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#Fighting COVID-19 and building better futures in the Global South

The Centre, together with our partners across the Global South, shifted our collaborative work as the COVID-19 pandemic grew over the past year. With rapid Canadian federal funding to stem the spread of the virus and contributions from research funding partners, new initiatives moved in record time from calls for proposals to project launch — bringing new tools, insights and research findings to efforts to meet the needs of the world’s most vulnerable populations in the face of COVID-19.

This rapid response demonstrates the resilience and commitment of our employees, network and partners around the world. IDRC staff quickly transitioned to working from home to address new, urgent priorities. In particular, without the nimble response from our partners working on the ground with some of the most vulnerable people in the world, none of the impressive stories highlighted here would be possible. In many cases, our research partners shifted their work and responded to our funding calls despite facing additional domestic burdens, including political instability and economic strife.

IDRC has invested nearly $55 million in COVID-19 research projects, in more than 65 countries, from its parliamentary appropriation. More than 60 IDRC-supported research projects are studying the impact of the pandemic and developing and testing effective interventions.

At the same time, the Centre’s ongoing work on priorities, including climate change and gender equity, continues. This research has adapted to the new realities of COVID-19. While this year’s Annual Report focuses on new initiatives that respond to the pandemic, IDRC’s success in maintaining ongoing research efforts during such a turbulent period speaks to the resilience, responsiveness and strength of our employees, network and partner organizations.

This year’s COVID-19 response and recovery projects are often led by partners in countries already facing major obstacles to social and economic well-being. Other projects have Canadian researchers in the lead — in close collaboration with our international partners — to support those on the ground in the Global South. An invaluable and mutually beneficial learning exchange results from these North-South partnerships.

In some cases, this work involves leveraging earlier IDRC research for the new reality of COVID-19. For example, rapid diagnostic tests for the Zika Virus led to new research on rapid field tests for the virus that causes COVID-19.

New investments focus on priorities stretching from health protection for marginalized people to supporting adaptations in education, with a special focus on gender equality and inclusion. The following pages feature highlights of initiatives and projects in five key areas: preventing spread of the virusinforming public policystrengthening online learningenhancing food security and leveraging artificial intelligence.

This research is designed to save lives and improve well-being in dozens of countries — now and in the future. Through knowledge mobilization and domestic partnerships, these efforts also provide valuable data and insights to help inform COVID-19 response and future crisis planning in Canada.

Our COVID-19 response aligns with IDRC’s newly launched Strategy 2030 — our plan for the coming decade. Strategy 2030 builds on our experience scaling impact, building leaders and partnering with others to enable high-quality, innovative research. It also reflects the most significant issues to be addressed in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs share our priorities of addressing the growing climate emergency and inequalities — particularly gender inequalities.

The Centre’s pandemic initiatives also reflect the UN Research Roadmap for COVID-19 Recovery. IDRC actively lent its expertise to the development of the Research Roadmap, which calls for national and international responses to be based on rigorous, localized research that gives voice to marginalized populations.

IDRC’s COVID-19 response is a core part of the Government of Canada’s international efforts in addressing the pandemic. Our response also reflects Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy by supporting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as an effective way of reducing poverty and improving everyone’s chance at success.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens many important development gains. The world’s most vulnerable are at even more risk of being left behind.

It is within this context that our ambitious strategy for the next 10 years — with its overarching goal of making the world more sustainable and inclusive — will continue to unfold and advance.


#Preventing COVID-19 virus spread among marginalized and at-risk populations

As IDRC shifted much of its expertise, resources, and networks to COVID-19 response in the early weeks of the pandemic, supporting marginalized and at-risk populations continued to be our top priority.

A woman wearing a makeshift face mask passes members of the Senegalese graffiti art collective, RBS CREW, as they tag a wall of the high school in Parcelles Assainies, a suburb of Dakar, Senegal, with a work representing preventive measures against the coronavirus.


Mobilizing action through rapid research funding

Can certain types of blood pressure medication reduce the danger in high-risk COVID-19 patients? How can strategies to control malaria be tailored to the context of the pandemic? What are the specific challenges for diverse LGBTQ2 populations? And how does protecting health workers vary from one part of the world to another?

