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What the pandemic has taught us about rapid response research


Mylene Bordeleau

Program Officer, IDRC
Caroline Ford headshot

Caroline Ford

Director, Democratic and Inclusive Governance

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck three years ago, IDRC quickly made the decision to redirect significant funding to rapid pandemic response. We knew that public policies to limit the spread of COVID-19 and support people through the emergency could widen inequalities, deepen poverty, undermine governance and leave lasting effects on state capacities to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Decision-makers needed reliable, contextually grounded evidence to inform appropriate responses to the pandemic, especially in lower-income countries.  

Our biggest investment went toward creating COVID-19 Responses for Equity (CORE), an initiative supporting 20 rapid research projects in 42 countries to inform policy responses with timely and rigorous evidence. CORE seeks to improve understanding of the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, improve existing responses and generate better policy options for recovery. 

The initiative began at a time of great disruption that made everything — including policy-relevant social science research — difficult. Risk of contagion precluded in-person research methods, travel for fieldwork and dissemination events. Decision-makers were pulled in multiple directions to address emergencies. Little was known about the pandemic itself, including how long it would last or its potential socio-economic impacts on vulnerable groups.

Impacts on policies, networks, research capacity and awareness 

The CORE initiative is nevertheless performing well. It is generating a rich body of evidence on the impacts of COVID-19 on marginalized people in low- and middle-income countries and on better ways of responding to their needs. New policies and practices are emerging to improve support for livelihoods, food security, social protection and gender equity, particularly among vulnerable groups such as women, informal workers and migrants. 

A rapid review by the United Kingdom’s Covid Collective Helpdesk found a strong ability among CORE research teams to positively impact some of the most pressing COVID-19 related socio-economic challenges thanks to various instances of policy influence and engagement with media, civil society and practitioners.  

CORE ranked high in achieving instrumental outcomes, defined as research influencing policy and shifting practices. The review cites as an example a survey carried out by the Centro Latinoamericano para el Desarrollo Rural (RIMISP) that generated data on levels of food insecurity in rural Chile. This new awareness of vulnerability led to including a territorial development approach in proposed legislative reforms and recent drafts for a new Cconstitution that would be more responsive to rural needs. This achievement speaks to the importance for research teams to identify early on, during the project-design stage, clear needs for evidence among decision-makers, to ensure results are relevant.  

The Arab Hub for Social Protection, created by the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI), is an example of network outcomes. ARI created a platform to bring together the networks, organizations, experts, practitioners, researchers and activists working on social protection in the Arab region. A focal meeting with regional and international partners in June 2022 culminated with a declaration to converge towards a unified discourse and a set of priorities for future action related to universal social protection in the region.

Strengthening capacity has been a cross-cutting component of all CORE projects. Many research teams have made clear contributions to strengthening the skillset and expertise of researchers. Some teams encouraged women researchers to enrol in training opportunities and to take on leadership roles in project activities. For Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), strengthening capacity also meant deepening the ability of local teams in eleven cities across eight countries to apply mixed research methods (surveys and interviews) and use online tools to connect with their membership throughout the pandemic. In addition, many senior and junior researchers on the advisory team and members of city-level research teams shared authorship of global findings and academic articles.  

CORE also pushed for conceptual outcomes, contributing to shifts in dialogues and discourses to inform pandemic response and recovery efforts. The evidence gathered by the Asociación de Investigación y Estudios Sociales (ASIES), for example, in Central America’s Northern Triangle, helped build awareness of the challenges migrants experienced when returning to their countries of origin during the pandemic. The evidence helped to shift the gender and inclusion perspectives of the targeted policymakers as they established actions to integrate returned migrants. 

Learning from rapid response funding 

With our goal of improving the lives of the most vulnerable populations in the Global South, we must continually review our approach and strategies to achieve impact, even in difficult circumstances. Led by the Institute of Development Studies, we undertook a learning journey with research partners to document key lessons from CORE. The exercise revealed that the initiative’s strong performance rests on a flexible design that gave researchers the space to listen to policymakers, respond to emerging policy issues, cover knowledge translation activities from the onset of projects and learn from other CORE-supported research team members. CORE also tapped into deep networks of social and economic research institutions in the Global South. Thanks to years of support from IDRC and other donors, many research teams were already well connected to policy and research networks in the countries of focus.  

The review and learning journey also generated recommendations to improve the effectiveness of future rapid response initiatives. They include strategies that complement the reliance on existing networks of research institutions for quick response, with practices that can bring in new partners who may also be well positioned for impact. Beyond the large webinars in which research teams benefit from each other’s experience, more focused learning spaces could allow smaller groups to explore specific challenges related to a theme or region.

These lessons are generally relevant for IDRC and other supporters of research for development, who must always navigate between a bottom-up approach and program-level strategies with clear intended outcomes and impacts.

The pandemic continues to evolve and the long, unequal recovery is already colliding with other environmental and humanitarian crises. Important work remains for CORE to consolidate these initial results into lasting change that will support an inclusive and equitable recovery for all and better preparedness and response in future crises.