UK’s rapid humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic saved lives and built resilience, but could have done more on inclusion of some vulnerable groups

14 Jul 2022

  • New report from Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) assesses the UK’s emergency support for populations in humanitarian need as a result of the pandemic, and contributes towards lesson learning as the impacts of the pandemic continue.
  • The report highlights how the UK’s rapid humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic has saved lives and built resilience, but could have done more to ensure inclusion of some vulnerable groups.
  • ICAI’s report makes three recommendations, including that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) makes long-term investments in building national disaster response capabilities.

The UK’s humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic comes under the spotlight in a report published today, Thursday 14 July, by ICAI. The review comes eight months after ICAI’s rapid review of the UK aid response to COVID-19, which included a high-level look at the broader UK aid response to the pandemic.

The report from the aid watchdog looked at UK emergency support for populations in humanitarian need as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes funding to a UN-led global appeal and through other international channels, and in-country programming in six case study countries. The report finds that the UK government was quick to recognise the likely impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in developing countries, and to mobilise a response at both global and national levels. This response included a substantial early contribution of non-earmarked funds to the global humanitarian system, giving international agencies the flexibility to respond to a rapidly evolving situation.

ICAI acknowledges that while there was no new funding for the COVID-19 response at country level, the UK worked systematically to identify opportunities to adapt programmes and support national responses. According to ICAI, the UK’s reliance on existing programming channels, however, meant that some groups made newly vulnerable by the pandemic, including the elderly, the urban poor and migrant workers, were not always given priority in the response.

The report concluded that the UK’s response was coherent and coordinated, both across the department and with international partners, and that it made an important contribution to national coordination and information-sharing mechanisms. Successive reductions to the UK aid budget in 2020 and 2021, and the September 2020 creation of the merged FCDO, hampered the UK response, ICAI found. Nonetheless, ICAI concludes that although outcomes were difficult to quantify, the UK made a substantial contribution to saving lives and reducing hardship during the critical early phase of the pandemic. The UK’s response has also helped build resilience to future emergencies by strengthening national systems and capacities.

ICAI Lead Commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton, who oversaw the report, said:

“The UK’s humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been both relevant and impactful.

“The response demonstrated the value of investing in rapid evidence collection on the impacts of an unfolding health crisis, and the value of having the flexibility to allocate both humanitarian and development resources to meet a complex challenge. While the UK aid budget reductions and the merger between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office came at inopportune times during a global pandemic, FCDO nonetheless succeeded in making a contribution to saving lives and protecting livelihoods.”

The report makes three recommendations:

  1. The FCDO should undertake an after-action review of its COVID-19 response, to identify lessons on information management, management processes and programming options, to inform its future responses to complex, multi-country emergencies.
  2. To fulfil its commitment to localising humanitarian response, the FCDO should make long-term investments in building national disaster-response capacities, including mechanisms for directing funding to local non-state actors.
  3. Building on its past investments in cash-based humanitarian support and national social protection systems, the FCDO should invest in flexible social protection systems which help the most vulnerable at times of shock.

Read the review

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