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Acting quickly and reflecting deeply: building a more sustainable way forward from the Covid-19 pandemic

The next phase of the pandemic requires both a bias toward action and bias toward reflection. Our rapid response to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis must be complemented by periods of inward reflection. In this time, we are called on to both sprint ahead and consider the paths that brought us here. 

Around the globe, coronavirus cases are surging. There are now more than 20 million confirmed cases worldwideand more than 700,000 deaths. Some nations have successfully contained the virus, only to experience a new wave weeks later. In many densely populated places, social distancing is impossible, and in others, lack of strong leadership has led to severe public health and socioeconomic consequences.

Regardless of the country-by-country response, for most of us, Covid-19 is the defining socio-economic and geo-political event of our lives to date – but it may not be the last major disruption. Over the past six months, the virus has influenced the way we look at systemic racism, healthcare access, gender equality, financial inclusionreally, everything. But the future could hold far greater challenges, and the positive steps we’ve made to date will hardly be sufficient for the challenges that loom ahead. For decades we have been surpassing societal and ecological limits. It is possible that we will look back on this time as the beginning of a new era of massive global challenges. In navigating what is on our doorstep today, we are building the tools and approaches that will be critical to handling what is to come.

Covid demands a bias toward action

In the here and nowthe Covid-19 eraa bias toward action is the place to start. Around the world we have seen the outcomes of starkly divergent leadership in dealing with the spread of the pandemic, most plainly in the terrible price that people have paid for moving slowly or in a disorganized way. If ever there was an illustration of the gulf between a consistently implemented, 80%-right solution today and a 100%-right solution next week, here it is—measured in sickness and deaths.

If ever there was an illustration of the gulf between a consistently implemented, 80%-right solution today and a 100%-right solution next week, here it is—measured in sickness and deaths.

Prior to the crisis, for many global, system-wide challenges, the underlying assumption is that we’re working on a timescale of years, decades, or even longer. With a pandemic, the useful timescale is days and weeks.

At Dalberg, that bias toward action has meant leaning on the strengths and capabilities we have in readiness. Before Covid cases were in the double digits in most African countries, we were on the ground, helping to coordinate one of the first shipments of medical supplies intended for continent-wide distribution. We deployed staff members to the Africa CDC in March, supporting its work as a key hub for pandemic response—long before many on the continent had realized its potential to upend lives and economies.

There are many other examples, from working with policymakers in the U.S. and India to catalyzing Safe Hands—a rapid mass sanitation effort that launched in Kenya and is now present in Tanzania and Ethiopia—that put us on the frontlines of response across a range of sectors and regions.

… and a bias toward reflection

But if nations and organizations with a bias toward action have seen better outcomes through the first six months of the pandemic, the post-pandemic world demands something altogether different: a bias toward reflection.

The fault lines this virus has exposed will not be easily plastered over. And yet, this is an opportunity for a reset. Covid-19 is terrible and deadly but it will prove to be survivable at the societal (and species) level. In that sense, it is a speed bump along the world’s current trajectory; it is not the wall we are still barreling toward. The existential issues of climate change and profound inequality—and their explosive nexus—remain ahead of us, holding the promise, if ignored, of disruptions that will dwarf the current catastrophe.

The fault lines this virus has exposed will not be easily plastered over.

For almost every question asked during this period of reset, there will be competing answers. To jumpstart stalled economies, expect the calls to be deafening for governments to roll back every constraint on industry including those benefitting workers or the environment. There will be calls, too, for greater isolationism, protectionism—an erasure of the kinds of international infrastructure that has presented both downfall and opportunity to communities around the globe.

We need to understand and anticipate the vehemence with which these arguments will be put forth. But we need to reflect, too, on what the recent months have made glaringly obvious: our entire international architecture—from our multilateral organizations to our supply chains—will be called on to operate differently, or risk becoming unsustainable.

So what will change?

