local organizations who are already on the ground and familiar with the urgent local context. International NGOs can provide remote technical assistance to these local organizations to bolster their ability to serve their own communities. Directly supporting critical efforts on the ground may also involve supporting in-country health systems and frontline workers. To enable these highly targeted investments, Congress and the administration should provide increased direct support to government institutions.

Travel restrictions and social distancing requirements also present us with an opportunity to re-think traditional delivery of aid and invest in digital and other program innovations. Aid groups are facilitating cash transfers as one highly-concentrated method of directly reaching those in need during this time. The proliferation of these programs by international and local NGOs is an excellent opportunity to experiment and learn about what works and how to scale. Program monitoring and evaluation will allow us to prioritize outcomes over outputs, and measure both immediate results and increased resilience.

Lastly, these investments must maintain the integrity of their purpose: saving lives, mitigating the economic impact, and protecting fragile development gains around the world. Pandemic aid should not be an occasion for political bargaining and should be allocated based on evidence of need and potential for health and development impact, without strings or contingencies. The criteria used to decide country allocations and justifications for each should be transparent and published.

The virus knows no borders, and the risk it poses to lives and to American well-being will continue until the effects are eradicated everywhere. As we experience the largest and most devastating global pandemic in over a century, the U.S. has the opportunity to invest in an efficient, effective, and innovative global response.

Lester Munson, Larry Nowels, and Tessie San Martin are the Co-Chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN). Lester Munson is a former senior USAID official and veteran of multiple congressional committees, Larry Nowels spent 30 years leading research on U.S. foreign assistance at the Congressional Research Service, and Tessie San Martin is President & CEO of Plan International USA.

Lester Munson, Larry Nowels, and Tessie San Martin are the Co-Chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

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