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Policy & Advocacy In A Pandemic; Keeping The Focus On Improving Lives

Huguette U. Bitega, co-Founder of Bitega, Omisore & Associates (BOA) a communication strategy firm, and external Champion Engagement Manager for the Global Partnership for Education at the World Bank, spoke with ONResearch about policy and advocacy in a pandemic, andkeeping the focus on improving lives.

International development and the relationships that make it happen have just gone through a stress test. How has advocacy had to evolve to keep stakeholders gainfully engaged in improving the lives of people around the world whether in health, education, or other sectors?

Many of us underestimated the power and importance of personal, face-to-face interactions and how those shape relationships, affect communication and impact how our messages come across. To make up for these, advocacy has evolved in the following ways: 

  • COVID-19 inclusive messaging and strategies: Whether or not an organization’s operations were affected by COVID-19, all stakeholders were keen to see and understand what an organization’s COVID-19 response plan looks like. How have programs evolved or shifted to incorporate some of the challenges that were caused by the pandemic, and what considerations has the organization made in response to COVID-19? For some, a COVID-19 strategy involves amending existing programs to serve more vulnerable communities, and for others, this involves a shift in sectoral focus to areas such as health and education.  
  • Advocacy has shifted from physical campaigns and protests to digital platforms and online movements: While we have seen a few physical campaigns such as the protests on Black Lives Matter, many organizations had to quickly adopt a digital strategy to push for much-needed policy reforms and reach wider audiences. 
  • Even though the Black Lives Matter movement involved physical protests across the world, social media played a significant role in generating and sustaining the momentum among the different groups of protestors. Social media platforms were also used to raise awareness, advocate for justice to be served and raise funds to support some of the BLM initiatives. 
  • To maintain the impact and power of advocacy, one important strategy has been giving voice and a platform to the victims or representatives of the communities advocated for, to speak for themselves. There is a lot of power in placing victims before different stakeholders for them to explain why certain programs or reforms need to be implemented. 

What hidden risks/challenges did the COVID-19 pandemic present to under-served and marginalized communities?

COVID-19 exposed many of the existing social inequalities and wide disparities between rich and poor communities. The exclusion of, and challenges facing, under-served communities became more evident due to the difficulties of implementing preventive measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within these marginalized populations.

  • In a world where a third of the urban population lives in slums, how practical and realistic is it to ask people to practice social distancing? 
  • Over 734 million people live on under $1.90 a day, is it feasible to expect that these households living under the poverty line will prioritize purchasing masks, sanitizers and soap over essential items such as food and other utilities?
  • Reports have shown that less than one in four people in Africa have access to the internet. As schools shift to digital learning, what happens to students who cannot access the internet, let alone possess personal computers? 
  • When you think of refugees, many camps are located in semi-arid areas. In Kakuma camp in Kenya for instance, a single water point is shared by over 100 households. Is it practical to expect these households to wash their hands and clean their homes as frequently as COVID-19 prevention campaigns have advocated for? 
  • In addition to these practicalities, the plight of informal sector workers was also apparent:
  • Millions of migrant (wage-earning) workers in India walked back thousands of miles to their home villages, battling hunger and exhaustion. The lockdown imposed across the country led to loss of livelihoods for these workers. 
  • There are many more examples across emerging markets that lay bare the exposure of working/running businesses in the informal sector. In Africa, the informal sector accounts for 80% of the jobs, most of these jobs cannot be conducted remotely which means that COVID-19 prevention measures led to the loss of income for informal sector workers. 
  • All these are considerations that were clearly lacking in the one-size-fits-all responses that were implemented by governments in response to COVID-19, and while we can argue that combating COVID-19 required many trade-offs, as we work toward creating a “new normal” all stakeholders must prioritize the needs of these under-served communities.

How can stakeholders in international development be better equipped to develop the policies needed for a post-COVID-19 world?

Inclusive policy-making: 

  • Creating effective policies involves considering all of society’s needs and finding a middle ground where the needs of all communities are represented (Pound Roscoe). 
  • More often than not, the voice of marginalized, bottom of the value chain communities is not represented in policy-making processes and without these voices, social inequalities and the unique challenges of these communities will never be addressed. 
  • Stakeholders in international development should, therefore, be inclusive in making policies to ensure that the solutions and reforms they implement are considerate of the needs of the communities that need these solutions the most. 

Equity over equality: 

  • It is not enough to treat all communities equally, especially in a world where certain populations endured decades of exclusion and suffering and have received a disproportionate amount of resources to improve their livelihoods. 
  • Stakeholders making policies for a post-COVID-19 world should break away from the common one-size-fits-all patterns of policymaking to pay special attention to the unique needs of these communities and create policies to better the lives of these populations.  

Agility and flexibility:  

  • COVID-19 has revealed that anything, even the ‘unthinkable’ can happen, which means that in some cases the best-laid plans may have to be overhauled to effectively respond to the situation at hand. 
  • Stakeholders need to be nimble and flexible in creating policies by finding faster ways of analyzing and responding to data and making comprehensive policies that can be used or easily amended to reflect unexpected situations. 
  • Agility can be achieved through having shorter decision-making processes, reducing the number of approvals needed in an emergency, and creating a crisis playbook to guide these organizations in unusual situations. 


  • There is a need to understand the context of the new world in which we are all operating. Writing policy is one thing, but understanding the circumstances around its implementation is another. Now more than ever policy needs to be practical and realistic as opposed to idealistic. This can only come from a practical understanding of the challenges faced by each country.

The world is slowly coming out of the pandemic and a lot of work will go into rebuilding economies and improving lives. What key thoughts must the international community not forget at this crucial time?

Leave no one behind:

  • As much as possible, the international community should prioritize solutions that cut across all communities reaching wider demographics. 
  • One lesson from the pandemic is that we truly cannot afford to leave any communities behind as we create solutions for socio-economic advancement, because COVID will not be combated until it is fought in all parts of the world. 
  • As we rebuild economies, leaving no one behind means considering needs such as providing access to affordable healthcare, quality education in low-income communities and addressing the risks that are associated with wage-based and informal sector jobs. 
  • We need to remain committed to changing the infrastructure deficit in developing nations 
  • It is also clear that great investment in healthcare infrastructure is required, as well as the ancillary infrastructure that makes health infrastructure work such as electricity, roads, water and sanitation, as well as decent housing. 

Sustainable, resilient models:  

  • Given the limited pools of funding and the infinite set of needs, the international community should pay attention to championing sustainable and resilient models that can generate their own revenues over time. 
  • Such models include economically empowering enterprises by providing them with capital to combat the effects of the pandemic and scale their operations. These enterprises could potentially contribute to job creation and create positive impact within their ecosystems.


Interviewed by Ugo Ikpeazu, Partnerships Coordinator and Research Associate at ONResearch, on July 28th, 2020.

Huguette Umutoni

Huguette Umutoni

Co-Founder of Bitega & Omisore Associate (BOA) a communication strategy firm, and external Champion Engagement Manager for the Global Partnership for Education at the World Bank