Can Rural Development Programs Build Resilience to the COVID-19 Pandemic?

mother and children in Samburu, Kenya
A mother and her children in Samburu, Kenya in January, 2020. Photo credit: Pablo Delvaux

COVID-19 restrictions have changed everything in northern Kenya. In drought-prone Samburu, government restrictions have closed local markets where families sell their livestock and buy basic commodities for the meals they eat every day.

“If the market is closed, it will be very hard to even meet basic household needs,” said Watson Lepariyo, an International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) research associate who has been leading MRR Innovation Lab surveys in the area.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures national governments around the world are taking to contain it have created new challenges for families who were already vulnerable to a number of climate-related disaster risks. New research supported by USAID is learning whether investments in broadly based resilience helps families to withstand even this completely unexpected and global shock.

“Promoting asset growth and resilience is going to be incredibly important if rural families will have a chance to withstand drought, flood and now the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Michael Carter, director of the MRR Innovation Lab.

Livelihood Building Programs and COVID-19

The MRR Innovation Lab has recently launched two projects with support from USAID that are measuring how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting rural families, as well as whether existing development programming has made them more resilient. Both projects build on earlier work that collected detailed household data that make it possible to generate insights on responses to COVID-19.  

In Kenya, Carter has added a survey to an ongoing project in Samburu in partnership with The BOMA Project and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The project pairs a poverty graduation program with livestock insurance to help women to build an independent income while insuring them against losing that income in the event of drought.

In Nepal, Sarah Janzen, an economist at the University of Illinois, and University of Georgia economist Nicholas Magnan are building on their prior USAID-supported research in partnership with Heifer International in Nepal. In that study, they found that the program increased women’s income from livestock.

Livelihood building programs like The BOMA Project and Heifer International help families establish and grow new sources of income. This new income creates a pathway for staying food secure and above poverty. Livelihood building programs are not designed explicitly to make families more resilient to shocks like COVID-19, but they might.

“If the program is designed to help households become more resilient shocks by encouraging savings, for example,” said Janzen, “households who have saved something are going to be more resilient than households who haven’t.”

A Different Kind of Shock

The COVID-19 pandemic is a different kind of shock from drought or flood, climate-related disasters that are increasingly the focus of efforts to build resilience. COVID-19 has direct health effects for people who are infected. But even in countries where infection rates are low, government responses have indirect effects that reach across societies, like the market closures in Samburu.

Worldwide, the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 infection vary widely. Across Feed the Future’s 12 target countries, infection rates range from 4,101 in Uganda to 331,078 in Bangladesh, according to the World Health Organization’s Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. By comparison, the United States, which has double the population of Bangladesh, has had over 5 million confirmed cases. Brazil has had over 3 million.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 have already had a broad economic impact. In August, the World Bank estimated that a decline in GDP per capita of 3 percent, their optimistic forecast for 2020, will increase the number of Sub-Saharan Africans living in extreme poverty by 13 million. With a 5 percent decline in GDP per capita, poverty rates in Sub-Saharan Africa could go up by 50 million, which would match poverty rates from 2011.

“This is a huge setback,” wrote World Bank practice managers Andrew Dabalen and Pirella Paci. “It would erase several years of hard-won progress in poverty reduction.”

Janzen said that the closest precedent for the COVID-19 pandemic is a disaster like the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal that blocked transportation and slowed output and commodity markets across the country. At the time she was leading her USAID-funded research with Heifer International in Nepal’s Terai region. Two of their study sites were destroyed.

“That disaster is similar to COVID-19 in how it’s affecting people’s lives,” said Janzen. “The biggest difference is the scale. This pandemic is affecting the whole world opposed to a natural disaster that hits a smaller area.”

This scale particularly affects remittances, which Nepal and many other countries rely on. The IMF recently reported estimates from World Bank data showing that remittance flows are expected to drop by about $100 billion in 2020, a roughly 20 percent drop compared to 2019.

COVID-19 Impact for Rural Families

Preliminary results from Carter’s survey in Samburu detail exactly how families in Samburu have struggled. Before the pandemic, the sale of one goat could buy get 50 kg maize flour, main staple for people. Today, one goat buys 37 kg. The number of families reporting that adults skipped meals at least one day a week rose from 38 percent in March to 66 percent.

Of women who started businesses with support from The BOMA Project, 80 percent said their business assets have shrunk since March. However, Carter said it’s not yet clear how this compares to women who had no business assets or who did not participate in The BOMA Project’s programming.

“In many ways,” said Carter, “the kinds of pressures being created on households are not that different than drought. That’s the logic of providing insurance, except COVID-19 is not an insured event.”

In East Africa, COVID-19 comes on the heels of a year that began with heavy, unexpected rains out of season followed by swarms of locusts. COVID-19 restrictions have brought the additional challenge of distributing food from surplus to deficit areas, according to Tim Njagi, a research associate with the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development in Nairobi.

“Going into the next season, that market inefficiency will affect production,” said Njagi. “If there’s a lot of maize that can’t reach the market you might cut back on the area planted because you already have volumes that you have not managed to sell.”

In Samburu, the heavy rains and abundant forage nearby have kept their livestock productive and healthy. In a severe drought, said Lepariyo, pastoralist families might lose their livestock or leave the animals so unhealthy they won’t produce milk and can’t be sold. Even with markets closed, the animals at least produce milk and in the worst-case scenario can be slaughtered for food. 

“It’s so fortunate that COVID happened when we had a lot of rains,” said Lepariyo. “If we still have COVID during a dry season it will be catastrophic.”