Fast Research can fix government feedback loops broken by Covid – great example from Bangladesh

I’ve been thinking about feedback in terms of the way Covid is playing out on the ground. Or rather, the lack of it. Lockdown interrupts/diminishes the flow of information from the ground to governments. Decision makers, be they politicians or senior officials, can’t send out researchers or underlings to find out what’s going on in the villages, cities and shanty towns; they can’t hear from contacts or constituents in informal conversations. To an unprecedented extent they are flying blind, which makes it much harder to spot which interventions are working, and which are having dire unintended consequences. Fine tuning becomes impossible.

But that is also an opportunity for researchers, thinktanks and activists to improve the quality of feedback loops using rigorous research that really looks at what is happening on the ground. Such research can map the shifting contours of public trust – crucial in any emergency response; flag gaps, whether in the actors (eg NGOs) or in overlooked vulnerable groups; raise an early flag for unintended consequences and emerging problems.

As a taster, check out the great work in Bangladesh by Naomi Hossain and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, report here , presented in a webinar last week. The project carried out rapid research in 20 communities across Bangladesh about local responses to COVID-19 in a series of interviews undertaken between 6-15 April 2020. It then fed these results back to the government.

Speakers on the webinar fleshed out some important aspects of the work:

  • ‘Rapid, Reliable and Repeated’: Research needs to be light, quick (although everyone wanted to talk about Covid, people are busy, even in lockdown) and frequent.
  • Prior relationships: all the researchers had worked together before, so they had the trust needed to start working together quickly.
  • Similarly, the researchers had previously worked in all twenty locations, often with these informants
Lockdown. Credit: M. Yousuf Tusha, Flickr

As for the findings:

‘The research found that the lockdown was widely accepted as necessary: many people were already adhering to social distancing and staying at home as much as possible, but after the announcement of multiple deaths from the coronavirus in the second week of April 2020, panic took hold across the communities so that most people were now accepting the lockdown as a matter of survival.

Some groups are not adhering to the lockdown: young men, people who are unaware of how serious the disease is or who believe God will protect them, and people who need to go out to look for work or relief are said to be breaking lockdown regulations.

Patrolling by the police and army is mostly welcomed by local people, despite or perhaps because of the fear they induce. Local authorities and officials are working hard, often with community leaders, to enforce the lockdown: in most locations, people reported that local government representatives – Union Parishad members and chairmen or Pourashava commissioners and councillors – were making active efforts to ensure people stay at home, shops are closed, as well as sourcing relief for the most needy.

However, there was a consensus that the lockdown will not hold if people cannot eat: people who have no savings or food reserves will need to work or get relief immediately if they are going to stay home.

In terms of what communities need it is clear that healthcare is being adversely affected as people find it harder to get healthcare, or are more reluctant to go to hospitals for fear of contracting the virus, being quarantined if tested positive, or because medical staff are unavailable.

Frontline health service staff report fearing contracting the virus because of a lack of provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).

As most people cannot work, those reliant on daily earnings have seen dramatic income declines, and people dependent on daily wages have already cut spending and food consumption. There were reports of people going hungry and being forced out to seek assistance.

However, very little assistance has been received to date: in most places, only a small number of households have received any help. This appears to be mainly from private individuals and small welfare funds or groups.

Government relief and NGO assistance have not been important sources of help to date. Yet it is widely understood that people on low incomes will need to depend on Government assistance during the lockdown, and across the communities where there was a belief that people had no alternative but to rely on the government for food or other support during the lockdown and an expectation that the government would be there to help its citizens.

Local governments are making serious efforts to protect citizens; local community leaders and members are mostly cooperating. However, there are some exceptions, particularly in remote rural areas.

Dhaka Rickshaw driver receiving relief. Credit: Dhaka Tribune

Many respondents pointed out the useful roles NGOs could play at this time, yet NGOs have visibly done little to date. Private individual initiatives to assist the needy have been noticeable and local community based-organisations (CBOs) have also been active. Meanwhile, most respondents felt that religious leaders had played a mixed role, only recently encouraging praying from home instead of in crowded mosques, for instance.

While people’s hopes for surviving COVID-19 rest on the promise of assistance from the central government, many people also reported losing trust in the government because of delayed assistance and confusion about what will be provided, to whom, when, and how.

In general, people appear to be reasonably well-informed about the Coronavirus and the lockdown. They do not, however, fully trust official information, although the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) is given some credit for regular, timely and reliable information. Most people rely on independent television news and to a lesser extent on Facebook, which, according to many people, has proven unreliable because of the false rumours it circulated.’

But is anyone in government listening? According to the research team, it was their idea: ‘The General Economic Division (Central government) reached out to BIGD at the onset of the crisis. The main ask was to critically assess the stimulus package announced by the government, estimate impact on different sectors and provide inputs for the 8th Five Year Plan, keeping in mind the re-allocation of budget that will be required due to Covid-19. We have designed a number of rapid research projects that all feed into this task. This piece on Community relations and institutions is part of this.’ Today, the research team is discussing its findings with a group of officials responsible for sub-district (upazila) governance. There’s also been a bit of press coverage. That level of government interest in evidence from the grassroots may be why Bangladesh has outperformed India on social indicators over the last few decades and is fast catching up on economic ones too.

These are early days, and more substantive findings will follow over the coming months, as the team returns to its informants to see how the crisis is unfolding.

I’m spotting similar attempts to plug the feedback gap popping up elsewhere too. In Senegal, the the Centre de Recherche pour le Développement Économique et Social (CRDES) teamed up with the Center for Global Development to conduct a 1,000 person phone survey on how people are coping.

Echoes here too of the recent post on IBP’s work in South Africa.

More examples please!

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