COVID-19 has signalled a time for change – what does this mean for international development?

August 26, 2021

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a chance to rethink our social contract – to reshape how we collaborate and cooperate with each other. The vastly unequal effects of the pandemic exposed the cracks that exist in how we support each other, both within countries and between countries. With the widening of pre-existing inequities, years of progress made in human development are now at stake.

COVID-19 highlights a new face of globalisation – the realisation that no one is safe until everyone is safe is really a new universalism. Yet, while the pandemic represents a universal storm, we are not on the same boat.

Some of us have excellently-built ships and have barely been affected – or are benefiting from the pandemic. More of us, who had less robust but functional boats, are struggling through. Many of us, who don’t have boats – such as the 700 million people living in extreme poverty globally – have been left floating in the sea. However, even if you have the best ships, as long as there are people without a boat, you will still be affected.

Bangladesh is an example of a country that has persistently worked to ensure everyone has a ship. The small country has a globally lauded record of tackling inequality, poverty reduction as well as public health, and a life expectancy of 72 years – longer than a number of places in the United States. Canada has been a partner of Bangladesh since its birth as a nation, supporting such efforts by investing in empowerment of women, education of the less privileged and assisting with humanitarian support. Bangladesh’s impressive development is attributed to its pro poor policy, focus on inclusive growth, pioneering social innovations and remarkable cooperation between the state and the non-state actors such as BRAC.

Read more: Building rural forts of resistance against COVID-19: What we are learning in Bangladesh

Canada has supported BRAC since 1996 through an 18 year-long non-formal education programme, as well as more recent initiatives supporting humanitarian activities in Cox’s Bazar and education and skill development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. With the fall-out as a result of COVID-19, this trusted partnership needs to deliver more on social and economic recovery to reduce the dramatic expansion of inequity caused by the pandemic.

That is why Canada has announced a 45 million Canadian dollar investment in this work for the next five years, joining the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) – a long-term tripartite partnership with BRAC in Bangladesh and the Australian Government.

While the pandemic represents a universal storm, we are not on the same boat. Some of us have excellently-built ships and have barely been affected – or are benefiting from the pandemic. Many of us, who don’t have boats – such as the 700 million people living in extreme poverty globally – have been left floating in the sea.

With the pandemic estimated to force 150 million more people into extreme poverty globally by the end of 2021, there is a clear imperative for global partners in both the development and humanitarian sectors to focus on reducing inequality and addressing the years of progress lost by millions of people across the globe.

Lockdowns imposed as a safety measure left thousands in Bangladesh without jobs. Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2020

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic needs to be equitable if it is to be successful. International development interventions must support vulnerable populations susceptible to economic shocks due to the pandemic. Bangladesh has been severely affected by COVID-19, and a major focus of the partnership will be supporting the country to tackle the pandemic, particularly supporting people at the last mile. BRAC is recognised for its holistic interventions particularly reaching people in extreme poverty, with the organisation having supported 14 million people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty globally.

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The role of women in development will take centre stage in the partnership, as it has done in Bangladesh’s approach to development. BRAC’s women-centred development approach, which prioritises the empowerment of women and girls to ensure equal decision making, control over resources, and access to critical services, is closely aligned with the Government of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. Canada firmly believes that promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls is the most effective approach to unmaking inequality and building a more peaceful, more inclusive, and more prosperous world.

Read more: COVID-19 in Bangladesh: Update from Asif Saleh (31 July 2021)

The partnership comes at a time when the pursuit of new, more effective and affordable forms of development cooperation could not be more intense, and international coordination to address inequity could not be more urgent. BRAC is a uniquely qualified and credible civil society partner with impressive coverage, reaching more than 100 million people with its multifaceted development programmes, cost effective implementation and a strong government partnership track record. Canada is committed to foster innovation through funding mechanisms and by forming new partnerships, and to make sound decisions based on evidence and closely track progress, but in a manner adapted to the needs of different local stakeholders in different contexts.

The Strategic Partnership with BRAC exemplifies this approach – one of partners on equal footing, shared vision, adding different values – and of cost-effectiveness. It is a step away from old modalities of aid, towards development cooperation, one which is in line with our goal to make international development interventions work at scale. As international development assistance comes under increasing pressure, it signals the value which Canada places on national leadership, and is a step away from aid and towards cooperation. The partnership is a direct relationship between Canada and a southern non-government organisation, and a shift in focus from outputs to development outcomes.

Bangladesh has a history of achieving development outcomes in the face of tremendous obstacles, due to its commitment to sustainable, inclusive development – supporting everyone to have a boat – and recognising the strength inherent in communities in addressing their challenges and playing active roles in the planning and delivery of initiatives. This collaboration is an important step towards realising shared long-term development cooperation goals. There is no better time than now to build new social contracts like this, with Canada investing in BRAC’s proven ability to unmake inequality, and support Bangladesh to build back better and resume its strong development trajectory.


Honourable Karina Gould is Canada’s Minister for International Development. Asif Saleh is Executive Director of BRAC. This article previously appeared in the Dhaka Tribune.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) defines, shapes, and advances Canada’s interests and values in a complex global environment. As Canada’s foreign ministry, the department is responsible for managing diplomatic relations, promoting international trade, and providing consular support to Canadians. It also leads Canada’s international development, humanitarian, and peace and security assistance efforts, and contributes to Canada’s national security and the development of international law more broadly. 

BRAC is an international development organisation founded in Bangladesh that partners with over 100 million people living with inequality and poverty globally to create sustainable opportunities to realise potential.

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