These are just some of the questions being addressed by 12 research projects funded through the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity, launched in May 2020. This initiative is coordinated by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in partnership with IDRC and several other Canadian funding agencies.

Diverse diagnostics

Fast, accessible testing for Canada, Colombia and Ecuador: As the pandemic spread, the critical need for a versatile strategy for diagnostics became clear. Researchers at the University of Toronto have adapted a previously designed portable glucose meter as a 15-minute COVID-19 test. Implementation and testing are happening at small businesses in Canada and, through international partnerships, with hospital workers and others in Colombia and Ecuador.

Prevention tools

Antiviral nasal sprays to prevent infection in patients and healthcare providers: Led by the University of Alberta, this project is optimizing and prototyping development of an antiviral pharmaceutical preparation called RespVirex to protect healthcare workers and high-risk patients from COVID-19. A nasal spray can be dosed conveniently by healthcare workers as needed during respiratory virus seasons or a pandemic. The pharmaceutical formulation is being developed in Canada, while its ability to inhibit SARS-CoV2 and other respiratory viruses will be evaluated at the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal.

LGBTQ2 solutions

Effect of ehealth intervention on knowledge, behaviours and mental wellness of LGBTQ2 people: Marginalized populations around the world bear a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. This is particularly true for LGBTQ2 groups facing high rates of physical and mental health challenges, as well as sociostructural barriers that greatly increase their vulnerability. To address these challenges, the #SafeHandsSafeHeart initiative adapts, tests and disseminates a community engaged eHealth intervention with diverse LGBTQ2 populations in India, Thailand and Canada to reduce their risk of COVID-19 infection. Led by researchers at the University of Toronto, this work aims to better inform health system and public health responses to support engagement of LGBTQ2 and other marginalized populations in the pandemic response.

The project’s principal investigator in Toronto, Notisha Massaquoi, works with members of the racialized transgender community and says congregate living is one of the factors putting them at greater risk of COVID-19 infection. As well, social isolation leaves them cut off from COVID-19 information specifically designed for LGBTQ2 people. Economic hardship adds to the risks.

Risk assessments

Understanding risk factors and long-term impacts of COVID-19: Researchers at McMaster University are examining factors that increase or reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, in addition to the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on respiratory and cardiovascular health. This project is studying 35,000 adults from 13 countries who have already been recruited into the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology Study, an international study assessing the health of 200,000 people from 28 countries worldwide. Clinical examination and patient monitoring aims to assess the impact of COVID-19 on respiratory function, as well as on the risk of longer-term cardiovascular or lung conditions. The study findings will provide valuable knowledge on the risk factors of COVID-19 and the potentially harmful long-term consequences of the disease.

IDRC funding supports the work of the Network of Community Health Defenders in assessing health needs and perceptions of COVID-19 risk of infection among refugees and migrants in Guatemala. Pictured here is a Defenders’ meeting with families of children in need of nutritional care.


#Informing COVID-19 public policy through research

IDRC’s rapid response to COVID-19 includes policy-relevant research to help mitigate socio-economic impacts of the pandemic and better prepare developing countries for future crises.

Responses for Africa, by Africa

COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund

In parallel with global calls for research proposals to address COVID-19 response and recovery, this initiative ensured funding was also available for African researchers, science communicators and science advisors to generate evidence and perspectives in 17 countries across the continent. IDRC worked with South Africa’s National Research Foundation to quickly assemble a coalition of partners, including funders such as the Fonds de recherche du Québec and UK Research and Innovation, to launch the $7.2 million COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund. Several of Africa’s Science Granting Councils were closely involved in defining priority areas for the call. More than 500 applications were received and 75 were selected for funding as of August 2020 in three areas: research, science journalism and communication, and science advice — of which 36 are led by women scientists.

In October 2020, work began for African researchers, science communicators and science advisors in 17 countries.

Improving social, economic and health equity

COVID-19 Responses for Equity

IDRC is helping inform policy and practice in developing countries, support southern leadership around COVID-19 response and recovery, and drive equitable solutions for women and vulnerable populations. This three-year, $25.2 million rapid support initiative focuses on affected populations and regions in 42 countries while seeking to advance gender equality and address the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened existing vulnerabilities. The research centres on economic policies to mitigate impact and enhance recovery; efforts to protect informal business, small producers and women workers; and democratic approaches to promote accountability, inclusion and civic engagement.

