BRAC’s lessons from Ebola for COVID-19: Opt for safe not sorry, supercharge communication, focus on clients and look for opportunities

June 7, 2020

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This series is a collection of insights from BRAC practitioners who have led responses to mass-scale crises across the world. We present key factors for other practitioners; healthcare professionals, governments and development authorities to consider in preparation, management, relief and recovery.

As the world finds itself in uncharted territory struggling to combat the rapidly escalating COVID-19 pandemic, BRAC’s work in Africa during the Ebola crisis can offer valuable lessons for responding to public health crises in low-income countries.

When Ebola hit Liberia in early 2014, Sadhan Chandra Dey was a managing director at BRAC in Liberia.

BRAC’s operations slowed down rapidly when the virus hit, eventually suspending altogether in August, when the country went into lockdown.

When the crisis was over, BRAC’s operations and clients came back strong. How did the team cope with – and recover from – Ebola? Sadhan shares some advice;

  • Opt for safe not sorry

The old adage – it’s better to be safe than sorry. According to Sadhan, anticipate the worst and act as if that’s about to happen. Then we will not be left out and have to play catch-up later on.

Everyone usually has crisis plans, but the crucial factor is how quickly they can be activated.

“We immediately asked ourselves: What steps do we take to ensure security of our assets and safety of our staff, in case of a complete shutdown? How do we ensure that national staff receive their salaries from home? How can we communicate with our stakeholders in the community from our homes?” BRAC acted straight away on the answers.

The expatriate staff had to evacuate, so responsibilities were divided up between the national staff before they left. Committees were formed at different levels – county level, area level, and overseen by a country representative, who reported to and was being instructed by the top management from BRAC’s head office in Bangladesh. Each committee was assigned different tasks.

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The responsibilities of the country representative (the highest position in the organisation in the country) were given to one national staff member, who reported to the expatriate staff operating remotely from BRAC’s head office.

Although operations were halted, some transactions needed to be carried out, including paying salaries at the end of the month, as well as covering security and maintenance bills;

“We had a list for everything; who was responsible for the banking activities, who was coordinating with which group leaders, who had the keys – everything was listed down and shared with all, very early on.”

Even banking transactions had a direct coordination link with top management. BRAC in Liberia had an agreement with a bank and an official letter (by the country representative and BRAC’s head of finance) would be sent from BRAC’s head office to the bank every time withdrawals were to be made. The letter contained the name and PIN number of an assigned staff member, who would then go to the bank on the date mentioned to make the withdrawals.

Salaries were collected from the bank and distributed to the branch offices. Staff members often lived close to their respective offices, and collected payment directly. A directive was also given that, if they chose to, one staff member could collect the salaries of up to four of their colleagues and ensure that their salaries reached them.

Although the team had zero experience of lockdown, Sadhan recalls they lost nothing: “Our assets, banking transactions, everything was safe because we acted early.”

  • Supercharge communication

“We had two focuses; keeping our assets secure and maintaining communication with field staff. Everything was done through emails and video calls. The management closely watched the situation, and instructed accordingly”.

National staff were concerned that suspending operations and evacuating international staff would mean an eventual phase-out for BRAC in Liberia. Regular salary payments throughout the crisis and continuous communication with management in Bangladesh through weekly video conferences gave them a feeling of job security and confidence.

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Every level of staff kept in contact;

“Even though expatriate staff were evacuated, we kept in regular contact with the national staff members back in Liberia. We were directing them in their communication with clients, and continuously reassuring them that it was a temporary situation.

“Small teams of senior management went back as soon as it was possible in October 2014, when things became calmer. That gave the staff a lot of hope.”

One would think that leading operations from overseas would be difficult, especially in a crisis, but Sadhan says that it worked because the national staff were so responsive.

  • Never lose the focus on clients

“The management’s decision to suspend operations was coupled with establishing protocols that protected staff, clients and relationships. Everything was designed so that our clients knew that we were not leaving forever, that this was just temporary, until the situation was under control. The national staff members would be there, BRAC would be there.

“When Liberia declared the emergency, we had one week to wrap up. Within that one week, our field staff went door-to-door with a written circular telling them that BRAC’s activities are suspended for at least one month, and that they should not be expecting anyone for collections. We double-checked through phone calls that they received the message.”

Loan repayments were stopped, even when some microfinance organisations initially kept collecting. This created goodwill.

Additional phone allowances were included in the contingency plan to ensure that staff could keep in contact with clients.

National staff worked throughout the suspension, collecting information on who was affected by the state of emergency and how, and this kept the clients’ trust intact.

BRAC remained visible in the community, through its NGO entity. While many NGOs completely shut down their operations, BRAC did psychosocial work with Ebola survivors and community-level awareness activities to fight stigma and misinformation.

Pausing operations for seven months could have been a major setback to BRAC in Liberia’s customer retention and long-term success. Instead, the opposite happened.

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The flow back into operations was smooth, because of the strong relationships with clients the staff had retained, and the hope that it had maintained.

“In December, we started sending out messages to our clients that BRAC’s operations will be resuming soon, and when we came back in March 2015, we sent out another circular telling our clients that we were back. Within two weeks we resumed operations.” When operations resumed, repayment rates topped 90% in the first week.

Development organisations play a major role in revitalising communities in resource-constrained countries after a crisis. That means that the relationships maintained with clients helped the community recover.

  • Look for opportunities

Whenever there is a challenge, there is a potential system improvement.

When the expatriate staff had to evacuate – and their responsibilities were delegated to the national staff members – the office ran effectively and efficiently. This revealed the opportunity to have more national staff in managerial positions. When operations restarted, employees who were in charge were rewarded (based on their performance) with promotions.

Similarly, we quickly adapted to new mechanisms to ensure that clients could spring back. Systems were modified – for example, there is usually a verification and confirmation process when a new microfinance client is registered, which takes around three weeks. After the crisis, that process was accelerated to ten days.

“People who do not have much often lose what little they have once tragedy strikes. But as soon as the crisis is over, they want to turn their lives around,” Sadhan says.

COVID-19 is a reminder that global crises need global solutions. This virus is not the first the world has faced. Ebola taught us to anticipate the worst and take rapid action, amp up communication, and keep clients as the raison d’etre – and to use challenges to catalyse improvements to systems. If we keep learning, we have the best chance to be ready – for whatever happens.

 

Luba Khalili is Deputy Manager at BRAC Communications. Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is Head, Programme and Enterprise Communications.

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