Chronicle of Philanthropy | By Leslie Lang Tsai
Philanthropy has committed billions of dollars in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While certainly generous, that’s a fraction of the trillions committed so far by governments worldwide.
And therein lies a largely untapped opportunity.
Grant makers can have an outsized impact by supporting efforts to improve government efficiency, accountability, and effectiveness in responding to the pandemic.
Philanthropies should start by asking themselves some critical questions: How much of this massive tranche of government resources will be lost through corruption? Who is even monitoring what may be governments’ largest non-wartime spending in history? And what can grant makers do to increase the chances that government dollars support evidence-based policies in helping defeat the virus?
It turns out, there is a great deal foundations can do to tackle each of these issues.
To improve the response by governments around the world to the crisis, grant makers should focus their investments on three primary areas: improving transparency and accountability to reduce corruption; supporting data-driven approaches to shaping policy, while also strengthening government capacity to collect and act on such data; and protecting civic engagement.
A survey released in May by a German antifraud consulting company found that a majority of the 58 countries surveyed said they had suffered from corruption related to purchasing personal protective equipment or getting access to it. In one such example, the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating a politically connected company that has failed to deliver on millions of dollars in contracts to supply states with urgently needed medical equipment. Meanwhile, the company is suing its bank, saying that the bank’s improper actions are what led to the failed delivery.
Crises needn’t serve as an opportunity for opportunists.
Foundations can and must help governments reduce corruption and self-dealing during this crisis to ensure that government funding is effective. Organizations such as the Open Government Partnership are providing government officials and their partners with practical tools and resources to keep government honest. These include a list of more than 200 crowdsourced examples of policies and procedures to reduce corruption during the pandemic and help promote policies that make governments more open.
Transparency needn’t slow government responses to the pandemic. Another nonprofit that pushes governments to disclose more about their operations, the Open Contracting Partnership, has recommendations on how governments can adopt protocols that allow them to buy emergency equipment quickly and without favoritism. Such efforts help stretch government funding further.
What’s more, moving from paper-based procurement systems, which can help hide corrupt practices, to transparent electronic systems will yield benefits far beyond the current crisis.
Foundation support can also make a big difference in averting actions that we have seen governments take because they lacked data.
In March, the Indian government gave just four hours’ notice for a national lockdown, resulting in millions of migrant workers crowding train stations and bus depots in a scramble to get home. The rush to rural villages may have unintentionally accelerated the virus’s spread. The abrupt shutdown also prevented truckers from delivering critical medical supplies and factories from producing those supplies. In Italy, systematic government failures led to the death of more than 30,000 people from Covid-19.
Grant makers can and should help improve government performance during this crisis. Funds they provided to organizations like the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and IDinsight are helping nonprofits work with governments to improve efficiency and capacity.
The poverty lab, known as J-PAL, has developed recommendations to help governments design public-health campaigns that get the public’s attention and persuade people to follow recommendations that protect everyone from disease. J-PAL has also conducted research on how digital financial services and e-commerce can curb the impact of Covid-19. And it has provided guidelines for effective approaches to online learning as more than a billion students are locked out of schools.
IDinsight is working with the government of the Philippines to provide policy recommendations on how to protect the economically vulnerable during the crisis. Suggestions include ensuring poor households have sufficient income to meet daily needs; facilitating cash flows for small and medium-sized enterprises; and enabling salaried workers to take paid sick leave and keep their jobs.
In Hungary, the prime minister has been given the authority to rule by decree with no end date. Venezuelan authorities have sought to arrest critics of the government’s response to the pandemic.
Civil society can support government both as a partner and as a watchdog, increasing the likelihood of government officials behaving responsibly.
Advocacy, grassroots organizations, and journalists can build the will for the policy and systems changes, such as paid sick leave and universal health care, that will help address this pandemic and prevent the next.
The Accountability Lab has launched the Coronavirus CivActs Campaign, a help desk for global citizens. The goal is to reduce misinformation and counter disinformation that can cloud the public’s understanding of government policy and their own safety.
A group of 97 nonprofits has urged the International Monetary Fund to formally recognize and strengthen the role of civil-society groups to monitor government spending of its $15 billion in pandemic emergency funding. Many of the IMF loan agreements include few or no government commitments to mitigate the risk of corruption.
Although many donors are currently focused on tackling the immediate health and economic crises, underlying governance issues will, more often than not, determine the scale and speed of our success battling the pandemic. What’s more, good governance is a good investment. It pays dividends by establishing structures and systems that can boost our response and recovery from Covid-19, and effectively address future challenges.
Then why is governance so unpopular with foundations? Here are some reasons:
It is difficult to measure governance outcomes in a quantifiable and concrete way. You can track the number of children who receive vaccines, but it is much more challenging to measure performance improvements within a ministry of health.
Grant makers want to understand what impact they’ve had. When they strengthen governance, it is hard to tease out their specific role and separate it from the role of others.
Working to strengthen governance systems can take a long time. What’s more, the benefits from that work take even longer to manifest. Few grant makers have the patience to measure their impact in decades.
But for those grant makers and social investors who are strategic and have such patience, there has never been a more important time and a better opportunity to effect significant and lasting change. My organization, the Chandler Foundation, recently joined a grant-maker collaborative called the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, which supports long-term investments in creating more open and responsive governments.
With each passing day, we see more headlines from around the world of yet another unnecessarily bungled government response to the crisis. We can change this narrative and our destiny, saving precious lives and resources by investing in good governance.