The COVID-19 response disparity

What the research tells us so far:

  • Better financing and improved policies and protections for vulnerable women in the informal sector are critical to mitigate the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.
  • Investing in health systems and healthy communities builds pandemic resilience.
  • Partnerships between local researchers and practitioners help deliver policy-relevant data and analysis to inform responses in real time.

Informal workers and COVID-19

Evidence-based responses to the crisis at the base of the economic pyramid: The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have had a deep impact on the livelihoods and health of poor workers, especially women, in the informal economy. More than 90% of workers in developing countries are informally employed, including domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors and waste pickers. This project — led by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) — includes a large-scale survey of informal workers spanning 10 cities in Ghana, India, Mexico, Peru, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Thailand. The research will inform policies and actions needed to address the impacts of the pandemic.

What the research tells us so far:

  • A sudden and massive drop in earnings had severe consequences for workers and their households.
  • The reach of emergency cash transfers and food relief in the initial months of the crisis was limited and uneven.
  • Many women informal workers saw greater increases in their care responsibilities compared to men, which in turn adversely affected their availability for paid work and hence their earnings.
  • With the drop in earnings and lack of government support, workers resorted to coping strategies that erode any assets they may have accumulated, leaving a long road to recovery ahead.
A street vendor sells tea and coffee from his cart and wears a mask in Zone 3, a district of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, during the COVID-19 crisis.


#Strengthening and leveraging online learning during COVID-19

Solutions for today and tomorrow

The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has forced the wholesale shuttering of face-to-face education facilities and nearly all education-related services in many developing countries. Unsurprisingly, most education systems are not ready for this sudden and traumatic shift. There is an urgent need to strengthen skills and technology to create resilient learning systems. Educators who are better prepared to face this new reality will provide higher quality learning environments for their students, regardless of the place and platform through which schooling takes place.

Supporting the transition to online learning during times of crisis in Lebanon and Tunisia: This research project is implementing an online course in learning and assessment pedagogies to strengthen skills for educators, curriculum specialists and teacher coaches with little or no prior experience in online course delivery.

Strengthening school leadership to improve resiliency: Led by the Foundation for Information Technology Education and Development in the Philippines, this initiative aims to improve the quality and equity of learning and well-being of children in the Global South. Using data-driven decision-making, this work identifies the extent to which a blended online and offline approach helps bring about pedagogic change. Participating countries in sub-Saharan Africa share a concern with low levels of attainment among sub-groups of students and a desire to strengthen digital practices in education.

Enhancing refugee education

In line with Canada’s new Together for Learning campaign to support quality education and lifelong learning for vulnerable children and youth who are refugees, forcibly displaced and living in host communities, IDRC has initiated research to equip students with digital skills.

Empowering Palestinian girls through digital learning innovations in STEM fields: This project, implemented in collaboration with Birzeit University in the West Bank and Gaza, helps teachers adopt new curriculums and learning paradigms, supports the development of quality open education resources in Arabic and leverages digital tools — making it easier for Palestinian students to collaborate, innovate and code. Despite the challenges brought about by COVID-19, the research team has been able to design and implement online versions of capacity-building programs for schoolteachers and principals and provide support for their implementation.

Kayirangwa Mary Assoumpta sits with her daughter, Samantha, as they listen together to radio lessons at home.


#Enhancing food security during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated numerous challenges for the food and nutrition security of the world’s most vulnerable populations. In many regions, national lockdowns and social distancing measures adopted to control the spread of the virus are constraining agricultural production and supply chains and threatening the livelihoods of large segments of the population. IDRC’s rapid response to the food and nutritional security crisis associated with COVID-19 aims to address current needs while also helping low- and middle-income countries respond more efficiently to potential future shocks.

Addressing future shocks in sub-Saharan Africa

Five new research initiatives under IDRC’s Rapid Response Initiative are assessing COVID-19’s impact on food systems and informing responses to alleviate the effects of future crises in sub-Saharan Africa — particularly in West Africa and the Sahel. Areas of focus include assessing the impact of responses on food systems and livelihoods by governments in the Sahel, the political economy of African food systems and opportunities for reconfiguring unequal gender relations in Burkina Faso and Senegal.

