What a difference a year makes. Back in early 2020, reports of an emerging virus were starting to enter the news, but we had little appreciation of the scale of impact from the ensuing global pandemic, and how within Oxfam, Covid-19 would fundamentally change our ways of working. As we reflect on the year, here are some key lessons from our work:
1) Responding to shocks require multi-faceted approaches
In the Enterprise Development Programme (EDP), an Oxfam multi-country programme which invests in SMEs to improve farmer livelihoods with a focus on enhancing women’s economic opportunities, Oxfam repurposed funding into Covid-19 stimulus packages, enabling impacted enterprises to continue in their operations. The stimulus packages comprised of working capital grants but also included business support such as partnering with the enterprises to renegotiate banks debts.
In WE-Care; a multi-country programme which addresses heavy and unequal unpaid care and domestic work as a barrier to gender equality, we saw that Covid-19 resulted in implications for carrying out face-to-face meetings and workshops during a critical phase of the programme. However, it also provided an opportunity to respond to the global shifts in real-time narratives around care work (for example, news stories about women’s increasing childcare responsibilities as a result of lockdown). To understand the impact of lockdown on women’s care responsibilities, Oxfam and partners conducted rapid research, including in WE-Care countries, Kenya and the Philippines, resulting in the report, “Care in the Time of Coronovirus”. We also partnered with Promundo to launch an online multi-country campaign highlighting men’s role in sharing unpaid care work. This was the first time that a global online campaign had been undertaken in WE-Care and resulted in connecting with new audiences.
2) Integrated public services are essential for reducing economic and gender inequality
The pandemic has shone a light on the correlation between inequality and resilience. Already prior to the pandemic, our research under LIFT; a social innovation WEE project in Greater Manchester, had identified that women living in poverty faced huge challenges in accessing mental health support, as well as difficulties in balancing paid work with unpaid childcare responsibilities. These findings were echoed at a global level in the ‘Care in the Time of Coronavirus’ report where over half the women surveyed reported not only spending more time on care tasks, but also experiencing negative impacts on their mental health.
Covid-19 has demonstrated how the issues of healthcare and care work (both paid and unpaid) are not exclusively private issues but are in fact, matters for public policy. Enhanced access to adequate public services, such as free childcare or effective healthcare, increases people’s capacity for undertaking paid work. Gender-responsive social protection systems are therefore critical for building resilience in individuals and societies against shocks.
3) Centring local leadership must be a priority
Owing to social distancing requirements, Oxfam has often been unable to physically access the communities where we work over the past year. As a result, we have become more dependent on our networks, in some cases forging relationships with new local stakeholders. In our research under LIFT, the methodology has hinged on working with community researchers with lived experiences of poverty to consult with other women on challenges they face, on possible solutions and to design and shape the projects next steps.
In EDP, where Covid-19 has disrupted the linkages between market systems and actors, Oxfam has played a facilitation role to support enterprises in finding new markets and developing new products. The leadership and local networking capacity of Oxfam country offices was crucial for reacting to these challenges.
As Oxfam GB moves forward with designing its programme priorities around ‘Valuing Women’s Work’, we have much experience to draw from in our response to Covid-19. We have already started to design and fund pilots which are led by networks of local actors. We adapted our work to respond to the real-time lived realities of people in the communities which we are serving. And we used mass media platforms to support a shift in dominant narratives on women’s roles in society.
Let us use these lessons to re-imagine our structures, processes and assumptions and to develop more dynamic, holistic and devolved operating models.