This crisis is revealing the crucial flaws at the heart of how the world has approached responding to social needs. Systems have implicitly and explicitly designated some parts of the world as passive, net recipients of support and importers of products and skills, that come from elsewhere. By simultaneously striking almost every part of the world, and particularly impacting the mechanisms of global trade and travel, this crisis is forcing us to reckon with the structural limitations of that model.

Countries are having to rely on and empower local expertise, in part because traditional experts from donor capitals simply can’t fly in to offer “best practice” solutions. Similarly, those currently finding themselves at the back of queues for the medicine, equipment and other crucial supplies they need to keep their populations healthy and their economy working will not soon forget it. Together, these effects should translate into a greater urgency around investing in and relying on local capacity and ownership, and help overcome some of the inherent systemic biases that have often characterized even well intentioned interventions.

Systems have implicitly and explicitly designated some parts of the world as passive, net recipients of support and importers of products and skills. This crisis is forcing us to reckon with the structural limitations of that model.

Hub-and-spoke organizations, that view the world divided into core and periphery are likely to struggle in this new normal. At Dalberg, we have spent the better part of the past two decades working to create a truly multi-local company, distributing key business functions and leadership roles broadly across the globe and investing in deepening local talent bases wherever we operate. As a result, we are able to spot the most acute needs as they emerge, and work in combination with global and local partners to build solutions that will endure long after this pandemic has ended.

The current crisis has also accelerated the embrace of digitalization and data-driven insights. Dalberg teams were able to lead and implement a Data Against Corona solution in Belgium within two weeks of the country’s initial outbreak, based on their experience building data platforms during Ebola and Zika outbreaks in Latin America and Africa. Leveraging anonymized mobile network operator and epidemiological data, Dalberg supported the government and advised the European Commission on assessing risks and monitoring the impact of measures taken. The goal was to reduce social interactions and discourage mobility—and, ultimately, stem the spread of disease. The team is now preparing to scale up the solution in other countries.  

Diversifying presence and engagement means allowing each place to tell you what it needs and wantswhether that is deeper data-driven insights, demand for essential products, or the ability to tap on the best talent for the job, regardless of where they are located.

And what’s at stake?

This is what I’m reflecting on, now that the initially flurry of action has passed, and before the struggle intensifies for what happens next. There’s a way in which a terrible disease could be seen as one of the greatest gifts that the world has ever received. The trajectory we seemed locked into has been profoundly self-destructive—and yet here comes an event that shows us our choices are not locked in.

We’ve seen vivid illustrations of the immediate danger posed by unreflective and thoughtless leadership. We’ve felt intimately the degree to which we are all dependent upon each other. And by listening to the best available scientific knowledge, and by suspending our normal lives for an extended period, we’ve discovered our own agency and have made different choices to keep people alive—and then learned that greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted by 17%.

The danger is we ignore the gift. We pass through the current threat and we say, enough—we’re tired now, ignoring the greater threats to come.

Can we instead build the tools of coordinated, collaborative action, but ensure that they are distributed? Can we change basic aspects of our economies and livelihoods—but do so not out of immediate fear but out of acceptance of the best scientific understanding available to us—and foster a new confidence that we are capable of remarkable change?

The danger is we ignore the gift. We pass through the current threat and we say, enough—we’re tired now, ignoring the greater threats to come.

This window of reflection may be brief before old ways of doing business start to congeal. Across our field, now is the time to interrogate our approaches. The pandemic has shown us the fragility of so much of our infrastructure and the need to examine many of our basic assumptions—but it has also shown us our capacity to make profound changes to protect the wellbeing of the most vulnerable.

We’ve been forced to take a long and painful breath; let’s not waste it. We can design resilience into our systems by demanding greater distribution of opportunity in all that we do. We can rush to care for the most vulnerable in the immediate term and rethink the way we work to ensure that we are putting their wellbeing first in the long term.

I believe we can seize this moment to make the systems we’re a part of truly sustainable. So let’s challenge each other to reflect on and explore what can and must change in our work—so that the long-term actions we take can better reflect both the urgency the challenges we face and the true distribution of talent, resources, and wellsprings of resilience that will be needed to meet them.

James Mwangi is Executive Director of the Dalberg Group.

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