A laboratory technician in Senegal.


#Leveraging artificial intelligence in COVID-19 response and recovery

Through IDRC’s efforts, Canada plays a leadership role in leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to support COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. From helping predict COVID-19 outbreaks to assisting victims of gender-based violence during lockdowns, the $11.3 million Global South AI4COVID Response Program is exploring the capacity of AI to address many pressing challenges resulting from the pandemic.

Co-funded by IDRC and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, this initiative supports multi-disciplinary research on developing and scaling responsible and evidence-based AI and data science approaches.

The nine projects in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aim to deepen the understanding of governments, AI practitioners and the public on the use of AI and data science to support COVID-19 response and recovery. A priority is to ensure that the projects encourage participation of women and other diverse voices and are gender responsive, culturally appropriate and based on local needs and contexts. The initiative also aims to inform policies that build trust in AI and data science responses to epidemics and mitigate potential harms, while strengthening the capacity of health systems to respond to epidemics using AI and data science techniques.

Using an AI mobile reporting tool and data science to mitigate gender-based violence and security challenges in Nigeria: The Social Science Academy of Nigeria is leveraging data science and AI tools to better understand how COVID-19 aggravates gender-based violence in Nigeria, and how to support women who are at the greatest risk.

Using AI to predict the transmission of COVID-19 in Africa: York University in Canada has joined forces with epidemiologists, modelers, physicists, statisticians, software engineers and data scientists across Africa to integrate the power of predictive modelling and simulations. As a result, a comprehensive COVID-19 monitoring dashboard has been developed to predict epidemic trends and inform decision making and real-time management across Africa. These are the official dashboards used by policymakers in Botswana, Nigeria, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa — with more countries to be added.

Framework for threat assessment and containment of COVID-19 while mitigating impact to women, children, and underprivileged groups: This project from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka will use an AI framework to assess and contain COVID-19 and future epidemics while mitigating the socio-economic impact to women, children and underprivileged groups in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

The initiative will help meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of strengthening the capacity “for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks.”

Health workers, including a doctor check residents’ temperatures as they go door to door in the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India.


The difference it makes

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse recent progress in gender equality and inclusion, climate change, economic development, health equity and other urgent social challenges in emerging countries. The work of IDRC and our partners in 2020-2021 helps reduce this threat in many areas.

Early research findings are already shaping public policy in response to the pandemic. New solutions are better equipping front-line teams to meet the needs of those at highest risk for infection and experiencing other hardships because of the pandemic.

The experience of the past year demonstrates IDRC’s inherent capacity for rapid response during a global crisis. It reinforces the Centre’s agility in collaborating with partners around the world to address unforeseen threats. Our early findings reinforce the need for much more to be done.

In some cases, COVID-19 projects leverage earlier IDRC research outcomes — including the development of new strategies and tools — to respond to the current pandemic. In this way, IDRC’s COVID-19 response demonstrates the potential for our research each year to be adapted and adopted later, perhaps years down the road, in response to new challenges.

Importantly, many of our funded projects are designed not only to help communities, countries and regions recover sustainably and inclusively from COVID-19, but also to better respond to future crises. They are central to Canada’s global COVID-19 response and commitment to reducing poverty, gender inequality, and other barriers to social and economic well-being — now and in the future.

The results of COVID-19 research projects launched in 2020-2021 will continue to be analyzed, reported, and widely shared over the coming year. The core objectives of IDRC’s plan for the coming decade, Strategy 2030, will shape this work — investing in high-quality research and innovation, sharing knowledge for greater uptake and use, and mobilizing alliances for impact.

The impacts and outcomes of the Centre’s COVID-19 research projects will contribute substantially to the future work of Strategy 2030, and help IDRC and our partners build stronger economies and societies in the Global South over the coming years.

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Management’s Discussion and Analysis and Financial statements

This Management’s Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) provides a narrative discussion of the financial results and operational changes for the financial year ended 31 March 2021. This discussion should be read alongside the Financial statements starting on page 34, which were prepared in accordance with the International Financial Reporting Standards. All monetary amounts are presented in Canadian dollars unless otherwise specified.

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