Leverage Development Experience to Beat COVID-19

After years of work by the people of Aceh and their development partners, those affected by the 2004 tsunami have achieved remarkable progress.
After years of work by the people of Aceh and their development partners, those affected by the 2004 tsunami have achieved remarkable progress.

By Ramesh Subramaniam

COVID-19 is uncharted territory but development professionals bring a wealth of experience from past crises to rebuild lives, livelihoods, and economies. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing fear and anxiety to many countries around the world.  We are right to be concerned by this latest threat to global health and prosperity.

But there is also reason for hope. We need to remember that the world has overcome previous crises. Personally, I take some comfort in the often-inspiring role played by my own community of development professionals. I would like to share some positive thoughts on what development professionals can do. My hope is to motivate myself and my colleagues at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), so we can contribute to the tremendous efforts being taken in so many of our member economies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I base my optimism on the years I’ve spent watching how the development community has helped countries, both in normal times and during crises. Working hand-in-hand with our member economies we have played a part in alleviating the sufferings of people affected by economic crisis, natural disasters, conflicts, or by disease.

All of us in the development community dedicate our lives to economic and social development. We have faced worse crises and disasters, and we can hold hands yet again and fight COVID-19, working closely with public officials and other stakeholders including the private sector and civil society.

We need to stay optimistic, and indeed there’s good reason to do so. During my career in development, I have seen countries, communities, and regions bounce back from 14—by my count­–devastating crises, disasters, or conflicts. And that is just me, one person with about two-and-half decades of development experience.

There are thousands of us, with lots of such examples. Such crises have been test cases of development institutions, which have stood steadfast with their member economies. We can work together to address the immediate health impact of COVID-19, as well as the near and medium-term economic consequences, to minimize negative social, financial, or balance-of-payments spillovers.

For some context, cast your mind back to the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Indonesia was one of the countries that suffered. The livelihoods of average Indonesians were devastated by economic shocks. Yet, the entire country worked hard to overcome the crisis. There are very few countries that have rolled out the kind of social, political, and economic reforms Indonesia did. Scores of ADB staff, working with our partners, made pivotal contributions to help strengthen banks, create a well-functioning non-bank sector, and improve corporate governance in state-owned enterprises.

Look at where Indonesia is now—it is enjoying strong macroeconomic, fiscal, and monetary management. Poverty is in the single digits.

  Despite COVID-19, there is reason for hope.

Also recall the Russian financial crisis in 1998, which not many talk about these days, and the 2008 global financial crisis that everyone talks about. The development community worked with countries in Central Asia and Southeast Asia to reduce the negative impacts of these crises. We played our part by providing support that was instrumental in avoiding bank runs in Central Asia in 1998 and helped policy makers craft fiscal stimulus measures to provide social protection. In 2008-09, the global development community worked hard to help achieve economic recovery in Armenia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Philippines, Tajikistan and Viet Nam.  

Economic crises take livelihoods away, but natural disasters take lives. It’s 15 years now since the Indian Ocean Tsunami hit several countries in the region. My spine still shivers thinking about the nearly 120,000 people who perished in Aceh, Indonesia.

I will never forget the empty expressions of surviving family members holding the photos of loved ones who were washed ashore. The work done in the aftermath by teams from ADB and many other development organizations will remain in the hearts of Acehnese people for a long time. 

I played a small role by leading a team in Indonesia—with several teams helping in other countries. ADB supported the reconstruction of houses, roads, irrigation systems, and restoring livelihoods. We also helped the affected communities in Maldives, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, all of which have bounced back to vibrancy. Given the scale of devastation, ADB supported the countries through the Asian Tsunami Fund with over $750 million in grants.  

The earthquakes in Yogyakarta in 2006 and in Pakistan in 2006 were equally mind-numbing. The development community mobilized quickly in both cases. Like in Banda Aceh, I can never remove from my mind what I saw in Yogya and Muzaffarabad, where we supported the rebuilding of houses and helped to restore livelihoods.

The story repeated in 2010 in Pakistan after devastating floods, and in the southern Philippines through perhaps the most disastrous typhoon ever to hit the planet, Typhoon Haiyan. In Pakistan, we focused on rebuilding weakened irrigation systems. Working closely with the Philippines Government as part of a program also supported by the World Bank, we provided much-needed support to rebuild typhoon-affected areas.

We all hope that the last disaster will indeed be the last one. But, has it ever been? Unfortunately, no.

It is true, COVID-19 is uncharted territory. But as development professionals, let us respond to it by using what we learned in past crises to rebuild lives, livelihoods, and economies.